It’s been an eventful year and a half for Michael Franti.
Thanks to the Top 20 single “Say Hey (I Love You),” the singer, rapper, songwriter and bandleader has gone from underground rabble rouser to hit-making pop star. Even a life-threatening ruptured appendix last August couldn’t slow him down, as he used the episode to inspire the songs for his next album, “The Sound of Sunshine,” which is due out later this summer.
And sunshine is exactly what Franti is chasing these days after years of preaching political and social consciousness with the punk band Beatnigs, the groundbreaking hip-hop group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the early days of his current ensemble, Spearhead.
“I spent a long time writing angry songs and political songs and social statements,” acknowledges Franti, 44, who was born in Oakland, Calif., and still resides in the Bay Area, where he’s an avid environmentalist, political activist — and sports fan. “And it wasn’t until I started really traveling around the world and going to those places that I was talking about in my songs — going to Iraq, going to Israel and Palestine, going to Brazil and a village in Indonesia where people have nothing — and I’d play music there and people would say to me, ‘Play something that make us laugh and dance. We don’t want to hear a song about social issues.’ Same thing when I’d play a prison ...
“It really changed the way I view music and making a difference in the world. The main difference that I want to make is ... to make people smile. I feel that when people are happy or when they see the future as being an optimistic place, they want to make a difference in the world today.
“So I want to make music that makes people feel uplifted.”
Franti certainly did that with 2008’s “All Rebel Rockers,” his sixth Spearhead album. Peaking at No. 39 on the Billboard 200 — Franti’s best chart showing ever — and sending “Say Hey (I Love You)” to No. 18 on the Hot 100, the set brought in new fans and put Franti and company in previously unexplored territory, like opening for John Mayer earlier this year in arenas around North America.
There was a time that coupling would not have worked, but given Spearhead’s new inclination, Franti says it was a good — and beneficial — fit.
“Everybody wants to hear songs they can sing along to and they can clap and dance to, and I think that’s what ‘Say Hey’ was,” he explains. “I think the time we’re in right now, it’s stressful, and people really respond to happy songs.”
And, he adds, they definitely responded to Spearhead during, and after, the Mayer tour.
“Whenever we go back to a city we played with (Mayer), we’ve noticed our audiences have doubled,” Franti says. “There’s tons of people coming to our shows now saying, ‘Yeah, I saw you on the Mayer tour,’ or they write us on Facebook. That tour was a really great introduction for a lot of fans. It was really like an ‘Aha!’ moment for people, like, ‘Wow, we know that song and this band is really good.’ They became real fans.”
Franti — whose music has been heard on TV shows such as “The Wire,” “Weeds” and “Mercy” — aims to keep them with “The Sound of Sunshine,” another positive-minded collection which he says was directly inspired by his ruptured appendix.
“I came really close to dying,” Franti explains, “and I just had this new appreciation for life. Every day I’d go to the window and I’d open the curtain and see if the sun was shining. If it was I’d feel this sense of optimism, and if it was cloudy I’d go back into my bed and I’d find the sunshine in my mind or in my guitar or something.
“I thought, ‘If I could make a record that does that, what would it sound like?’ So this is my best interpretation of what the sun sounds like.”
Franti wrote all of the new songs on acoustic guitar, while the album itself was recorded partly in Jamaica with the team Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who co-produced “All Rebel Rockers,” but mostly “in hotels and the locker rooms of NBA and hockey franchises all around the country” on portable gear while Spearhead was touring with Mayer. Mayer does not make an appearance on “Sunshine,” but Franti says that “we talked about doing something in the future, so hopefully on his next record or my next project we’ll do something.”
A first single, the buoyant “Shake It,” has already been released from the album, while the title track on “Sunshine” is due out Tuesday. Franti says fans old and new will hear “a lot of songs that are about connection to other people — to family, to friends and to that appreciation that those things are the most important things in our lives.”
And, he notes, “you can dance to every song, but they’re not all four-on-the-floor club bangers like you’re used to hearing in a nightclub. They’re more ... traditional sounding, in the old school sense of, like, dance music from around the world.”
“When I first started playing music,” Franti says, “I just didn’t have it in me to write the songs I do today. I’ve gone through a lot of transformation in my life as a person. Now I really feel it and it’s easy for me to write songs that are optimistic, that people can dance to and that makes them happy. That’s my purpose now.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead and One Eskimo perform Tuesday, June 8, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 day of show. Call 248-399-2980 or visit www.royaloakmusictheatre.com
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