Out on a limb
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2012 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
Whether listeners find Ani DiFranco’s work confrontational or comforting is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The singer-songwriter has made a career of combining razor-sharp critiques of societal injustice and inequality with an expansive folk-rock outlook. Feminism, racism, poverty, and reproductive rights are just a few of the topics she explores within the incisive lyrics of her new album Which Side Are You On? Musically, the record infuses pop, funk, soul, and ambient influences, not to mention a marching band, into her borderless sound. A stellar cast of musicians is also onboard to help DiFranco tell her provocative stories, including folk legend Pete Seeger, Ivan and Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, guitarist Adam Levy, and avant-saxophonist Skerik.
Prolific doesn’t even begin to describe DiFranco’s output. Which Side Are You On? is her seventeenth album in 22 years. She established her signature guitar style on her 1990 self-titled debut release and has continued honing it ever since. DiFranco takes an aggressive, percussive approach to her instrument, employing snapping, popping, thrashing, hammer-ons, and pull-offs as vehicles to help get her equally intense messages across. DiFranco is a big Alvarez fan, with the majority of her live rig comprised of its instruments. Her current Alvarez guitars of choice include two Yairi WY1 Bob Weir signature acoustic electrics, a Yairi DY62C, a MSD1 short-scale dreadnought, and a custom baritone.
You’re more enthusiastic about this album than other recent releases. What makes it stand out for you?
I really think it’s a good record. I spent three years working on it, as opposed to my usual three minutes. [laughs] There’s nothing like getting a little bit of perspective before release date. That’s much more pleasurable and useful than getting it after release date. My new revelation is “Think first. Then release record.” [laughs] So, taking my time means I can get things right more often. I’ve made records very quickly in the past, which can be cool if you’re in the right situation, with the right group of people in the right moment. But that wasn’t always the case. Also, in the past, when recording, once the microphones are set up and I play a song, I might just say “Okay, there’s the song. Now what should we do to it?” This time around, the I said “Let’s step back and wait a lot. Go focus on your kid.” Then, when I’d pick up the recordings again, I’d go “Wait, that’s too slow or that’s too X, Y or Z.” I’d sometimes go back and start over. The other big factor on this new album is my husband, Mike Napolitano, was part of the process. He’s a much better producer than I am. His perspective factored heavily into the production and success of the record. Sometimes he would stop the process and say something like “I think we can get a better guitar tone than that.” There was more refining this time out.
You've said this album was informed by a feeling of “political desperation.” Elaborate on that.
I’ve been feeling that my whole life. There has always been plenty to be worried about. There are a lot of political ideas on this record. I talk about the dead end of fossil fuels we’re on in “J.” And on “Amendment," I talk about women’s civil rights and finally getting our heads around that. We need to stand behind them in this society so we can move on, and not use them as a device to pit one worker against another.
“Amendment” is one of your career highlights. Describe the challenge of transforming charged perspectives on women’s rights into something that’s also very musical.
I’ve had a few conversations in the last few years with younger artists I admire. I guess the situation was mutual. I was hearing from younger people who listened to me coming up that my work emboldened them in some way. They thanked me for my “go-out-on-a-limb-itude” and my push-the-envelope nature. So, I started thinking about the role that I play and the fact that my music is not for everybody. It’s somewhere out in the fringe pushing boundaries. So, okay, that’s one of my roles. I was becoming more conscious of that and the question came up of “Well, how far can I go with this? How political and far out on a limb can I go before it breaks and I perish?” [laughs] “Can I sing the word abortion?” And I didn’t mean can I just get away with it, because I’ve written songs about abortion before. On my first record, I wrote about my own abortion when I was 18. I wasn’t just trying to “get away” with something, but connect with people, and not just those in my own tribe, but maybe people with different opinions. I worked forever on “Amendment.” I was refining, refining, refining the words to communicate something about a very taboo subject. It’s a very hot button issue. When I was writing, I pictured my sister-in-law who’s a conservative Fox News-watching Republican. I love her and we have very interesting political conversations. But of course, we’re coming from very different perspectives. I was really trying to sing to her with this song and reach out and communicate my ideas about this subject.
Tell me about what informed the perspective you describe in “Promiscuity.”
I wish I had that perspective when I was 18-19 years-old and lived by it. “Promiscuity” is very much a song about looking back at my youth. I’m now 41. Looking back, if I had accepted who I was and what I wanted and had been upfront about it, the whole thing would have been so much cooler. Instead, I got sucked into possessive love, time and time again. As soon as you fuck somebody, there’s some kind of weight of possession or expectation. In order to stay promiscuous, curious and free, you have to work very hard to counteract the pressure of society towards possession. I wasn’t strong enough to do that along the way, so I ended up doing what a lot of people do, which is weasel around to get what you want, without being honest about it.
