The Curious Case of Ani DiFranco

Louis Maistros on April 17, 2012

“My first cassette tape had an address on it and that’s how I first started touring,” says Ani DiFranco. “Basically, young women at colleges would get a tape and write to that address and say, ‘Can she come play?’”

And so began the peculiar career of Ani DiFranco, then a teen from Buffalo, N.Y., who decided from the get-go that she would not offer up her soul as a co-op to big record companies, and therefore, never saw “big success” as a likely outcome. When big success came her way in spite of all that (and not at all by chance – DiFranco is a woman of immense talent and relentless work ethic), she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Remember, this is a kid we’re talking about.

“I think when you’re fifteen and female and operating in the adult world, you’re very aware every moment of the power dynamic that you’re working with – the power of your femaleness, especially your young femaleness,” she reflects over a cup of coffee at a local shop in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. “And then, when I was eighteen and shaved my head, it was a rejection of [that] – I don’t want that power. I want a different kind of power.”

For DiFranco, success – and, by extension, power – is a blessing primarily in the sense that it allows her to put her money where her mouth (and heart) have always been. She has managed to flout the unwritten rules of “how things work” simply by sticking to her guns and doing her best to make things happen on her own terms. (For example, she founded her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of nineteen in 1990). The fact that she has succeeded again and again with this approach says as much about the so-called rules as it does about her refusal to go along with them.

Chatting on a busy street corner in this artistically driven neighborhood – one that is almost certainly inhabited by a good number DiFranco fans – I can’t help but notice that not a soul has bothered her during the course of our conversation. There aren’t any adoring fans clamoring for autographs, googly-eyed stares or giddy whispers – just the occasional hello from a passing acquaintance.

With her toussled hair, easy laugh and her secondhand navy blue workman’s jacket that is rolled at the cuffs to accommodate her slight frame, there isn’t anything about her that screams, “rock star,” this afternoon. The only thing that may suggests this humble and tiny package is the source of such a long list of remarkable accomplishments is her infectious enthusiasm for topics that are dear to her, her razor sharp wit and her charming sense of humor. (At one point during our conversation, she challenges me to a boxing match in order to work out some of the caffeine that has amped up her already highenergy personality.)

Being in her presence is a little bit like being stoned in the sense that time goes out the window – what felt like a 30 minute conversation turned out to be, according to the timer on my little recorder, close to three hours.

But in New Orleans, she is just a neighborhood girl and it’s difficult not to contrast this laid back environment with the sometimes obsessive quality of her fan base, many of whom regard her as a personal friend despite never having met her. After speaking with a few DiFranco fans from the neighborhood, I found that every one of them had stories to tell about how her music had helped them through a difficult time. When I relate a story from a friend who is stuck in a troubled marriage and who sings “Joyful Girl” from 1996’s Dilate to herself as a sort of lullaby when she is feeling lonely and afraid, DiFranco tears up instantly.

On the other side of that coin, there are those in her “tribe” whose behavior can be quite dark at times. Although it is hard to imagine a longtime DiFranco fan who is not accustomed to the frequent twists and turns that have shaped such a long and unusual career, there are those who seem to wish that she’d freeze at a particular age and never move forward, to act as a sort of musical pet who may not stray from the service of a particular emotional need.

Even her relationship with her husband has come under fire. “He’s too tall for her!” complained one flustered message board contributor. And there are those who feel she is somehow betraying her art if she writes the occasional love song instead of keeping it all-political-all-the-time.

But such chatter fails to appreciate DiFranco’s creative wandering for what it is: a product of ongoing maturity and a life well lived.

The release of DiFranco’s new album ¿Which Side Are You On? comes after an unprecedented three year pause in what has otherwise been a career defined largely by its frenetic pace. A logical culmination of what has come before – 16 studio albums and a handful of live recordings – Which Side marks a return to her earlier acoustic guitar-based songwriting without rehashing anything. This is an artist looking back at her own life in wide-eyed whirly wonder, intrigued by the un-likeliness of it all, and processing it all through the still-fresh lens of motherhood. (DiFranco and husband Mike Napolitano’s daughter is now 5 years old.)

She confesses with a grin that being a mother has “slowed her down quite a bit,” though acknowledges that she is “finding inner peace for the first time in my life.” She reflects this new sense of stability best in the funky cool dissonance of Which Side’s “Unworry.” It’s a cautious step into the alien world of calmer waters and a lesson from folks in her adopted hometown not to question a good thing when she finally finds it: “They teach me to unworry/ I will teach you to unhide/ in the city where they don’t need x-rays/ to see each other’s insides.”

