A Conversation with Michael Franti
Mike Ragogna: What gave you the idea to merge music with yoga for your Soulshine tour?
Michael Franti: I started practicing yoga on tour about thirteen years ago as a way to really just take care of myself as I was going in and out of airports and tour busses and doing shows and promotion and staying up late and eating bad restaurant food, et cetera. As I was touring I would practice at a different studio in every city that I went to in the world and I started inviting teachers and fans to come and practice with me before our shows, so we’d do it backstage or in a parking lot or in a park nearby. Last year, we played out at Red Rocks and we invited people to come in the afternoon before the show and practice yoga. We expected about two hundred people would be there and I believe two thousand showed up. We were really overwhelmed by this, so we thought, “This summer, let’s just do this at every one of our shows.” At every show on the Soulshine Tour, myself and some of the other artists will be playing acoustically in the afternoon and there will be a mass yoga class and then it will turn into a proper crazy rock concert after that.
MR: You have Baron Baptiste and Seane Corn as a couple of your yoga teachers. Did you already know them prior to the tour?
MF: I’ve known Seane and Baron for a while, many years now. They’re really inspirational in terms of the way they take yoga off the mat and into the world. I thought they’d be the perfect fit for this because whether you’ve practiced yoga for decades or whether it’s your first time on the yoga mat or whether you just want to come and hear some acoustic music and hear somebody that’s really inspiring speak both Baron and Seane and all of the other teachers really fit that bill.
MR: Is the connection between music and spirituality something you came to intellectually or just something you’ve always felt during your creative process?
MF: I’ve always felt it. I grew up playing music in our church when I was a kid. Most of the time, I didn’t really feel a connection to my heart, my body, my mind and the message that the church was delivering. It always seemed like this dichotomy that was there, but yoga is really the study of the self. We put ourselves into challenging positions and we learn to breathe through it and not become immediately reactive to everything that takes place in our lives. It’s something that really helps me as a father, as an artist, as an advocate for social change in the world, and even as a businessperson. Being able to focus and see the goal that I have ahead of me and be able to not be always in a state of panic and stress is what yoga has taught me.
MR: So far, you’ve had hit singles and albums and overall, an amazing career. Do you feel that it was more about intuition and following your own path as opposed to being molded by music biz standards?
MF: Yeah, for sure. I’ve always been somebody who wrote about the things I felt strongly about and made music because I thought it was exciting and it made a difference in my life. I’ve never really written songs that were just like, “Let’s see, what can we do that’s a hit?” or “What’s going to copy everything that’s out there?” I’ve never done that. Putting this tour together has been sort of the same thing, it’s just been a love of mine and I thought, I’ve loved yoga for so long, I’ve always combined it for the last thirteen years on tour, let’s just do it in a way that hopefully can get it out to more people.
MR: Is your band integrating the yoga as well?
MF: Two of the other members of our band practice yoga regularly, and all the other bands that are on the tour with me have members of the band that practice yoga, too. We’re hoping that through this tour we’ll get the other guys off their butts and onto yoga mats.
MR: I’m imagining guests like Brett Dennen are practicing yoga.
MF: Yeah. Brett is somebody who I’ve seen go through an amazing transformation in his career. He’s still a very young artist, but I met him when he was a teenager and saw him perform, and then for a number of years I think he went through the same thing every artist goes through when you start touring, eating bad food all the time, you’re out on the road all the time, you’re not getting enough sleep, and I remember seeing him and thinking, “Man, Brett.” He’d put on some weight, he wasn’t looking so healthy. Then, the next year I saw him and he’d started working out, changing his nutrition, practicing yoga, he really took it to heart. Now he’s one of the healthiest musicians that I know. It seems like an obvious thing, but it really isn’t. For those of us who didn’t get into music to get rich and retire, but who got into it because we admired John Lee Hooker and we admire the Rolling Stones and the other artists that have gone on and on and perservered, The Grateful Dead and artists like that who evolve and keep growing and changing, in order to do that you’ve got to be alive. I’ve just gone through some really intense times in my own family, my son who’s fifteen was diagnosed with a very rare kidney disorder, he’s lost fifty percent of his kidney function at age fifteen. As a family we’ve all taken it upon ourselves to say, “How can we best support our son?” but also we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for how fragile life is. I think that one of the great things about yoga is how it helps us to really look carefully at all aspects of our lives, the way that we treat other people, the way we take care of ourselves, the way that we treat the world.
