Thirteen years later, Michael Franti is right back where he started. After releasing several independent albums, the barefoot troubadour and band Spearhead are now signed to Capitol — the major the act left in 1997 after releasing two albums.
“I guess it goes to show you, don’t burn any bridges,” Franti says with a laugh during a recent tour break in San Francisco. “You always want to be welcomed back.”
His return was prompted by the group’s first top 20 Billboard Hot 100 single in a two-decade-plus career: “Say Hey (I Love You).” The song’s success last year prompted major-label inquiries, including Capitol and Universal Republic — the latter of which entered an agreement to help independent label Anti- promote and distribute the group’s 2008 album, “All Rebel Rockers,” after “Say Hey” began taking off at triple A radio last spring.
“We had our LeBron [James] moment where we were free agents and had to pick where we wanted to go,” Franti recalls. “It was a good spot to be in after 20 years and our first hit record.”
The tipping point was control of online content. The group is active on Facebook and on tour via its own online video portal Fran TV. “Most labels want the online video content you create to go through them,” Franti says. “We wanted to make sure our fans could get through to [Fran TV] on every outlet on the Internet; that became a sticking point for us. There’s a whole new staff at Capitol that’s super Web-literate and very forward-thinking.”
EMI executive VP of marketing and promotion Greg Thompson, who wasn’t with Capitol during Franti’s first tenure, says the singer/songwriter possesses “a keen online sense. We’re just there to contribute to something already being done in a successful way.”
Franti’s fans are driving the momentum behind new single “The Sound of Sunshine.” No. 1 this week on the triple A chart, it’s the title track to his upcoming Boo Boo Wax/Capitol album. In the wake of the single’s triple A growth and recent introduction at hot AC, Capitol has switched the album’s release date to Sept. 21 from Aug. 24 to give the project “a bit more runway,” Thompson says.
Franti & Spearhead’s seventh studio album taps into the same feel-good vein of “Say Hey,” inspired by the artist’s near-death experience in August 2009 from a ruptured appendix. “Getting close to checking out reframes your whole life,” Franti says. “Family, friends, seeing the sun, playing the guitar…all that became more important to me. I just wanted to bottle those feelings on ‘Sunshine.’ ”
The acoustic guitar-led set was recorded in Jamaica with Sly & Robbie, who also co-produced “All Rebel Rockers,” and on the road while the group was opening for John Mayer earlier this year. Tracks include energetic party anthem “Shake It” featuring dancehall queen Lady Saw, which was being simultaneously worked at top 40 and hot AC before “Sunshine” began its current rise.
Tireless road warriors, Franti & Spearhead just announced the Sound of Sunshine tour. The trek will kick off Sept. 19 in Laytonville, Calif., and make stops across the United States and Canada through Nov. 14, with additional dates to be added. As Capitol lines up major TV and synch opportunities on behalf of “Sunshine,” Franti’s indie mind-set remains unchanged. He’s busy recording stripped-down acoustic versions and club mixes of his older material to be released online as special bonus tracks for new and old fans alike.
“As a band we will always be self-reliant,” he says. “It’s been the key to our success; that and relying on our fans.”