From her early days as a teen prodigy anarchist singer-songwriter to an owner-operated record label mogul who calls her own shots: This is a powerful woman who has ever lived how she’s wanted to live — naysayers be damned.
Ani DiFranco is a Godmother of Indie Music..
With a discography stretching all the way back to 1990 through the self release of her eponymous debut record, DiFranco is a musician’s musician. Deeply fierce and passionate about her craft. Unafraid to make off the beaten path choices — she’s gone from solo acoustic playing to a sound that at times runs the gamut from Folk Rock to an intriguingly complex Jazz-infused ruckus.
In advance of her date with the NorVa, we pulled up for an in depth conversation about the new record, her activist efforts, and where she is at this point in life after taking such a hard won path to success.
. . .
AltDaily: Binary is your 20th album. You’re just a few years shy of what will be a thirty year career. It has to be a little strange that there’s all these records from your past.. That someone, having never heard of Ani DiFranco before, can just pick up a piece of music and listen to it.. And the introduction they get is the you from when you were twenty. Or twenty-five. Or even thirty — as opposed to who you are now?
These.. Earlier iterations. Do you ever find yourself competing with these younger versions of yourself? Do you ever find yourself reminiscing and missing the simpler days where it was just you and Volkswagen and a guitar again?
Ani DiFranco: (Laughs) That’s funny. That’s.. Ah. That’s an interesting concept. “Competing with younger versions of me.” I’ve never put it quite that way in my own brain. Yeah.. There’s a.. There’s a lot of.. A lotta, lotta versions of me along the way. It’s been a long road. And I guess people have gotten on and off of my little train along the way. As it should and shall be.
I’m different in so many ways than the nineteen year old me that first started making records. Who was getting out there in earnest. And I’m the same in a lot of ways, too. I guess.. I try not to worry too much about how it’s all perceived from the outside, because it all becomes the sort of claustrophobic head trip thing for me. I just try and focus on my work from my point of view. And staying deeply in it? Deeply invested, deeply inspired, and finding new things to write about.. Or new ways to write about the same themes.
I feel like I’m in a pretty good place. Like in some ways I feel like I’ve come full circle in terms of just touring and performing and being on stage. I think there were a lot of years in there where I was overwhelmed. And I was tired. And I should have stepped back a little more than I did. But now.. I’m forty.. Whatever-the-hell.. Six? I’m about to be forty-seven. I’ve got a couple of kids. You know.. I’ve got a daily grind to my life that makes me so much more grateful when I walk out on stage for my job. For an opportunity to play music. To be accountable to my society. To travel. To.. I feel like I’ve gotten back, in that sense.. To the very young me. To the twenty year old.. Eager.. Thrilled to just be alive, version of me.
And that kind of feels good.
Having gone from being a one woman show to a situation where you’ve fully evolved the initial premise of your own independent label.. You’ve signed and you’re developing a full roster of musicians.. How much of your day-to-day is taken up by that? How involved are you with the artists you’ve chosen to work with and what they output? What is your role? Are you producing? Do you manage their careers? Or are you just basically providing moral support? How does that work for you?
Each relationship with each of the artists that have come in under the Righteous Babe umbrella is different, you know? Some of them, I intersect with them out there in the world.. I think they’re cool, but they’ve got no support mechanism behind them. So they just hand us a finished record and we try to help promote it with their touring.. And you know, others I’m there every moment. I help make the record. I have them on tour with me as an opening act to try and expose them to my audience. And the relationships there are much closer and more intimate. They come in all different forms, really.
We’ve gotten into all so many different things over the years.. Like.. We bought a cathedral in Buffalo and renovated it into performance spaces. I mean, talk about a huge sort of energy and money drain that’s.. You know? Got really nothing to do with me and my music. (Laughs) But it’s just another way to try and turn around the profits of what I’ve done and reinvest them into my hometown. And blah blah blah.
But yeah, there’s all kinds of different ways that my energy goes — it’s not just making songs.
With the new album you worked with a legendary producer, Tchad Blake? He’s recorded some pretty huge bands, the kind which I wouldn’t immediately associate with your sound: Pearl Jam. The Black Keys. U2. How did you two end up working together? And what did he bring to the table for you?