MR: It’s almost like the band is having a spiritual experience on stage for the fans. Do you feel like that’s what’s going on?
MF: The word “spiritual” for me and for a lot of people means “religious,” almost, and I’d hate to compare what we do to anything religious because it’s still at the end of the day a rock concert. What I think is that all music, whether it’s mine or anybody else’s, opens a window to the soul. There’s times when our body feels run-down and our mind feels taxed and we feel like we can’t go any further, and it’s our soul that kicks in and goes, “You know what? You can love a little more. You can go a little bit further in this relationship, you can try a little bit harder.” That’s what music does. It’s amazing when you do that with large groups of people. The only other experience I can think of that compares to that is either a sporting event, it’s the World Cup and we’re all cheering for one team, but in the World Cup there’s always a loser. One team’s happy and the other team goes away feeling sad. But in music, everybody comes together in a field–we all dance, we shout, we sing, we throw our hands up and we let go of whatever it is that we carried in. I love to see people walk out looking like they’re standing a little bit taller, they have a little smile on their face, a little more ease in their life. That’s what I love about it most.
MR: With Soulshine, it seems like you’re expanding the concept of a concert with Michael Franti & Spearhead and friends to it being more of a lifestyle thing–you know, like going to a Dead or Jimmy Buffett event.
MF: Yeah, I think so. Just in comparison to when I first started touring twenty five years ago, we’d stop at gas stations on the road and try to find something healthy to eat and there were Slurpees and Big Gulps and burgers. The best thing that we could ever find at a gas station was like Saltine crackers and a can of sardines or something. But now you go all across the country and in every city, you can find independent grocers that are bringing locally grown food. You find people all across the country who are becoming more conscious of what they put into their body, what they consume, and the companies they support doing that. I think that’s the lifestyle that we try to encourage.
MR: Michael, what advice do you have for new artists?
MF: The main thing is to follow your heart and write music that means something to you. The more meaningful it is to you, the deeper it’s going to touch whoever it is that it means something to them. When I was just coming up in punk rock the lead singer of D.O.A, his name was Joey Shithead, we would always stay at people houses and we would ask at the end of the night, “is there some place to stay?” and they would always make us spaghetti or something and cook for us and let us sleep on the floors with our sleeping bags, and Joey said, “No matter whose house you stay at, make sure you always wash the dishes and they’ll always have you back.” I’ve always thought about that in every aspect of my life, no matter if it was the person at the check-in counter at the airport or if it was somebody who was helping us get all our guitars into the hotel or if it was the first fan in line at the show or the last bartender to leave at the end of the night. Always make sure that they felt like you treated them as if you were coming into their home. Leave their home in good shape. That’s what keeps artists able to have a job year after year with their fans, the venues, the labels, radio stations, whoever it is. Treat people with respect.
MR: Do you think picture Soulshine having an even broader reach next time out?
MF: Yeah, we hope that it can grow and that people will have a great experience this year that will take us into years to come.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Night Ranger’s Kelly Keagy
Mike Ragogna: So is it true? Is Night Ranger truly back with a new studio album called High Road.
Kelly Keagy: What about that!
MR: It seems like you’re “Coming Home” with this one, Kelly.
KK: Hey, that sounds like a title! Let’s write that thing! [laughs]
MR: Yeah, and dude, there should be a premier video too.
KK: Not with that song, though. We did two videos a couple months ago for the single “High Road” and another one called “Knock Knock,” which is a harder track. But we were just guessing about the tracks so we just picked the first two songs. But we’re really excited about this record because I think we did some good work as far as the song. It took us a long time to do it because we started the record and then we went on tour. We’d come back every six weeks and go, “Oh yeah, we’ve got a record to finish!” We started out with about seven songs to begin with and then we’d come back to it and tweak it and just keep working on it throughout the summer and into the fall and finally we got to the point where we just wanted to give up—no, I’m just kidding. It was kind of a weird situation, doing a record and being on tour, but I’ve heard about it in the past happening on some classic albums.
MR: I’m imagining the tour also stimulated the creativity for the album.