This concept of transition and rebirth extends darkly through the powerful album closer, “Zoo,” in which she talks about daily realities of American life that encourage selfdestructive behavior: from the spiritual blight of harmful television programming ( “I can no longer watch TV cuz that shit really melts my brain” ), down to her own past insecurities ( “I walk past my old self-loathing like I walk past animals in the zoo/ trying not to really see them in a prison they did not choose” ).

For all of its contemplative uncertainty, “Zoo” resolves on an immensely hopeful note: The matter-of-fact finality of which isn’t anything short of inspiring ( “Pour your love into your children and there’s nothing left to say” ).

Still, as with any DiFranco record, she tempers her optimism and visceral joy of being alive with her own brand of patriotism, urging Americans’ to take a step back from their inclination toward self-absorption and greed to consider the benefits of making a few sacrifices for the greater good. Which Side’s “Splinter” illustrates the point well: “Something about this landscape just don’t feel right/ hyper-air-conditioned and lit up all night/ like we just got to see how comfortable comfortable can get/ like we can’t even bring ourselves to sweat.”

“You know, as humans, we devise this supposed way of being above nature. And even with the level of privilege and comfortability we have in our society, it’s almost like we’re trying to eradicate pain altogether,” she says of the song’s origins. "The idea that we must suffer to be alive is unacceptable to us almost. If we are a group of people who refuse to feel pain and the pain of existence, somebody else has to feel double, you know? And that’s the natural law.
“When I was giving birth – it’s very violent, it’s terrifying, it’s bloody, it’s awful. It was a nightmare for me – but that is what it takes to create life and a whole other manifestation of joy and creativity.”

The first line of the album’s opener, “Lifeboat,” begins with a confession, albeit one that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek: “Every time I open my mouth, I take off my clothes.”

As is her way as a lyricist, DiFranco manages to make a powerful statement with just a few well-chosen words, and, as metaphors go, there probably isn’t any better way to describe the lifestyle of intense exposure and vulnerability that she has made for herself during the years.

The song relates her own life experiences through the eyes of an anonymous homeless woman who feels isolated in the midst of many ( “This park bench is a lifeboat and the rest a big dark sea” ), but by the second verse, you begin to sense that the message of the song goes well beyond herself.

“This song has a little bit of a plot twist because when I start singing, you think, ‘Oh, another song about me,’” she says. “I can feel [the audience] when I’m singing onstage – and the first line is like, ‘Yeah, we noticed that about you, and that’s me, too!’ And we’re having this moment. And then it’s like, ‘Wait, who is she talking about?’ And I guess, for me, writing the song, it was…”

DiFranco pauses as she considers the thin line between personal and private, and how far she wants to take this conversation over that line. Suddenly, the clatter of dishes from a neighboring table and the passing rumble of trucks that routinely jockey between nearby warehouses seem quite loud to me. After a moment, she continues:

“I’m a very emotional person, biochemically. But I have friends, especially one very dear friend who’s even more emotional than I [am] – they term it ‘bipolar.’ Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, I see the woman ranting, shuffling and alone in this world – unable to connect any longer with the rest of us. But for one little drop of some chemical that I don’t even understand – that’s me, you know?
“If I had had that baby or those babies,” says DiFranco, who had two abortions when she was much younger, "if I’d have not been able to get the music out there and heal myself through the music, and connect and stay connected with people – I feel like, ‘there but for the grace of the goddess go I.’
“So [‘Lifeboat’] is sort of about me, and it’s a little bit of an extrapolation of ‘this person is me,’ you know?”

Ani DiFranco rejects any categorization that feels limiting to her, and bristles slightly when I mention that some people view her as a feminist songwriter who directs her work primarily at like-minded females.

“I’m just writing about my life,” she says. “Other young women were the first to relate immediately to the voice that was singing and the story that was being told, but over the years, my audience has broadened and broadened. The mosh pit is probably still eighteen and still female, but the audience in the room will be all kinds of people and even all kinds of ages, which I love. It’s a much more holistic feeling to me to be not just singing to my tribe.”

She knows that male listeners have, at times, looked the other way – not expecting a female artist who’s been heralded by many as one of the most important feminist icons of the last few decades to produce music that might easily be processed by “dudes,” but she means for her work to be all-inclusive.

DiFranco makes a good point about how people perceive her work from a sexual identity standpoint by turning the question on its head: “I think to be female in a world that’s largely imagined by men, from day one, you get very used to translating. ‘What are your favorite bands?’ And they’re probably mostly boys in those bands, but you relate to those songs – you know what that experience is because you translate. I think it’s a little rare for a man to have to listen to a woman singing about her experience and find a way to relate to it, but I’m finding it more and more.”

While the realization of an imbalance in society that favors patriarchy has been a long running theme in DiFranco’s work, she is quick to point out that this should not be construed as anti-male – but rather as a flatout call for balance in accordance with the laws of nature.