Oh man.. He brought so much. I’ve been a huge fan of his since forever. I mean.. You remember a band called Soul Coughing.. By any chance? Mike Doughty, he fronted that band — he and I go way back to when we were both eighteen or nineteen. Tchad mixed down one of their albums. And then he’s worked with the Latin Playboys. Tom Waits, who I of course love. And I’ve just been the biggest fan of Tchad’s work for decades. Of his sound and sensibility in the studio.
And for the first time.. This is my twentieth record and I thought.. Maybe this time I should get somebody other than me to mix it. I’ve always just done shit myself. Not so much as a control freak sort of thing, but because I didn’t know any ace producers. And it’s just not my instincts to.. You know.. “Call in the experts.” It’s more in my personality to just.. Do it. Get it done. You know? Whatever.
“Nobody else is going to do it if I don’t.. It needs to be done. So just do it yourself.” Right?
Exactly! You know.. I was an emancipated teen. I think I’ve had this long standing survival skill of.. You just take care of it yourself. And I think I carried that sense almost too far.
I was out on my own at fifteen and I totally get what you mean. Almost like, you don’t know how to ask for help because you learned early on not to depend on others if you wanted to actually.. You know.. Do something?
Yes! Yes! So.. Finally.. I was just.. “Maybe I can just call Tchad Blake. I wonder if he would do this for me.” It had never occurred to me that I could just call someone up like that. And he took the call! And what he brought to it was like.. A revelation to me. Like, wow! That someone can come in after the album is recorded and contribute as much if not more to the creativity of it through the mixing. And.. Myself? I’m not so much the talent on the mix board as Tchad is.. And I’ve also gone through the process of recording my own damn self on the my own songs on the record, so I’m too close to it. I’m not objective at all.
It was so thrilling to have someone so good at what they do come in from outside with fresh ears. Who could bring a new perspective. And at the end I was wowed. Like, “I’ll never go back to doing that all by myself.”
I’ve heard you talk about Binary in interviews and I’ve spent a fair bit of time with the album since it came out.. It seems to me.. I’m not sure I fully understand the title and how you relate to it? So much of your story seems anathema against the base concept of binary choices. Like, at any point that you’re presented with an either/or choice your instinct is to break out for an option not previously presented?
I mean.. The sort of underlying thesis of Binary, both the track and the theme that runs all throughout the record.. It’s not so much that there’s an either/or world.. When I say binary, what I’m trying to get at is that nothing is just one thing. That everything we think of as black and white as distinct opposites.. There’s black and white in me. There’s black and white in you. There’s male and female. There’s relationships of differing or opposing forces within any one thing.. And it’s only with those relationships that any one thing exists.
I think it’s very connected with my feminism. Where I’m more and more looking at the world and seeing it as a panorama of relationships.. That nothing exists in isolation. You know.. It’s interesting to me.. I’m on this whole head trip of my own. I released this record called Binary and people.. It raised hackles in the transgender rights movement.. You know.. “No! Binary is bad!” And I’m like.. Oh man.. That’s not what I meant.. I’m arriving at the same conclusion from the opposite direction, maybe. It’s not that there’s only male or female, it’s that we are each both.. You know? And we have masculine and feminine in each to us.. It may present differently from one person to the next, but it’s fluid and changing.
It.. It sort of didn’t really occur to me that binary is a kind of code word these days. And I stepped in it without meaning to.
I can understand how that happens.. I’m forty-five — just a little bit younger than you. I started out in the late eighties and early nineties, demonstrating against Reagan early on.. And then Bush Senior later. And it all seemed so much less complex back then.. With contemporary social justice.. Um.. Is theory the right word? Sometimes it feels like I’m having trouble keeping up? Things that we never thought to challenge when I was a teenager, that jump out at us now. And sometimes I find myself on the wrong side of an issue until I wind my way through the thinking of it. Do you ever find yourself in a place where you’re struggling to keep current with where you feel you should be in relation to where the fight for social justice is at a given point?
I get kind of pessimistic about the modern climate.. Because of how isolated everyone seems to be getting. Partly because of the gizmos and the technology —
— You shout out to that in the lyrics of the title song to the record.. “In the blue glow of gizmos / lurk despots in diapers / and cyborgs with bullhorns / and crackpots and snipers / like robots so cold / with such ease they dismiss you..” And so on?
