An Interview with Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco is a singer-songwriter and political rabble-rouser who began plying her trade as a strong-willed folkie in a Buffalo, New York, bar called Nietzsche’s. She runs her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which was a model of D.I.Y. media long before major labels started doing the dinosaur. When Prince had his notorious falling out with Warner Brothers Records in the nineties, it was DiFranco’s business model he cited as an inspiration to jump ship. (And much to her amazement, they’d go on to record together.) Back then, she’d occasionally turn up on the covers of glossy magazines. But as a kinetic human, she was never too comfortable being reduced to other people’s sentences (doubtless these included). When Ms. magazine—surely a more empathetic observer than most—profiled her in their twenty-fifth-anniversary issue as primarily an entrepreneurial pioneer, she took exception in a gently corrective letter to the editor, which concluded:
Thanks for including me, Ms., really. But just promise me one thing; if I drop dead tomorrow, tell me my gravestone won’t read:
Please let it read:
Of late she’s kept a low media profile, touring relentlessly and internationally, filling places like Carnegie Hall, selling modest numbers of records by her and other fellow musical travelers. She remains an activist. In the days after the September 11 attacks, when songwriters were channeling empathy, she wrote (and later recorded for the live LP So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter) a long-form poem called “Self-Evident” that announced “it’s time to get our government to pull its big dick out of the sand of someone else’s desert.” Recently she devoted time and energy, alongside Willie Nelson and others, to the presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich.
We spoke for about an hour this past winter before her concert at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York—also home of Vassar College, a progressive women’s school which provided her with her first big performance paycheck once upon a time. In a concrete-walled “green room,” barren but for a single sixteen-ounce plastic bottle of mineral water, DiFranco perched on the edge of a curveless couch. She periodically tucked her unraveling dreadlocks behind her ears while speaking; her Celtic-looking collarbone tattoo peeked from the zippered collar of her ribbed polo shirt like a necklace. Later that night, she had a thousand-plus people screaming as she recited poetry. It was an encouraging sight.
We spoke again this spring by phone while DiFranco was on tour in Anchorage, Alaska. She has a new album titled Educated Guess. On it, following a spell leading a jazz-funk band with samba tendencies, she returns to being a folkie, a solitary girl with an acoustic guitar. Just louder than most.
I. “I COULD HEAR SOBBING FROM THE THIRD BALCONY.”
THE BELIEVER: I thought your poem “Self-Evident” was very powerful and very brave. I wanted to ask you to talk about the writing process for that. I heard that it sort of came together from performance to performance.
ANI DiFRANCO: Well, yeah—only because I was on tour, like I always am. I just happened to be in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, so I was close enough to smell it. I was in midtown, so, you know, I was safe there. But I started writing that day. It started that day, you know, just reacting, as we all were, just dizzyingly. And then I hit the road a week later… The audiences were a little more scarce for the first two weeks of that tour.
BLVR: Did you question whether going on tour was a good idea?
AD: No, no, I didn’t. But there I was every night, and it’s hard to play “Oh, baby, baby, baby” when you’re standing in a roomful of people all thinking about something else. So I was on stage every night addressing it, because it was in everybody’s hearts and minds. I wanted to do so in a thoughtful way. It’s hard to just speak off the cuff and have useful things to say. So I just started writing and writing and writing and trying to speak to it purposefully. It took, I don’t know, maybe a month of pounding it out. And I began performing it before it was done just because the time was nigh and I was still swimming in it… It was called “Work in Progress” for the longest time onstage because it was just sort of writing itself over the course of many performances.
BLVR: How did people respond to it? A lot of musicians responded to the event in politically vague ways. But “Self-Evident” isn’t vague at all. How did people relate to your words?
AD: Vehemently. They just reacted ecstatically most of the time. Especially back at that time, people were just so hungry to hear something other than the propaganda that we were, and still are, being saturated with. The response—it was overwhelming. I had a really profound experience where I performed that poem at Carnegie Hall. I’ve played twice at Carnegie Hall so far.