KK: The thing is, too, it’s all-inclusive with this band. We’ve got to do it as good as possible, with all the energy that we have. The thing is, after thirty one years you try and figure out, “What are we going to write about?” We can’t still write about chasing women and driving fast cars. With this record it was good that we took a long time so we could go, “Yeah, this title isn’t great” or “This verse isn’t great,” or this guitar line or these changes in the song, let’s change it up and go back and redo the demos and figure out which arrangements work great and then do it for real.
MR: Exactly, the song becomes road tested.
KK: Yeah. The thing is, too, you just don’t know. When you’re in the middle of writing something you just don’t know. So the fact that you get a chance to go back and re-look at it a few times is a good thing. This band’s always been about the song, it’s always about having as good a song as possible, and if it’s not great then there’s got to be something musical that’s good about it. But usually it’s all about a good chorus and a good melody and something decent to say.
MR: Kelly, it’s now thirty-one years for the band. That’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? And Night Ranger seemed to have had hits right out of the box with “Sister Christian.” So it’s thirty-one years later, what do you think about all that?
KK: I think we’re so fortunate and lucky to have had a chance, because a lot of times bands don’t click with the public even though they might be amazing. There are so many bands that get a shot and it just doesn’t click. We’re so lucky to be able to have that happen with us, and like I said, the songs just seemed to click with the audience and make a connection. And that was all the touring we did and all the bands we were on with, KISS and ZZ Top and 38 Special and all those bands that broke our career. The three of us, Brad [Gillis], Jack [Blades] and myself had been together even longer than that. We were in another band together in 1977, ’78, ’79. We’d been together for a really long time. We know each other really well, we know what works musically and song-wise, we’ve just been very fortunate and lucky to have the three of us stay together and enjoy playing together as much as we do.
MR: Now I mentioned “Sister Christian,” but of course you’ve also collected hits in “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Rock In America,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Sing Me Away”… I think sometimes when you have such a monster hit, you get branded for that particular song. I think maybe Night Ranger took a hit because you had such a huge…well…”hit.”
KK: That’s what happens. It happens with a lot of bands, but we look at it as a blessing. It can be a curse as well, because people forget you’re a kickass rock band. I think that’s the driving force sometimes, when we play live we come out with that energy because we want to prove that we’re a kickass rock band as well as a hit act and can write hit songs. I think that’s the double-edged sword that you’re dealing with here.
MR: When you look at some of the people you’ve been hanging out with–Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne and all the guys you talked about before–how much are you influenced by these acts? Do you still find yourself being influenced by others’ music that you like?
KK: Absolutely! All the bands we played with were inspiration for us to continue, too, because all of those bands are still around, too. Early on we played with a version of Black Sabbath that had Ian Gillan in it and I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, Ian Gillan, man. Deep Purple.” Those were some of the early influences, Deep Purple with “Highway Star” and things like that. Those were kind of the inspiration for “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and uptempo, kickass rock songs like that. That was it.
MR: Kelly, take us on a little tour of High Road. In your opinion, what are some real classic Night Ranger moments on the album?
KK: I think what we did–and we did this on the last record Somewhere In California–we came in with a clean canvas with nothing on it. Usually what we do is we come in with songs, but this time it was just like musical bits. “Oh, I’ve got this riff,” “Oh, I’ve got this chord change for a chorus,” and that was it and we’d just start to build it from there and we would jam. We’d take a break and somebody would come back with some sort of groove or something. For the first two weeks or ten days, Brad and Jack and myself, that’s what we did. We just started to lay down things and keep the recorder going and record every bit and then we’d go back and listen to it. It was kind of interesting to start a record like that with no songs and then to end up with all these great songs and something to be proud of. It was really a unique experience.
MR: Was this approach different than how the other albums were made?
KK: Right, it’s totally different. Every album we’ve ever done except for the last two we’ve always had songs prewritten. This time the three of us collaborated on every single song and even the newer members, Eric Levy and Joel Hoekstra brought stuff. Joel came up with the riff for that song “I’m Coming Home,” and Eric Levy had the piano part to “Only For You Only.” We had a couple of things like that where they brought in some surprises.
MR: Do you think collaborations and what you’re doing these days rejuvenated the band? Is the band now a Night Ranger 2.0?
