When Michael Franti was recording the first Spearhead album in 1994, he came to an important understanding that would shape the feel and intent of his music going forwards.
He’d just started a new relationship and went to get tested for HIV, which was a widespread concern in the San Francisco area. He’d started writing a song about HIV and AIDS which took the tone of: "Fuck the government, because they’re not responding to this crisis," he says.
It was one of the saddest parts of my life, seeing this hero of mine be just completely broken down by his drug addiction.Michael Franti — Don't Look Back
He soon realised getting tested for HIV was a very emotional and personal experience, which required the song to be treated with much more sensitivity. It caused him to re-think music’s impact.
“It has to reach people in an emotional way, before any idea can pass through,” he says.
From playing gigs in prisons to soldiers in areas of conflict, travelling from the Middle East through to South America and singing on the streets, Franti is dedicated to reaching out to people wherever and whenever he can.
His manifesto is a simple albeit challenging one.
“I try to make music that makes people feel happy, healthy and equal,” he says.
Ultimately, he believes in the transformative power of music. For the Spearhead frontman it came via a powerfully honest, gritty but upbeat song by an artist who’s been a major inspiration.
“Gil [Scott-Heron] was a leader [with a] super strident political voice,” Franti says. “But he also made very touching soulful, emotional music about his personal struggle with addiction, but it’s done in a beautiful, beautiful way.
“I got to know Gil before he passed away, [and] it was one of the saddest parts of my life, seeing this hero of mine, whom I loved and admired so much, be just completely broken down by his drug addiction. It really inspired me to take care of myself, to not succumb to those demons but also cherish my body and not take it for granted.”
He’s witnessed substance abuse within his own family too.
“I ran away from home when I was 17 because my father was a raging alcoholic. Four years before he passed away he had a stroke. He was in a coma for 30 days and as he was coming out of the induced coma, I went to him and I said, ‘Dad, you can’t leave us now, there’s more that needs to happen between us and for the family, so don’t leave!’
“He was in this daze and started mumbling stuff, but I really felt like, I don’t know if there was a literal angel that came into the room, but there was this communication that had never happened before that made him fight to stay alive. And he did.
“And when he came back, he blossomed into this beautiful man. it was like a cocoon, like a monarch butterfly coming out blazing with orange, yellow and black and all these beautiful colours.
"He made amends to everyone he’d ever hurt, he went from being this grumpy old drunk to being this really loving kind man and it made me believe in the power of metamorphosis and that people can change.
“And that’s kinda what we’re here for, to figure it out. We have our experiences that we collect. I’ve had mine, Gil Scott-Heron had his, my dad had his, my son has his, but we all get this life to metamorphosise and become a moth, butterfly or whale, whatever we end up being!”
Even though there’s unsettling imagery in ‘The Bottle’, the song has a redemptive quality too, something Franti says is the underlying message of the song.
“I feel like music was that for him, and even though [his addictions] killed him, his music touched me and it changed me, and maybe that’s his butterfly.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Michael Franti on Don't Look Back.