"I demo'd a song called 'The Sound of Sunshine' in a hotel room in Charleston last February," says Michael Franti, songwriter and bandleader with Calif.-based band Spearhead.
"It started out in the Music Farm during soundcheck, actually," he adds, speaking from San Francisco. "We just had a few chords and a little melody. It's now the title track of the [forthcoming] album. It's beautiful. This new album has evolved better than any I've ever made. To me, it's the best recording I've done. It started over a year ago. I did 15 versions before I finally came up with the right lyric and melody for it."
Franti and Spearhead have already played "The Sound of Sunshine" during recent shows. Based on acoustic guitar, djimbe, and vocal harmonies, the strummy, mid-tempo melodic ballad usually includes a lengthy spoken-work introduction from Franti and a call-and-response sing-along toward the final verses.
Local music fans have an opportunity to experience an unusually intimate concert at the Coliseum this Monday evening, as Franti and Grammy Award-winning pop-rock songwriter and guitarist John Mayer kick off a 10-week Battle Studies Tour.
"We feel that this is a really great opportunity," says Franti. "We love John Mayer's music, and we look forward to this trip."
Since his acclaimed major label debut Room for Squares made a splash in 2001, Mayer has garnered critical praise for his high level of musicianship, his exploratory approach to musical styles, and raspy singing voice. The songwriter's fourth studio album, Battle Studies (Columbia), hit the streets in November.
Mayer worked with veteran studio engineer and New York-based funk/rock drummer Steve Jordan on Battle Studies over the course of six months before wrapping at the famed Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Soulful, smooth, and lyrically introspective, it's one of his most serious efforts of his still-youthful career.
In the early 2000s, Mayer was a boyish talent still looking for a definitive style — somewhere between expressive guitar playing and lyrical tunes. In 2000, he issued his official debut album, an independent effort (and limited release) titled Inside Wants Out. In 2001, he signed to the Aware/Columbia label and assembled the more hi-fi and musically sophisticated Room for Squares.
Based on Mayer's breathy singing and skillful acoustic guitar work, "No Such Thing" and "Your Body Is a Wonderland" became Top 20 hits that year.
The studio album Heavier Things and the live album Any Given Thursday followed in 2003. From that album, Mayer won his first Grammy Award for the ballad "Daughters." 2006's Continuum veered into a more blues/soul style. The song "Gravity" did well, but the playful single "Waiting on the World to Change" proved to be a commercial highlight. Mayer's highest-charting single to date came next with "Say," a song from the film The Bucket List.
While Mayer's career trajectory and celebrity status dominate most stories, his incredible musical technique and uniquely emotive singing style will surely overshadow any superficial distractions on the Battle Studies Tour.
It's appropriate for Mayer's Battle Studies Tour to kick off in Charleston with Franti and Spearhead on board. Franti impressed a full room of fans and newcomers during a big show last year at the Music Farm. The show was in support of his most recent album, All Rebel Rockers, which reached high numbers on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart, and remained on the chart for months on the strength of the smash, hand-clappin' single "Say Hey (I Love You)."
This week, he brings a solidified band and a fresh batch of music to the Coliseum — including a new song that originated here.
Increasingly devoted to putting his spirit of optimism into practice, Franti started playing more frequently outside of the usual commercial circuits, opting instead for occasional gigs and benefit events at schools, community centers, and prisons. His dedication to those "on the bottom who suffer the most," as he puts it, appears to be solid.
"My Mom always told me that you have to practice optimism," Franti says. "It's something you have to maintain, like staying physically fit. Once you start dropping off, it's tough to get back. You have to practice not just the idea behind it, but the work, too."
Franti's expansive schedule reflects his worldly musical endeavors. Last month, he performed concerts in Bali, East Timor, California, and Florida before connecting with CARE's Haiti Emergency Response Fund to aid victims of last month's earthquake disaster.
"The reason I called this new song 'The Sound of Sunshine' is because there's so much to be worried about today — the economy, the uncertainty of the future, the environment, the wars, health care, Haiti, all of the looming political issues ... in my lifetime, I've never seen so much discussion over the state of the world than I see today," Franti says. "So the idea behind this album is that I wanted to make an album that made people feel like there was hope, sun, and light — this thing which gives inspiration, life, and release. That's what this new record we're making is all about."
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Franti has been working from a wide range of musical influences for over 20 years, playing, singing, and rapping in punk bands and hip-hop groups before focusing on the soulful groove-rock of Spearhead.
The current version of Spearhead features a diverse ensemble of musicians. Vocalist Cherine Anderson hails from Kingston, Jamaica. Bassist Carl Young and guitarist Dave Shul are both Bay-area veterans who've been a part of Spearhead for years. Drummer and percussionist Manas Itiene played previously with Nigerian combo Mandators before joining Spearhead. Raliegh J. Neal played in jazz and pop settings across the U.S. for 20 years before joining Franti and the band.
Now billed as Michael Franti & Spearhead, the group works off of a powerful blend of multicultural musical influences, hot chops, and collective positivity.
"I look at music like I do with painting," Franti says. "It's like, you say, 'I've got this idea for a painting,' and you wonder what might be the best way to go. Maybe it's black ink on white paper, or maybe it needs oil paint, or maybe it needs spray paint on a big wall somewhere. It's the same thing with music. Every song I write starts out on the acoustic guitar. Then I start building it up.
"I consider what tempo, instrumentation, and rhythm it might need to present the idea and the emotion in the best way," he adds. "I don't limit myself to saying I can't put a loud guitar on it because I'm a hip-hop artist, or I can't put a bangin' beat on it because I'm a rock artist. I try to do what best serves the song."