You mentioned your first, self-titled album from 1990. Assess the distance traveled as a songwriter and a guitarist since then.
I don’t look back too much. I’m certainly not pulling my old records out and listening to them wondering about who that person was that made them. That person is long gone—as it is for any 41-year-old thinking about his or her 18-year-old self. I do stand by some of her songs, still. I think out of the gate, I had the ability to write a good song. I didn’t always write them along the way. I did sometimes and I didn’t other times. I think what I’ve improved a lot at isn’t so much my writing, but my editing. Now, when I write something that isn’t good enough or fully formed, I have the patience to sit with it and keep working on it. Before, it would just come out. Whether it was solid or not, it was going to go get recorded and put into the world for others to judge. [laughs]
I think of the guitar playing in the same way. I had my basic character, shapes and forms at the beginning. I had my underlying guitar style that I was already developing. I was always pulling, snapping and attacking strings from the beginning. Now, I think there are many more shades of gray and I can express more subtle things now. Also, when great players pick up their instruments, they start talking to you through them and you can hear what they’re saying. Sometimes, my playing is like that. Some nights, I stand onstage and feel like everything I have to tell you, my hands are saying, and my head is singing along. Other nights, it’s just okay. Maybe my voice is coming through my mouth, but my hands are feeling clumsy or lost. But I now know more intimately the feeling of my hands being directly connected to my soul. That’s something that comes through the process of spending your life with an instrument.
You’re touring solo for the first time since 2003. What are the opportunities and challenges that creates for you?
It’s really fun playing solo. It feels free. I can take a left turn at Albuquerque and not worry about thwarting my fellow musicians. I definitely notice that I get more into folksinger mode. I’ll tell stories and hang out with the audience more. When there are other musicians, it feels awkward to go on a rambling story. I don’t know why, but the dynamic is different. When you’re solo, you're one with the the audience. There’s more intimacy because you don’t have other great musicians to pick up the slack. You also have to make things that much more interesting on your own, which involves bringing in levels of talking, sharing and pacing. I love that intimacy with the audience. I feel like it puts us in a more revealing place, but it’s also more exhausting emotionally. It’s a lot easier to stand on stage with a bunch of other people and just jam, then it is to create it all yourself.
I’ve been playing solo in a lot of big clubs lately where the whole audience is standing. You have to keep the energy kind of rocking to make it feel right. As an audience member, your feet start to hurt if things are too low key and you’re standing all night. So, that’s kind of a pressure there—the sort of spleen you have to put into it to rock a room like that solo is that much more fierce than when you’ve got a rhythm section behind you.
You went from solo to duos, trios, quartets, into a big band and back again to solo. Describe the motivation between the expansion and contraction of your performance environment.
I’m interested in exploring, like any other curious person. Like you say, I’ve explored many different types of band and performing environments and each has its thrills and drawbacks. The great thing about working with a lot of musicians is having a group of friends around me—a community sharing music with each other. When I had a big band, every time we showed up at the beginning of a tour, everyone brought their favorite new records with them. So, we exposed each other to stuff and influenced one another. I really loved that sense of community. But in terms of my relationship with my art, I can get a little lost, because I am such a sponge and so influenceable. Sometimes I get off track with my work and I have to check back in with my solo self to get my music-making grounded again. So, both situations are cool.
Is there an economic factor at work as well?
Oh yeah, definitely. That’s kind of a big factor with this return to solo work. I’ve downscaled my crew radically. Like everybody, I’m feeling the pinch, so I’m devising ways of being more streamlined. So, getting back to solo performance for a little while here made economic sense, especially because I’m not trying to tour too much. I have a five-year-old and I’m trying to stay home and be there for her. So, when I do go out, it makes sense to not be feeding so many mouths that I don’t take home any pay.
You have tenor, baritone and standard guitars in your arsenal. How does the type of guitar you use influence the songwriting process?
Everything comes from the instrument. These are instruments I had in my house. I’d pick them up and write songs on them and the types of songs that come out of a tenor guitar are very different from those that come out of a baritone. The instrument you play has a voice. A tenor guitar has a much higher, mid-range voice with a lot more twang. A baritone guitar has a big, full, rich voice, with a lot more luxuriousness to it. When you write on an instrument, you’re engaging in a kind of dialog. Your voice and the voice of the instrument are collaborating and harmonizing. A much different thing will come out depending what the instrument is talking about and what you’re talking about with your voice. I have many other instruments at home too. At some point I say things to myself like “Do not write on that ukulele!” [laughs] I can’t afford to bring any more stuff around with me when I tour. So, I try to stick with the baritone, tenor and regular old six-string acoustic guitars when I’m writing.
What motivated you to pursue a custom baritone guitar with Alvarez?