BLVR: It was a solo show?
AD: Yes. Once was April 2001, and the second time was April 2002. So the degree to which the city had changed, our lives, our expectations, our ideas of our world, our country, me, in that year was so great. So when I came back the second time to Carnegie it was my first New York show since the buildings fell and like I said, there was just such a transformation since the last time I was in that room. I launched into the poem with out thinking too much about who was in that room or who they might have lost that day.What was I dumping on people who were right there? I could hear sobbing from the third balcony halfway through. It was just so emotional. I think maybe it’s the most profound experience I’ve had on stage yet, that particular evening.
BLVR: Have you played it abroad?
AD: Yes, although the language barrier thing prevents me from kind of rambling on in English in too many places in the world. I actually did this last anniversary of September 11. I was playing in Germany somewhere and I laid it on them in my best English with a German accent. Another time I did it in Australia. In both the show in Germany and at the one in Australia I got heckling; it started during that poem. In Germany there was this woman who just started responding negatively. I don’t even know what she was saying but she wouldn’t let up.
BLVR: What was she going on about?
AD:Well, she was speaking in German, so I don’t know, but she was not impressed with my sentiments. And in Australia someone started yelling, “Bullshit! Bullshit!” I can’t even remember what the idea was that set them off, but then someone else started yelling back and it became sort of like a public execution there in Sydney.
BLVR: But you escaped.
AD: Yeah. It’s never easy to do that poem but I always learn so much from putting something like that out in front of people.
BLVR: Why do political stuff?
AD: I just feel so urgent about all the bad things that are going down around me. I just feel like they’re my problems. I have led a pretty comfortable, privileged life, but I have witnessed so much that needs changing… I see my microphone as an opportunity. The responsibility is inherently all of ours, no matter what our vocation— the responsibility to answer to what’s going on.
BLVR: You’ve always done that in your work. But in the last two years, things seem to have changed an awful lot. I think about the Dixie Chicks’ making a casual remark onstage that suddenly became a big deal.
AD: I’m just really glad that I started running off at the mouth really young [laughs]. At this point, people have been coming down on me since the very beginning for saying whatever it is I’m on about, so the fear is gone for me. I don’t have to worry about protecting the ears of my radio listeners or my audience because I’ve eliminated myself from that kind of major-music-industry game, and all the benefits, and the pressures to conform and behave. I’m very free. I’ve insisted upon it since the beginning. If anything, in this political climate I just feel more appreciated than ever, whereas other people are feeling like they have their hands tied. For me,what really hurts my heart are the apologies, the rescinding of benign statements even, because of societal pressure. I think that basically political change begins with societal change, which involves self-sacrifice to a degree and willingness to put yourself in the hot seat, lose your job, lose a couple of radio spins, whatever. There are more important things. But it has done the opposite for me, you know, I’ve made friends through saying all that shit. More friends than I ever expected. I’m out there making noise and there’s certainly—it sounds kind of grandiose, but just the act of speaking up, while it does endanger one’s comfort, in the long run, it’s made me a much happier, more affirmed, respected, appreciated person.
BLVR: When you’re traveling abroad, do you feel as an American—
AD: Do I feel like an asshole? Yeah. But again, my m.o. is one of protest singer. I find myself in that awkward position of each interviewer in each country asking, “What does it feel like to be the last dissenting American?” I find myself saying over and over again, “No, there are lots of us. You don’t see them because they don’t turn the cameras that way.” There’s so much work being done and there’s so much progressive energy in the United States.
II. “I DON’T GENERALLY WRITE SINGALONGS, BUT WHO KNOWS?”
BLVR: You’ve been working with Dennis Kucinich. What do you like about him?
AD: He showed up at one of my shows out in Seattle, and I just like him. He seems like one of us, which I’ve never felt about a politician.
BLVR: You were working with Nader last election.
