Ani DiFranco: Fighting The Good Fight
photo credit: Daymon Gardner
Less than 24 hours have passed since a mob of right-wing terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and Ani DiFranco is understandably unsure how to make conversation.
“‘How are you?’ is a confusing question all of the sudden,” she chuckles, while calling from her home in New Orleans. “It’s surreal to talk about other things like records or songs or anything else right now. But I guess we shall!”
A thin silver lining to the situation is the fact that a good chunk of DiFranco’s 22nd studio album, Revolutionary Love addresses many of the hot button issues plaguing this bizarre era of United States history. In fact, a quick pass at DiFranco’s body of work at large—which spans the worlds of music, poetry, entrepreneurship and activism—immediately proves that she has never had trouble speaking truth to power. Since the age of 19, she’s been releasing records on her own label, Righteous Babe. And after making a splash on college campuses in the ‘90s, as well as opening for the likes of Bob Dylan and collaborating with the late, great Purple One, she’s become a critical darling and a folk-rock torchbearer, following and further widening the paths of legends like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. (DiFranco was appropriately given the Woody Guthrie Prize in 2009 for her varied charitable pursuits.)
And yet, all these years later, the role of the American folk singer is still an uphill battle. DiFranco has fought the good fight and, in return, she has watched history repeat itself over and over again, with varying results.
“It’s kind of a blessing and a curse when my political songs retain relevance,” the Grammy-winning musician reflects. “Every time there’s a gun massacre somebody will say: ‘Oh! Pull out that song [“To the Teeth”] from 20 years ago.’ Fuck—the fight is endless, but we’re finding each other. And the connections made are the rewards.”
One of the greatest connections DiFranco made on Revolutionary Love—which was released in January—is with Sikh American activist Valarie Kaur, who inspired the album’s title. According to the singer/songwriter, the idea of “revolutionary love” is needed now more than ever, especially as America wavers in a post-Trump, post-insurrection haze.
“[Kaur] speaks a lot about the three pillars: love for others, love for self, which is so often left out of our patriarchal religions, and then love for your opponents,” DiFranco explains. “She specifies this because that is as tricky as any, right? That’s the toughie! But it begins by staying curious, which I find very compelling. The moment you stop wondering about your opponent is the moment you’ve shut down, and you have disallowed the bridge to be built.”
It’s a powerful, age-old concept. But in a time when America is so divided and misguided by misinformation, DiFranco admits it’s easy to let apathy take hold.
“There was this total disillusionment. People were saying things like, ‘My vote doesn’t matter, I don’t matter, nothing matters.’ But look at what people just did in Georgia!” she sermonizes. “That was African-Americans saving the nation— saving the world—from fascism! Because they mobilized and they voted! I hope people look at what just went down in Georgia. It took years of knocking on doors from activists to convince people to try it—just try to exercise your power to vote. And low and behold, they moved mountains in Georgia for us all. It’s ironic that an investment of faith is what it takes when you are utterly disillusioned to transform it.”
And while DiFranco would typically spend the buildup to a new album hitting the pavement with her longtime bandmates, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, she remains at home in New Orleans, spending time with her kids and her partner.
“I have yearned my whole life to have more time with my kids because I’m the breadwinner in this operation and I have to be on the road, and it’s hard,” she says. “And so this has given me the permission to stay home with my kids—and not worry that the financial fallout is my fault. I couldn’t have imagined this scenario being offered to me. Unfortunately, I feel blessed but I also feel so disconnected from other musicians, from music, from myself as a musician.”
The time DiFranco spent recording Revolutionary Love, however, gave her a chance to collaborate with producer Brad Cook—who first made a name for himself playing with Justin Vernon in the folky DeYarmond Edison and helping steer Megafaun before turning his attention to working behind the scenes with Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger, The War On Drugs and many others—in a frenetic twoday North Carolina recording session. The fruitful, East Coast outing took place after DiFranco worked on some initial demos in her home studio; the final results are also bolstered by some remote contributions by by Sickafoose (whose credits include work with Jenny Scheinman, Scott Amendola and numerous jazz ensembles) and masked-up, in-studio takes by Higgens, who is known for his time with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Warren Haynes and John Medeski.
“It’s rare that she looks outside her own purview to work with someone else,” explains Sickafoose, who has been performing with DiFranco since 2004. “And it’s a record that got made during COVID, so that alone made it unique.”
Indeed, the album has an organic, homebrewed feel, with slide guitar, warm keyboard sounds and more. However, according to DiFranco, the DIY aesthetic wasn’t entirely intentional.
