From Dirty Linen #121, Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005
Ani Di Franco
The Work of Art
by Pamela Murray Winters
It’s hard to imagine that Ani DiFranco is 35. Two years older than Jesus. An age at which you move into that demographic bracket that ends with an invitation to join the AARP.
Funny that this dynamic artist — so identified with youth and rebellion — has by now spent more than half her life on her own. She moved out of her family’s house at 15. She released her first album the month she turned 20. She started a company at an age when many people are still living in Mom’s basement or working on a bachelor’s. And just before turning 35, at the end of July, she played her last concert — at least for a while.
The occasion was the Floyd World Music Festival in Floyd, Virginia. DiFranco was the last act on the three-day festival’s main stage; organizers sold “Ani-only” tickets to some attendees. But unlike the situation at some festivals, where the presence of an artist of DiFranco’s stature (in fame, mind you, not inches) can turn the other performers into de facto opening acts for the star, the Floyd crowd welcomed her with the same enthusiasm they’d offered Railroad Earth, J.D. Crowe, and Dread Clampitt.
DiFranco, relaxing before the show in the charmingly appointed tent that served as her dressing room — complete with a guard at its canvas doorway — was unfazed by any suggestion that she was any different from anyone else on Floyd’s stages.
“I played Falcon Ridge last week. At Falcon Ridge, they love me,” she remarked — not self-servingly, but with the same warm enthusiasm and keen intelligence with which she seems to approach, well, everything. “[The regular festival attendees] turn up and a whole bunch of other people do, too, and it’s good for them, and they have the mechanism to deal with that. I get to get in touch with my roots and my folk family, and it sort of helps the festival.
“Last year I played Clearwater, Pete and Toshi [Seeger]’s, the festival they started, and I played that a few times over the past 10 years. And I remember a bunch of years ago, showing up there, and there were lots of teenagers, lots of young people. And the old folkies were like, ‘Wow, what a thrill! Thank you for bringing new life to this scene!’ And I think that’s really cool because I think especially folk music, world music — it’s indigenous, subcorporate, community-based real art that I think young people would do well to get turned onto, because we’re just so saturated with commercial music that you really have to get pulled for whatever reason to the alternative. So if I can be that reason, I relish that role.”
Listening to her music and reading the few biographical details that have come out, one can see that DiFranco’s individuality and creative passion run deep. The Buffalo, New York, native was “singing and playing guitar in public before she was old enough to drive,” according to her website. She got her first guitar at age 9, and she figured it out on her own before taking up lessons with Michael Meldrum, who soon became her mentor and manager as well as her teacher. Playing in noisy venues, she quickly learned to be heard, just as unamplified folkies for many years had had to do: She developed not only a bold voice but also a percussive, almost violent acoustic-guitar technique.
Her parents’ divorce precipitated her decision to move out at age 15. She was fortunate to meet various mentors in those early years, as well as to earn a living with such jobs as waitressing and construction work. Her decision to start her own label rose from a simple desire: She wanted to be heard.
Asked “Has your business plan worked out as expected?” DiFranco allowed: “Well, I guess I didn’t have a business plan.” She erupted into laughter. “There was no real long-term strategy at work. It was just a moment-by-moment problem-solving… I don’t have an affinity for big corporations or big business; how can I do it without them? So I guess from the beginning, it was more about what I didn’t want to do. I know I don’t want to do this. The rest — I have no idea. It just developed over time.
“The first few years it was just what was written on my CDs or tapes that I made: ‘Righteous Babe Records.’ There was no office or staff. That just sort of grew organically over that last decade. I suppose there was always the dream that once the label existed, it would grow beyond me and become a home for other artists, which it has. That feels like, if I had any expectation or hope, that that was probably it. That it could not just be a way for me to release records independently, but maybe actually become an independent entity for peripheral music and musicians.”
“She’s willing to be in the label biz for the long haul, and won’t sell out, financially or artistically, to larger labels,” wrote Al Riess in Dirty Linen #54. That’s held true over the last decade. In addition to her own music, her Righteous Babe label has given a home to such diverse voices as Hamell on Trial, Drums & Tuba, Toshi Reagon, Andrew Bird, and Sekou Sundiata, who was one of her teachers at the New School for Social Research in the early 90s.
The signing decisions come from Ani — “so far,” she noted. “They’re all my friends or people I intersect with along the way that intrigue me and maybe don’t have independent distribution and are of like minds. So it all comes through my travels and my musical interests. So far.”
The “so far”s are evidence of a self-awareness that, if it existed in her earlier years, was often overlooked by interviewers bent on stamping her with an image. This mature DiFranco comes through in her response to a question about whether she’d sign with a major label today if given a chance. “No, no, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t,” she vowed, then, with laughter in her voice: “But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m gonna change. And often!
“But my feeling about the music industry is my feeling about any big business: that it just has fundamentally different priorities in this world than I do.”