“I keep going back to the sort of fundamentals of our societal diseases – the hyper capitalism, the destruction of the environment, the endless wars, the hierarchies of racism and class – and all of that comes from unchecked patriarchy,” she posits. “And it’s not that the masculine sensibility is bad or wrong, it’s just that on its own, it will create disease.”

As I raise a clearly dude-affiliated eyebrow at this last bit, she smiles and adds, “Just the same as a female [sensibility] on its own – I’ve been to enough women’s music festivals to see the problems of matriarchy, you know?”

She laughs and continues, “I’m trying to laugh about the unexplored reality of, what if female sensibilities dominated since the dawn of time in all aspects of society? You would see much different diseases. As I get older, I understand more that peace is a product of balance. You can’t start with imbalance and end with peace.”

For roughly 25 years, DiFranco has been writing songs perfectly in line with the motives of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement – decades before protestors erected the first tent at Zuccotti Park. She is an avid supporter of the “99% Deficit Proposal” authored by economist/activist Kevin Zeese and is working to have the proposal brought before Congress. She keeps her soul in fighting shape by surrounding herself with fellow activists.

Her manager, Scott Fisher – who has worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Innocence Project – is deeply involved in anti-death penalty causes. And her former road manager, Susan Elsner, is a board member of the Nuclear Information Resource Center and is a civil society liaison for the United Nations.

DiFranco’s philanthropic reach extends locally as well. Her Righteous Babe Foundation supplies much-needed funding for the New Orleans-based Roots of Music after-school program, which provides free music classes, academic tutoring and a hot meal for around 120 underprivileged kids, five days per week.

She positively beams when she talks about the kids whose lives have been changed for the better through Roots of Music. “It’s really cool to see these kids have a reason to be, you know? It just makes them taller,” she says. She even enlisted the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders to provide brass for the title track of Which Side.

The political side of the new record strikes me as more patriotic than activist, but maybe patriotic is the best way to define modern activism anyway. After all, the Occupy movement is more about wresting the democratic process away from corporate money interests and putting it back into the hands of the American people – what’s more patriotic than that?

The title track reminds the listener that the election of Barack Obama shouldn’t be tallied like some liberal-minded version of a certain “mission accomplished” banner from a decade ago. A line from the record’s centerpiece – a stunningly perfect New Orleans folks song entitled simply “J” – reflects progressives’ disappointment in the Obama administration’s performance thus far ( “Dude could be FDR right now/ but instead he’s shifting his weight” ).

However, DiFranco is quick to point out the difficulties that the President faced when trying to go forward on issues that the general public seem to have lost interest in. “If you’re standing on the higher ground all by yourself with nobody to talk to, it’s not gonna work,” she says. And, as a woman who has had to overcome an awful lot of obstacles in the male-dominated music industry, DiFranco feels empathetic about Obama’s status as the first black president.

“To be a black president – to be a female president – anyone knows that you have to work overtime to not alienate, to not scare people,” she says. “If he were to throw his weight around like George W. did, there would be a very different reaction. You can see how the political theater changed instantly – you know, people standing up and shouting ‘you’re a liar’ at the President in the halls of Congress. The underlying realities of racism make it that much more difficult for him to take charge and use the power that we have given him, that we wish he would really use.”

If she’s critical of Obama’s lack of tangible changes and policies, then she’s equally critical of citizens’ complacency toward that inaction.

“If he felt an immense back up – if the hordes that actually left their house on the last presidential election day and registered and voted for the first time – if we had stood behind him and kept saying, ‘No, we’re serious, we will support you to end this war. We do want universal healthcare.’ If he really felt, in this arena of dragons and monsters, that he had the force of the people behind him, he’d be more empowered to act in the way that we want him to act. But we as people kicked back and said, ‘OK, fix it.’”

The transient qualities of New Orleans seem to be a perfect fit for Ani DiFranco’s traveler’s heart, and it’s gratifying for a longtime resident like myself to see her embrace our funky neighborhood as her own. Likewise, the stable presence of her husband and soul mate, Mike, and their daughter Petah, have allowed her to appreciate the virtues of standing still every now and then – and to enjoy the mundane pleasures of planting seeds and nurturing new roots. And when she speaks of the new home that she has made with her family, her eyes sparkle with a child-like wonder that she wears very well.

In light of that sparkle, Ani DiFranco still takes her marching orders from that shy, 15-year-old girl that she once was – the child who first picked up a guitar simply to make music for all the right reasons, as most kids tend to do.

Three decades later, now a wife and mother in the far away city of New Orleans, I suspect that this Buffalo girl sometimes sees her teenage self smiling back at her from the mirror – and it is in that smile that she has found a bridge to the kind of peace that she’s always longed for. Honestly, how many of us would be able to look our optimistic teenage selves in the eye and not feel like we have a lot of explaining to do? This might be the definition of staying true.