Ani DiFranco with Gracie and Rachel
The Englert — Wednesday, Feb. 21 at 8 p.m.
With the release of her 20th studio album, Binary (2017), singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco brought a few new politically-prescient, strongly feminist songs into the world, but with a softer side than some of the frenetic albums from earlier in her career.
DiFranco, who started performing in bars at age 9, released her self-titled debut album on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, in 1990 when she was 20. Since then, between tours and album production, she’s been an outspoken activist for causes including workers’ rights and voter turnout. She’s published poetry, turned an historic church in her hometown of Buffalo, New York into an events venue and championed the careers of fellow artists like Anaïs Mitchell and Andrew Bird.
“I started out on my own and I’m still kind of on my own, inventing my job as I go and trying to guide myself through this life and this world according to my ideology and my vision,” the artist said in an interview with Little Village ahead of her Feb. 21 performance at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre.
“I was thrust into this world early on, on my own as an emancipated teenager. And I had to kind of just figure it out. But now,” she added, laughing, “in my old age, my main desire is community and company and comrades. I realized afterward that I did it by myself longer than I needed to. And now I’m like, geez, fuck that.”
Over the course of her career, DiFranco’s dynamic sound and genre-bending style have backed pointed lyrics about (and this is not an exhaustive list) politics, feminism, sexuality, motherhood and her own personal life. DiFranco said she has “an aversion to the familiar, to the expected.”
“I just don’t want to keep writing the same song over and over again,” she said. “Even the same song, I don’t want to play it the same way. I want to play it from the me that I am now, not the me that I was when I wrote it. I want to change up the set list, and I want to be new in every moment. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, because I think all artists are trying to rekindle that sense of wonder, that inspiration to create something new.”
She said she challenges herself to approach the writing process in different ways, but added that many of the shifts in her music over the years have happened naturally, with each album coming from a distinct time and place.
“I find that, from year to year in my life, I’m in a different place. There are different people around me, or there’s a different idea in the air, so they just sort of naturally get realized in a different way,” she said. “I’m just following the moment, really, and the moment is always shifting around me.”
In addition to hinting about upcoming changes to update her record label in the rapidly changing music industry, DiFranco, a mom to two kids with husband and producer Mike Napolitano, is currently writing a memoir.
“I’m really hoping that you can make a whole book in stolen moments,” she said. “I’ve got 78,000 words, and I really have no idea what they are or what the big picture is, or what I am actually trying to create. I sit down and go bang, bang, bang, bang, and I have three sentences — and then a kid walks up. I feel like I have yet to know if I’m really doing it or not, but I’ve been doing it in bits and spurts for a year.”
Although Binary was written before the 2016 election, many of the songs could have been written about the political chaos today. The same could be said of her songs from over a decade ago.
“In some sense, things are grotesquely on repeat in this country so unaware of its own history, let alone the bigger picture,” she said. “I find myself pulling out songs from 15, 20 years ago that I could have written tomorrow. And it’s like, holy fuck, this is not a good feeling that I have the perfect song from 20 years ago. I thought the gun violence was at an untenable level then.”
But she also credited the state of omniscience that art and music can tap into.
“We know things deep inside ourselves that are of the future as well as the past, because it’s more complicated than that,” she said. “When songwriting is good, for me, it comes from that place that is really beyond my own mind in any moment.”
DiFranco said she’s determined to see the current discord as a kind of necessary pain to unite people and spur into action those who were previously apolitical or passive.
“I have to believe that we can transform this moment,” she said. “That when we get pushed so far in the wrong direction, we react … We’re going to keep going in the right direction, and we’re going to organize ourselves despite the lack of leadership from the top. Those kinds of things are happening on many levels and could make this our transcendent moment. There’s a lot of wise people who look at the Cheeto and see him as the shadow side of our awakening, and that’s what I’ve got to believe too.”
The Righteous Babe website includes a Resistance section, with links to activist organizations, information about protests and boycotts and voter registration and education — something she has promoted with frequent calls to “Vote, Dammit,” including a 2016 tour by that name.
“I could talk about voting every day of my life until I’m dead and still my work would not be done,” she said. “The more we insist on exercising our right to vote, the more possible it will become, the more actual our democracy will be, the more representative our government will be. We can make those incremental changes for all the systemic changes that need to happen, but first we have to start voting.”
Still, DiFranco continues to be cited as a feminist icon and a queer icon, including a recent article by songwriter Justin Tranter celebrating her use of same-sex pronouns for Billboard’s 30 Days of Pride last year.
DiFranco said comments from those who have been positively impacted by her music blow her mind.
“Those moments are what really give my life meaning. And I go, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what the hell I’ve been doing all these years, but it was not for naught, because look at that beautiful person,’” she said. “My self-love works in that way. I pour love into somebody else and they pour it into me, and then I’m loved. Then I’m happy. I can’t really do any of it on my own. That’s my new realization.”
Lauren Shotwell has been pestered by certain Little Village staff to include a picture of her high school self — braces, awkward hairstyle and all — at a DiFranco concert. No one needs to see that. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.