Here DiFranco drew a line that could stand for a central fact about her vision: She can distinguish between souls and deeds, sinners and sins, the individual and the group. “There’s a lot of good people in the music industry working for major labels. People who love music. People who want to help musicians, do something good in the world. But the system itself, I think, has a profit motivation that I don’t respect, I guess. And that I don’t think is conducive to cultural diversity, you know, to true art. To the interests of people and creativity. So I guess that feeling remains the same for me. And as our culture and our country just becomes more co-opted by corporate monopolies, on every level — from media, food, and the government. I am more and more adamantly opposed to this sort of corporate stranglehold over our culture and our society.”
But…she’s a businesswoman, right? Whether she sees herself that way or not. And surely she must think about what her audience, if not a larger capitalist system, wants from her? “Not at all,” she said firmly. “Not at all. I guess I am blessed as an artist — that’s just so not — it’s just not important. That’s just the road down.”
DiFranco, never one to go off half-cocked or to make careless mistakes, seemed to struggle to articulate her feelings: “Even making a record, taking decent songs and trying to make them radio-friendly in their recording: I just have — Whatever it is, I just —
“I’m luckily not all that invested in that kind of thing. And I have been lucky in that just my immediacy with what I do has contacted enough people, and Righteous Babe’s paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Although, you know, more and more there are financial issues and we’re sort of walking a line there at Righteous Babe, because people are buying less and less records — mine included. And mine are the ones that pay the bills. We lose money on everything else we put out. So it’s a real fine line and we’re trying to be creative in other ways. But I’m not gonna tailor my art to business purposes.”
This is reminiscent of Lillian Hellman’s famous quote: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” And while DiFranco’s made her own luck, in many ways, it’s not without a struggle to be understood. In 1997, responding to a Ms. article that named her one of “21 feminists for the 21st century,” she wrote a lengthy letter in which she thanked the magazine but also chided it for missing the point in celebrating her sales figures: “I sell approximately 2.5% of the albums that a Joan Jewelanis Morrisette sells and get about 0.5% of the airplay royalties, so obviously if it all comes down to dollars and cents, I’ve led a wholly unremarkable life… Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capital, only to be eventually recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer.”
She’s even been unafraid to risk alienating some of her fan base, as she did in the late 1990s when, after establishing a strong gay and bisexual following, she married a man. (The marriage has since ended.) Awarded the Gay and Lesbian American Music Association’s 1998 OutMusic Award, given to an artist who has “advanced the music of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered artists,” she had to dodge protesters to deliver an emphatic, heartfelt speech about the freedom to love whomever you want to love.
As a GLAMA judge, I was present for DiFranco’s 1999 speech. Asked about this, and about whether people have expectations of her as an artist, she, characteristically, parsed my question before continuing: “Or expectations of my lover, as an artist? I’m sure people still do, but I guess I am less and less aware, less and less invested in that at all. I just completely tune it out now. Completely. And I’m happier. For every person that has any opinion about me, it’s a different one. So I couldn’t begin to appease all of the images or expectations that people have of me, even if I wanted to. That’s not really a way to live — for anyone else, let alone thousands and thousands of people you don’t know.”
But she has no trouble understanding why people care so much. “To me it feels natural, because I am an avid, devoted person myself. I’m just a very passionate, dedicated type. You know? So it makes sense that I meet people there. What I put out is what comes back, which I think is sort of true for everyone.”
Now she’s taken another bold step: off the road and away from the fans. An announcement on her website on July 21, 2005, just days before the Floyd show, shocked her fans: “The Little Folksinger Takes a Break From the Road: After 15 years of non-stop touring, often performing over 100 gigs per year, Ani DiFranco will take a hiatus from live performance, after the current July tour ends, until summer 2006.”
The hiatus was precipitated by a growing problem with tendinitis, which threatened to cause permanent nerve damage if she didn’t let up on all that strumming. “That was my cue,” she said of the condition. “For a long time I’ve been thinking — in addition to other projects, like a collaborative album with this person or that, that just never happen, I’d love to travel to places in the world where my music doesn’t take me. When you’re constantly touring, you just want to go home! Your time off, there’s no way you’re getting on a plane to Africa.
“So for a long time I’d been dreaming of having that kind of time, and it just seemed like my hands and my wrist were saying, ‘Now! Do it now!’ ”
A year is a long time in such a busy life. “I don’t know — maybe I’ll freak out in six months and say, ‘Book me some shows!’ It’s all so new.” But being off the road doesn’t mean she won’t still be making music. In addition to finishing up an album she’s produced for Hamell on Trial, there’s “a new record of mine, which is maybe half done.
“And then I have all kinds of other album project ideas that have been on the back burner for years. Like going out to see my old friend Utah Phillips again — we’ve been talking about making album number three together for a while, so I figure this will be the year.”