AD: Yeah, I played at one of his rallies because he called me up. I love that—the activist spirit, that kind of, “If you want to get her to come, call her up!” It works. But that was a real struggle for me, the Nader campaign. Because I felt very strongly about voting against Bush as a priority. So I showed up at that rally in New York, but I came with a prepared press statement saying I think in the swing states people should vote for Gore and my support of Nader is not—well, I was anticipating, as many people were, Nader de facto helping to hand it over to the Republicans again.And I think that that was unwise, to push that as far as he did. Again, I felt a sense of disconnection there, one that I don’t feel with Kucinich. Can he actually be president? I think that kind of thing takes not just grass-roots word-spreading. If people knew his name and what he said and what his platform and stances on various issues were. It feels to me like the media has decided a lot of things for us, like Kucinich is not going to win. I think it’s beyond the power of the American people to rise completely above that force now.
BLVR: But now that Kucinich has pretty much dropped out…
AD: No, sir! He’s still in the race. If you’re looking at the mainstream media you wouldn’t know he existed, of course. But he very much exists, and he is poised to possibly win the Oregon primary. I actually just hooked up with him in Portland—he spoke at another one of my shows.
BLVR: He spoke before you played?
AD: Yeah, and he hung out for the show, and we were hanging out afterwards. His plan is to run through the Democratic primary—and of course, it will go to Kerry because the media has dictated it—and then he’ll lend his support to Kerry, ousting Bush being the priority of any thinking, awake human in this country. In the meantime,he hopes to push the Democratic platform to a more progressive place.
BLVR: What do feel your role will be in that department?
AD: Well, first thing is to get up off my ass on voting day and go vote for probably Kerry, which will be the lesser of, y’know, dot dot dot. Beyond that I plan to continue supporting Dennis. We were batting around all kinds of ideas—we were actually talking about a swing-state tour together, in time for voter registration, literally go to swing states and try to register as many voters as possible. Sort of combine politics and music as I like to do.We talked about writing something together. Maybe a song we could sing together—a singable song for people! I don’t generally write singalongs, but who knows?
III. “SWEET LITTLE WHITE GIRL”
BLVR: How do you take care of your dreads?
AD: I sleep fitfully—that’s how.
BLVR: So you twist them by just sort of tossing and turning on the pillow?
AD: The most recent incarnation is really about the laissez-faire attitude, you know, I don’t have to do anything. The whole shaving and dyeing bright colors… I would love to have bright green hair, but I don’t have the energy.
BLVR: Right.You were doing it for quite a while.
AD: I was, thank you very much! I try to make the world a more colorful place if I can. But now, this is just an effortless way of indicating outwardly that I am not with the status quo. It just makes me more comfortable as I move through the world. I like to be in an airport surrounded by businesspeople and clearly not be one.
BLVR: To have them know that you’re a freak?
AD: Yeah, and take off some of the clothes of privilege that I was born into in this society.You know, sweet little white girl. If I had regular hair, things would be a lot simpler, and all those businessmen would be a lot friendlier. But that wouldn’t feel right to me, because I think hair is just such an easy way to make a statement about who you are in community with. Is that enough about hair?
IV. “FUCK, WHERE’S MY COPY OF THE CONSTITUTION?”
BLVR: So your record label, Righteous Babe, is how old now?
AD: We’re actually fourteen years old. Yeah, 1990.
BLVR: It became, and has remained, a sort of model for people trying to do things outside of the major-label system, and now there’s a pretty huge backlash by artists against that system. Has it become easier or harder to do business as an indie?
BLVR: Why harder? I’d think that maybe the system is changing because so many more people are doing things independently.
AD: The Internet was a big tool handed to the independents, in terms of getting information and music out there. On the other hand, 20 percent of record stores in the United States closed last year, and probably an inordinate number of those were indie.
BLVR: The cool little mom-and-pop stores.