KK: [laughs] I think so, man. We were really surprised to, because we were out of our element at that point. We were like, “Where are the songs?” These are just musical bits. It allowed us to kind of jump outside of our comfort zone and realize this might be a new thing for us. The last record was really special to us, too, and then this one is even better as far as some of the musical moments in this album. It was really nice to realize, “Wow, this idea’s really working!”
MR: Perhaps when you started out, it was all about fast cars and women. But what do you feel are the main themes in your music now?
KK: You know, I just think that with a little more maturity, our perspectives just changed about life and relationships and stuff like that. We still like chasing women. We still like driving cars fast, that’s not going to change ever. What rock ‘n’ roll’s about is a good time, we’re still about that, we still love that, that’s what’s kept us going this whole time, we love life and where it’s taken us and we’re just going to stay on that. That’s really what life’s about anyway, trying to be happy. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we’re trying to bring the audience along with us.
MR: So you’re based in Nashville, Kelly. That’s quite a long way from San Francisco.
KK: [laughs] I moved out here about twelve years ago just because I wanted a change of scenery. I didn’t want to stay in LA or San Francisco. It wasn’t because I didn’t like it anymore, I just wanted a change. But I didn’t want to move to New York, which I love, I could live there in a second, I just wanted a change of scene. A lot of my buddies are out here, Mark Slaughter’s out here, some of my good old writing buddies, Bruce Gaitsch, some of these guys moved out from LA twenty five years ago and when I was ready for a change I just gave them a shout and said, “What’s going on out there?” and they said, “There’s a great community out here, good songwriters, a good creative community.”
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
KK: I think that what’s kept us going, and I think it’s probably a rule is just to have a love of what you’re doing. You’ve got to have a love for the music that you’re playing and where you’re at that point in your career. I think that if you have a preconceived idea like, “I want to be a star,” then that’s good, you’ve got to have that a little bit, but it’s got to come from the heart, man. There’s got to be a good, solid base in wanting to be a good musician and a good artist, you know?
MR: Yeah though I think some TV shows like to glamorize a culture of celebrity rather than creativity, making it a bit confusing as to how to prioritize things.
KK: I just think that we all came up in those ranks of playing six nights a week in clubs for ten or twelve years and developed our style and played different styles of music. It’s a different world, but I think there are a lot of talented people out there, and I think that the media focuses on the pranks and the goofiness, which is entertaining, but that’s not going to hold my attention for too long.
MR: Where does Night Ranger stand in the metal world these days? Or do you think of Night Ranger as something a broader now?
KK: I don’t know, that’s really hard for me to say. We’re rolling along here, thirty-one years later. There’s still a lot of people that enjoy our music and that’s what we’re really about, that moment of trying to capture the audience and bring it in to us when we play live as well as with records. We want to see if we can keep our audience interested in what we do musically, lyrically, melodically. We’re really fortunate in that way that it’s still going on.
MR: What is the biggest surprise in the thirty-one years of Night Ranger?
KK: Our music still gets played on the radio, still gets put in movies and stuff like that. Rock Of Ages–the movie and the Broadway show–whoever thought we were going to be Broadway writers? What? Are you kidding me? That alone was a surprise. And the fact that we still go out on stage every night and totally play as hard as we can a hundred and ten percent, I just think that we still love it and there’s not going to be any time soon where we’re going to retire.
MR: Do you ever wander into a store or listen to the car radio and hear “Sister Christian” or any of your older hits, stop what you’re doing and listen?
KK: Oh, of course! A few weeks ago they had a version of “Sister Christian” on Grey’s Anatomy, this young lady Juliette Commagere did a totally new version of it, and the way she was singing it just struck me as, “Wow, this is kind of a new play on this song.” I’m totally blown away that the song has lasted this long and is still out there and still so able to be placed in movies and TV and people are hearing it in a different way. It’s pretty cool.
MR: Do you find yourself incorporating other people’s takes on your music at least into your live performances?
KK: Sure, all the time. We’ve had that song redone a few times over the last twenty years. A group back in the early nineties did a version of it and they added new lyrics into it and it was like, “Whoa, this is wild.”
MR: What does the future bring for Night Ranger?
KK: I hope that we just get a chance to keep making great records like this one and to turn the audience on to a new side of Night Ranger, maybe a little bit older but still as energetic as it’s ever been. I just hope that this record gets out there just so we can show everybody that Night Ranger’s a kick ass rock band.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
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