“[Cook’s brother and longtime collaborator Phil] forgot a cable to his gizmo. You know, the synthesizer that makes every sound in the universe? And he lives way out in the hills like all these motherfuckers do,” she chuckles. “So we just looked around like, ‘There’s an organ, and there’s a wurly in the studio, and there’s a piano.’ I think I intended to make a record with more modern sounds but it just unfolded as it did.”
Lyrically, of course, the album is true to DiFranco’s radical spirit. The title track “Revolutionary Love” is a cosmic, freeform-jazz rumination, and “Do Or Die” is a bongo-laden groove, accentuated by flute riffs as DiFranco laments “Cuz there’s foxes in the henhouse/ And bad news every day/ And right there on Pennsylvania Avenue/ The sheetless KKK.”
DiFranco lauds Cook for his spirit and contributions to the project, but she is still credited as the LP’s sole producer. It’s a role that the singer/songwriter admittedly relishes.
“I’m a musician and I get excited about music,” DiFranco explains. “I get involved because I’m passionate. I feel like I’m totally open to not only collaboration but also to getting in there and producing, coming up with ideas. I can never stop myself.”
“I feel like Ani has these two different poles that she’s oriented with,” Sickafoose adds. “One is this incredible spontaneous sensibility. She is such a live performer. Her instincts onstage and the things that she seeks out—the mind-melding that she wants to do onstage—it’s all so strong. And then she’s also such a collage-er in the studio. And she’s always been that way.”
Sadly, the pandemic has halted DiFranco’s ability to take the stage and breathe further life into her Revolutionary Love material. She recalls those final days of pre-pandemic America, before the world stopped, with the same disbelief as everybody else. Of course, in hindsight, there were hints of what was to come—the pandemic, the quarantine, the never-ending cancellations of tours and concerts—but, of course, no one expected to be sidelined for this long.
“Last February I was on tour, and many people on that tour came down with fevers and sickness,” she explains. “I came home and coughed up more phlegm than I had in my life up till then. Then, over the holidays, I texted Todd and Terence, ‘Happy Holidays.’ And, when I looked, the last text to them both was on that tour—it’s just such a time warp.”
Sickafoose also remembers that stretch of shows with disbelief: “I always say, ‘See you tomorrow,’ and I remember saying that to Ani when we played our last gig in February. And I didn’t know ‘tomorrow’ was going to mean a year and a half or two years.”
Some fans may flag Revolutionary Love’s “Contagious” as a musical nod to the pandemic, but DiFranco admits that, despite its title, it predates the crisis. Yet, as any music scholar knows, sometimes a tune can take on a life— and meaning—of its own.
“I wrote it on tour that February, but it’s exactly about now,” she says. “It’s really about the democratic establishment—it’s maddening to me when they play the game, when they try to calculate the timing of impeachment hearings and, therefore, don’t do the right thing. You have a job to do, so you can’t play the game! We’re counting on you! That’s what that song is—that shit’s contagious. But it’s also sort of reflective of where we are now.”
Looking ahead, DiFranco has several irons in the fire for 2021. When she’s not promoting Revolutionary Love or her recent memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream, she’s taking time to wrangle Righteous Babe Radio, the “ongoing fuckin’ monster” she “built, created, birthed” this year. And, she’s open to some local offers if they make sense. She recently joined fellow New Orleans act Galactic during a New Year’s Eve livestream; their cover of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” is a must-see.
“My 7-year-old son’s New Year’s resolution was to not die. I was like, ‘Keep it real, keep it real,’” she says with a laugh. “I got so many frickin’ side hustles right now—I’m working on a kid’s book that also has a song attached to it, and I’m working on a musical about restorative justice. Through my work with the Prison Music Project, and just knowing incarcerated people, I met this guy who’s got this amazing story of restorative justice. His story, I believe, is—like I found in Valarie’s work—another template for how to go beyond trauma. Like, ‘OK, what if there is unspeakable violence, then what? You can’t kick each other off the planet, then what?’ And, in that story, lies a road map of revolutionary love, so I’m working on making his story into a musical, and it’s crazy because this story involves great darkness.” Despite her own journey and her unceasing radical self-reliance, DiFranco is still not sure what the music industry—or lack thereof— will look like in 2021.
“There’s no more musical middle class, you’re either a superstar on a major label or you’re on your own,” she sermonizes. “And so everybody is their own label now, which definitely has a coolness. And in fact, this pandemic has pushed us even further into this home spun [aesthetic]. I love watching national TV shows with people in their living rooms. Everything is very DIY these days, which is cool. It’s honest. There’s character. But yeah, the money in it? Wow—good luck! Music has been free for so long. It’s tough. But I always come back to music as a social act, and no industry or technology changes the fact that people need to be together and they need to experience music and that connection in real-time. So as long as you’re into that— going and playing live—you will always have a job.”