That’s how the whole record starts. Yeah.. In a way we’re becoming more tribal instead of less. And isn’t the goal to make everybody “We?” or “Us?” Instead of “Them.” No more “Us’ing or Them’ing!” Let us all be family. We have to figure this out.. In a sense.. It’s like we’re becoming more combative. The people who are obviously in our own tribe.. “We will fight them to the death if they’re not clones of our own way of being..”
It’s almost like we’re accepting less and less difference instead of more and more. I.. It’s hard to know where we will find a sort of traction in these social movements.. It’s a changing paradigm where you and I came up in the Old World and now there’s a whole New World to navigate..
I mean… Yes. I can remember back to ’91.. ’92.. Where I was taking part in a Gay Rights march to support people who were being oppressed for their sexuality.. Who were being punished for daring to be openly non-hetero. And I would watch them in turn struggle with the inclusion of transgender. And at the time.. The very idea of Trans Rights.. How completely alien that was in 1989? And how amazing of a time we find ourselves in now?
It’s changing fast. Which is awesome! I feel like.. The Trans movement.. Gay Rights in general.. But especially in the sort of.. Trans-Insurgency.. There’s a huge amount of momentum in the modern social change movement.. I mean, wow.. All social movements could learn something from how effective and massive the changes have been that have happened in that area.
At the same time.. As an old-school feminist.. I find myself in.. Tricky territory.. You know? Because there’s a lot there to piece apart. I disagree with the idea that gender is just.. How you feel, or something? I recognize that being female.. Just, you know.. Having ovaries.. Comes with a historical, global oppression that you can’t just opt in or out of. And we need to recognize that.
I feel like there’s a very tricky area in this very quickly moving social movement that is dangerously close to misogyny.. To denying, once again, the experience of being female.. Or having a reproductive system as opposed to not having one. That if we need new terms, then let’s find new terms. But let’s not deny that having a reproductive system fundamentally changes your experience. From your core physical biological reality to your social political standing.. We need to not to abandon the work of feminism, because it’s not like we’re in some post-feminist era where men and women are on equal footing..
There’s just.. So much to know and understand.. I just think.. I guess. What I’m trying to do more and more is to be open to each other. To listen to each other.. But I think we have to be okay with those differences and to include each other.. Not exclude each other and fight. I think that’s how we all advance together.
You bring up feminism — And something that’s been hard on my mind this week.. I spent the weekend before last at a wake and the subsequent funeral for the mother of one of my closest friends. I watched her trying to be the emotional support for both her grandmother and her daughter.. The passing of her mom basically severed this straight line of four generations, and having interacting with her and her family over many years..
Knowing all the various slings and arrows that have flown between each of them.. It has me thoughtful about how women in families treat each other — both the damage and the joy that goes back and forth in these complex relationships between these women of different eras through different points of their lives.. And what that says about the cause of gender equality..
You have a daughter now. Has that changed your feelings on what feminism is? Or what it should be?
Well.. Hm.. I mean.. I guess that as I get to this point in my life, I have become more aware that a lot of the quote-unquote anger that was assigned to me by the media or whatever for fucking.. Decades. Shit that came out of the box into the public eye.. A lot of that is my mother’s anger. My mother.. Is one of.. what’s really many generations of lost feminists. My mom..
She was older when she had me. She’s in her mid eighties right now. She was the first female in the Architectural Department at M.I.T. She was in the professional world. As a women. Before there was a lot of place for that. And my Dad, who was ten years older than her.. He’s dead now.. But you know.. An old-school Italian man. So she was also the cook. The house-cleaner. She was supposed to be the main child rear-er. She would come home really late from the office and have to wash all of our clothes by hand.. And she went nuts. She martyred herself.. And she was very angry and resentful.
Of course.. Life throws different stuff at different people. And you have to overcome that.. But I think my mother’s feminist outrage was reborn in me. And I do become aware of that now.. Having kids of my own.. It’s like.. There are.. Lineages.. Of pain. Of anger. Of confidence shit. In some aspect who you are as an individual is your spirit. Your alignment. The energies that manifest in you. But it’s also, a lot of where you come from. And that.. I think some people are even more deeply connected to their ancestry. To their family.. Their people..