Ask to stretch out a little, into the realm of speculation — “What subjects and styles haven’t you tackled that you really feel drawn toward?” — she took some time to think about an answer. “Well, I do have various album concepts for my own more solitary creative adventures. Like, I’d like to make an instrumental record. Which is a very different context for me, since I’m so idea-based and word-based, the writing is one of my main tools. So to put that down and make an instrumental record intrigues me.
“And I think — maybe this is the same record — but I’ve been thinking for years of making a record to put people to sleep! Some of my favorite music — I’m an insomniac, just real trouble sleeping, all the time. So music I can put on and maybe even fall asleep to is some of my favorite music. Music that can transport me to a really serene place I value very highly. And I think I’ve spent my life making music to WAKEPEOPLEUP!” — that burst of laughter again — “I think attempting the opposite would be something I’d like to do.”
She’d like to follow up on a long-time plan for collaborating: “Greg Brown and I have been talking for years about collaborating on songs and making records together. We even sent each other a couple of cassettes; we did a little volley at one point, a year or two ago. But it’s hard, when you don’t live near each other and you’re both on your own little hamster wheels, to co-author. That’s so foreign to me. I think that for most folk singers it’s a very solitary process, the writing. But jeez, if we could get that collaboration happening, I’d be thrilled. I don’t what of these ideas I can manifest in the next year, but…”
Time was running short, and the temptation, in this rare interview, to look for some great insight, spurred the rather rash question: How can music change the world?
DiFranco was characteristically thoughtful. “It can inspire, motivate, affirm people. It seems that people hold music so close to their hearts that it’s almost the most powerful art in that way, for changing the world. Of course that question comes up all the time. I’m always a bit thrown by the idea of “changing the world”… it can be a debilitating expectation.
“The truth is that you can’t make some sweeping or immediate gesture and see the vast and expansive transformation that you so desire. So therefore you don’t bother — it’s just too overwhelming, it’s too intimidating, it’s too hard. The truth of changing the world is that you change a tiny thing very close to you today. And then you do it tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after. It’s a lifetime of changing yourself and changing somebody very close to you. I think that, it seems as though especially in this country, where we sort of have this expectation for immediate and huge gratification. I think the idea that political change comes over the course of a lifetime, maybe in imperceptible increments, is a deterrent to a lot of people who have the will or the vision. People who are awake, people who are socially concerned, but we’re fed this idea that we must change the world. And then we come quickly to the concept that we can’t. How could we? So we think, ‘Well, I’ll just leave that to her.’
“When I think of music changing the world, I think of writing a song and then feeling better afterwards, because I’ve given voice to something that was locked in me. Or I think of playing a tune and looking out and seeing some young thing, some pubescent girl, with tears in [her] eyes, feeling empowered and maybe a little bit closer to herself. There it is. That’s my big work.” She laughed. “It’s gloriously microscopic by nature. And so in that sense, I just believe anything, any of us, all of us can change the world. And in fact we are. And the world is just gonna change. So really, it’s not even ‘Can we change the world?’ but ‘Can we direct the change?’
“We were just in D.C. last week, lobbying. We went to Capitol Hill and lobbied against the energy bill, which was just billions and billions invested back into nuclear power. Building more nuclear power plants, the ones that exist are at waste capacity anyway, so there’s already this crisis of what to do with nuclear waste. The answer, according to the government: to ship it all out to the Goshute Indian reservation in Utah. We’re fighting that dump. Exhausting work — most of which was done by Susan Alzner [DiFranco’s road manager], who organized the whole lobbying effort. Just a grueling effort by a lot of folks. The Indigo Girls were there, Winona LaDuke was there, we had an actor, James [Cromwell] — quite a collection of people, spirits, that came in and went senator office to senator office, just trying to speak human to human, bring some truth into this insane environment of politicking and wheeling and dealing. And then the energy bill got passed.”
A failure? It’s not that simple: “Once again, it’s like — it was such hard work that I want to do it more! It pushed that challenge button in me. I, like anybody, just feel completely defeated, often, by one horrific event after another.
“Before that last election, the shows felt like rallies. People were so invigorated. There was a momentum there. And then the election happened, and it’s like the air just blew out of everybody’s sails. I’ve been onstage playing a lot of really political material, and I just feel almost like I’m poking the collective bruise. I feel like we sort of have this collective heartbreak. And I feel it, too, but for me it’s a conscious process of don’t give energy to that heartbreak. Just stay focused on those tiny, incremental, positive changes that you can effect. Like, I really felt like all of the [senators’] aides we talked to — we didn’t talk to a single senator, we talked to aides. All senators, men; all top aides, women, by the way, a very fascinating dynamic — the apologists for the men. But they all felt like good people. And I could feel them all hearing and agreeing to whatever extent. That is what I want to focus on.
“And I guess that’s sort of a metaphor for how I lead my life. Focus on the good people, doing the good work, and the points of possibility, and don’t give energy to the hopelessness.”