AD: Yeah, they’re gone, they can’t compete. The majors and the multinationals and the chain stores, they’re just undercutting them. It’s happening on all levels of the music industry. Like touring, for instance. I use independent promoters, but it’s becoming much harder. These places that I play are owned by Clear Channel now.And now it’s like,you don’t have to use [Clear Channel–owned promotion companies], but the rent just quadruples— your choice. I’m locked out of lots of venues that used to be available for independent promoters to put on shows.
BLVR: Have you worked with Clear Channel?
AD: Sometimes I have to. You know, you’re driving down the highway, you need a cup of coffee, you walk into McDonald’s sometimes…They own fucking everything now, so it’s very hard to really exist and survive without them at all.
BLVR: Have you had any run-ins with them? I remember hearing something about a show in New Jersey…
AD: Yeah. It was a Clear Channel–owned venue in Jersey. There were folks in the lobby doing political tabling, which there often are at my shows—I open up that space to various political organizations. One of them that evening was this antiwar group Not in Our Name. They were in the lobby distributing information on how you can get involved in pacifist activities,and the venue manager said that they couldn’t be there.We were like fuck, where’s my copy of the constitution? Can you do that? Heidi, who sells my merchandise, was out there. So we said, fine, they won’t have their own table, they’ll just set up at her table. And they were like,“No, you can’t do that, either.” So it was an hour before show time, and it became this game of chicken… They were going to shut down the show.
AD: They didn’t.
BLVR: What happened?
AD: I fucking paraded three people out onto the stage before me to speak against Bush and against the war and against the military campaign in Iraq. The power of a room with three thousand people who want to see a show as compared to the power of the venue manager—there’s no comparison. So of course the show happened. All we had to say was,“No, we’re not going to do what you say.” It was like that run-in I had with Letterman where they said,“No, you can’t play that song”…
BLVR: When was that again?
AD: A year or two ago? They didn’t want me to play a song I wrote called “Subdivision,” a political tune, and they came up with all kinds of reasons why they didn’t want it, other than the content.
BLVR:“Um, it’s in E flat and…”
AD: “And E-flat on a Tuesday night doesn’t work.” Yeah. So I said “I won’t play, then,” which I think was a bit shocking for them.“What? You won’t go up on the TV and get all your exposure? And we have to scramble to get somebody for tomorrow night?” I think I’m blacklisted now by that show.
BLVR: Did you think about playing another song, some other way to use that airtime?
AD: I think it was the political nature of the song that rubbed them the wrong way, and to play a less political song—I just didn’t consider that. I’m not a superpowerful person, but I don’t underestimate the power that I do have.A lot of other people might feel that they have to [make concessions] for their career or in order to not burn bridges or—
BLVR: —to pay back record-company advances.
AD: Yeah. But you don’t have to. It all sort of depends on your priorities and on your perception of your own strength. People are not in touch with the power that they do have. Even a simple act like voting. An incredibly powerful thing, a vote—but we don’t use it, we don’t use that power. We don’t even really know we have it. But boy, the change we could make if we did exercise it. Even my own mother, who I love dearly, and who taught me to not underestimate my own power, she was saying to me a few years ago, “I’m just so glad you’re out there saying these things because I can’t in my work.There are a lot of people at the gallery who are Republicans or conservatives.” And I’m thinking, “You’re my mother?”
BLVR: The gallery?
AD: Yeah, she works at an art gallery. And even though she feels as though she’s a very liberal person, she feels she can’t give voice to that in her work, for fear of… what? I don’t know. Making someone uncomfortable? Why? I think even the lessons we teach other people sometimes we forget ourselves. I think, sure you can speak up at work. She wouldn’t get fired. Even if she did get fired, there’s other jobs. If you get fired from one job for doing the right thing and saying the truth, my experience is that someone will come from the other direction and say,“ Hey! We need you.”
BLVR:“We kind of like people who tell the truth.”
AD: Yeah. First of all, you were in the wrong job to begin with. If you can’t exercise your freedom of speech or don’t feel that you can, then maybe it’s time to get yourself fired and go somewhere where you can do your work on the planet. Don’t get me started!