I guess I have a heightened awareness of this. I don’t know what it is exactly I’m passing on subliminally to my daughter or my son.. But as soon as she came out of me.. I started really checking myself. I’d say, “What are you, Ani?” Because it doesn’t matter what I say to her.. It matters how I feel. And how I look at the world. I wrote a song almost immediately after she was born.. Where I was like, “I hate the way I look. I hate my face. I’ve always hated my face. I hate my nose..” And now.. Here I have a daughter who has my nose.. Right in the middle of her face. And I’m like.. Wait. What did I just do by saying that.. Okay. “Time to deal with that, Ani.” Because.. What a thing to teach, accidentally.. To your kid.
I think as a parent, myself now.. I certainly become more aware of how we pass on that pain.. The struggle, from generation to generation. And how can we try to heal those things and only pass on the good stuff in our lifetimes.
I have kids.. I have a fifteen year old daughter.. And as a father who tries to be a feminist, I’m constantly finding myself in situations where I’ve just completely screwed up. Something comes out of my mouth and I’m desperately trying to go back and fix things to not have given her that bad old idea. I’m still to this day, terrified that I’m a parent. Like.. You know? “Who in the world thought this was a good idea.” Do you ever feel that way, sometimes?
Oh yeah.. Oh yeah.. I mean.. I guess all parents… I mean.. It’s probably a good sign. If you’re in that boat where you’re like, “I.. Uh.. I don’t know what I’m doing. Somebody help me!!” (Laughs) To create a strong, happy, healthy human being.. You know.. Sometimes I look at my son.. He’s four now. He’s very much super cut from my cloth.. And I look at him and I’m like.. Hey! Relax. Calm down. Sleep. And I think to myself, “Yeah.. Right. Like I know how to do any of those things.”
It’s like.. Wow. How do you teach somebody to be better than you are? Or more successful? Or more at peace.. That’s the beauty of being a parent, I guess.. We have to parent ourselves in order to be the example.
I mean.. You’ve had some pretty amazing mentors. Some of whom aren’t with us anymore. Pete Seeger. Sekou Sundiata. Utah Phillips. If they were around now? Given the situation we find ourselves in with the country.. Do you think they’d have any advice for us on how to get out of it?
Oh.. Yeah.. Sure. And I long to have them to talk to.. In this modern world.. Some of my biggest spiritual comrades and guides have moved on. Utah, in particular.. You know.. A non-voter. He was a very funny, very well informed anarchist —
— He did not consent to be governed.
Yeah. Right?? (Laughs) But I wonder if he’d look around himself in this political moment and think to himself.. I wonder what he would say. If he would evolve to meet this moment.. And Pete, too. I think Pete more than anybody I’ve met.. He was one of the very few people I’ve encountered who was just kind of.. You know.. I think, Buddha-like. And I think his.. His method was to deliver wisdom really sort of energetically. Everywhere he walked. I can still feel him walking.. Beside me. Beside us all. Saying, you know.. “Just stop. Hold Hands. Sing to each other. Look at each other and remember. Remember where you came from. Trying to make change.” Or trying.. Anything.. Whatever you’re trying to do. It’s for each other. We have nothing without each other. He had that really compassionate energy that he carried everywhere he went. In a really, primary way. I think.. I wish we had their voices. But it’s our turn. And we’ve got to try and be those voices now.
What haven’t you done that you really want to do? If you could drop everything and just go do this thing you haven’t had an opportunity to do yet? What would that be?
Well.. I’m.. I’m not sure this is an exactly accurate answer.. But one thing I’m trying to do now that I’ve never done is trying to write a book. I guess..
A prose book? You.. You put a poetry book out a ways back, no?
Yes. I did do a poetry book.. A compilation. But this would be prose. A new creative challenge. A memoir. Non-fiction, just writing about the journey in a different way from the songs. And it is really a totally different writing experience. And it’s been a steep learning curve. And I’m terrified. But I’m.. Welcoming the challenge of doing a new thing.
I hope it will have half of.. Some measure of the value that the songs seem to have had for people.. I don’t know.. I’m just trying to stay in the process and not worry so much about how this will be useful or liked. Or whatever.. Cause I certainly didn’t think that way when I was writing the songs.
And I guess they turned out to be at least a little bit useful in the world?
. . .
Check back on the 1st of October for photos and a review of Ms DiFranco’s concert.