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Passion Player: Q&A with Michael Franti

On Wednesday night, reggae-hip-hop-fusion artist Michael Franti was recording a new track for his follow-up to the hit album "The Sound of Sunshine." On Thursday night, he rocks The Depot at Outdoor Retailer in a concert presented by Wolverine. BACKPACKER's Jonathan Dorn and Anthony Cerretani spoke to Franti right before the show about how the outdoors influences his music, lifestyle, and clothing line.

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BP: What draws you to the outdoors?

MF: I think the reason so many of us do outdoor sports is because we want to stay active for our whole life. If you play football in high school, your window of opportunity is pretty short. Surfing, climbing, biking, skiing, snowboards—are things we can do forever. I mainly do yoga and running, and the great thing is that there’s always a new challenge.

BP: How does that experience translate to the music?

MF: You start thinking about things as you’re out there appreciating nature. That goes into my songs. It goes into my message of love—not just love between boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife—but among nations and communities and for our planet.

BP: What is the inspiration for your clothing line?

MF: People often feel disconnected from our humanity as we go about life. My brand, Stay Human, is about helping people feel like they’re connecting back to that which makes them human, to their adventurous spirit, to giving back. We give 10 percent of our proceeds to this birthing clinic in Bali, the country where we manufacture our clothes.

BP: You live in a tough part of San Francisco. How do you bridge the gap between the urban and the wilderness, especially among young people?

MF: I live in the hood, and there are a number of groups that bring nature to kids in the city. There’s one called SLUG — the San Francisco League of Urban Growers — which does great things. But it’s easier to go where kids are, and harder to get them to the mountains. Anytime businesses get involved, it’s a win-win. First of all, any time you’re helping kids, it’s going to vastly improve their lives, but if you look at what’s being sold on the street today, it’s a lot of outdoor wear that kids in the hood are wearing. Kids in the city are buying outdoor gear, and this industry can benefit from listening to them.

BP: You’ve been barefoot for a decade. Any tips for adopting that lifestyle?

MF: You just have to make the change. When it’s cold, I avoid concrete and wear flip-flops to get my feet off the ground. In the winter, I wear snow boots, of course. But your feet are detectors for your whole body, and they have all of these nerve endings that send messages to your whole body. So I like to honor that.

BP: You have great audience give-and-take. Where did that come from?

MF: From just jamming and playing on the street, which I still do. When you play on the street, you have to connect in different ways. And you learn so much. It’s a great thing for people in business to understand—people who are designing. If you’re designing snow clothes, you need to be on the mountain and not just looking at what kids are wearing but talking to kids so you hear their ideas. You get great insights when you bring people into what you do, whether it’s music or outdoor products.

BP: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you labor over things, or is it instantaneous?

MF: I labor. Every now and then, you’ll get one of those golden things that just happen. But most of the time it takes awhile to make something sound simple. It’s just like clothing or any kind of gear you design. You want it to be the most efficient it can be and look the coolest it can look and sound the most beautiful it can sound, but it takes a lot of effort to get to a simplistic place.