A lot of my live sound and really, my entire take on acoustic guitar, is about dampening the high end and taking away all of that scratchy, tinny stuff. And if I’m playing through a magnetic pickup, I’m trying to get away from that ugly magnetic sound by emphasizing the low end. A lot of that comes from playing solo and being my own rhythm section in which I’m trying to get a bass line and a sort of drum thump out of the guitars. With baritone guitars I used previously, I was looking for even more of that big booty sound and I wasn’t getting it. I kept searching for the right baritone.
Alvarez has been a great, supportive company for me over the years. I played one of their off-the-rack baritones and then tried another. They required too much EQ-ing to get them how I wanted them to sound. Alvarez then attempted to make me a custom baritone, when I erroneously thought that having a bigger body meant more resonance. It was deeper, so it stuck off my body more. We also made the neck longer. The whole thing was like an oversized Alvarez WY-1 and didn’t quite get there. It wasn’t bigger and fuller sounding. Then I started coming across all these little parlor guitars, like old Martins. They’re beautiful, tiny, glorious guitars with such warm, rich sounds. I realized “Okay, maybe bigger doesn’t mean warmer. Maybe there’s something more to it.” So, I started to dialog with Alvarez about how we could get a meatier, fatter sound that’s less tinny-sounding. They eventually built me the great baritone I use today, which is the best one I’ve ever played in terms of achieving that kind of sound.
You currently use 53 different tunings. How did you arrive at such a large tuning library?
Fifty-three tunings isn’t that many if you think in terms of hundreds of songs written. I’ve written so many damn songs that it’s ridiculous. When I discovered the world of the open tuning, I thought “This is a vast territory that I could explore forever and never get bored in, so why not?” So, I started messing with the strings. I don’t know the notes half the time, but know the sounds and relationships by ear.
I understand that it’s a lot of work to get from standard tuning to some crazy-ass tuning onstage. So, I try to write two-to-four songs in one tuning or tuning family. That way, if I was asking my guitar tech to go to one of those crazy tunings, we could at least stay there for a few songs. I work my set list very much around the open tunings, so it’s not an insane back and forth thing. Having said all of that, I’ve been playing a few shows on my own in New Orleans where I live. I’m trying to get back to basics and prove that I can show up at a bar with a couple of guitars and an amp and play a show by myself. I’ve been thinking “What if I can’t always afford a guitar tech?” So, I’ve also been writing more in standard tuning lately, with the idea of self-sufficiency in mind.
How do you communicate altered tunings to your guitar tech, Jason Kendall?
If I have a new song, I’ll show up to soundcheck on the first day of a tour and put it into that tuning. Then I’ll rehearse the tune and hand the guitar to Jason. I’ll say “Here’s the tuning for this song, whatever those notes are.” [laughs] He’ll figure it out, write it down and get the guitar back into that tuning every time I need it. He’s awesome. Jason really loves a challenge and finds it interesting. He doesn’t consider it work to go back and forth to try and figure out these crazy tunings.
You use a 1957 Magnatone Twilighter 260 2x12 combo amp on the new album and tour. What’s appealing about it for you?
My husband Mike, who co-produced the album, is educating me about the world of guitar amps. All of this has been quite foreign to little acoustic-playing me. He noticed the amps I was playing onstage and the tone I was getting and felt there was room for improvement. He came up with the Magnatone and said “It’s really the only true vibrato.” It does pitch bending and has a watery, sort of ethereal beauty in its vibrato sound. I thought “Whoa. Love it. Never going back.” Onstage, I have two volume sends to two different amps. The one that goes to the Magnatone is what I use for a cleaner sound, often with a little vibrato. The other goes to a Rivera Sedona 15 combo that I use for crunch and distortion. I sometimes also dial in a touch of this or that by employing both amps to enrich the sound of the acoustic pickup and give it a more organic tone.
You’ve said your stage sound has evolved in relation to the Alvarez guitars you use. What is it about the instruments in general that you love?
They’re new guitars and pretty snappy. What I do is EQ out all of the high end and what I achieve that way is a low-end snap and tightness, which is great for my purposes. I’ve been playing these guitars for so many years and developed a style in relation to them. Now, when I pick up a so-called higher-quality instrument and plug it in and stand onstage, it’s like “Whoa.” The low-end sounds so cloudy, pillowy and unwieldy in comparison. It’ll be really familiar to me. So, I’m just very used to the tightness of these new Alvarez guitars and working with them in the direction of full and round, as opposed to coming from a full, round tone and trying to tighten it down onstage. The Alvarez guitars have served me quite well. I was just doing a benefit the other day in New York with Jackson Browne. He had a rack of $10,000-$15,000 guitars and boy did they sound good. [laughs] I love Alvarez. They’re so terrific and have served me mightily over the years, but I have been thinking maybe I should explore some more vintage instruments and their tone possibilities now that I can afford to.
Describe how you recorded your guitars on the album.
Every song would have four tracks of guitar on it. There would be a mic in front of the guitars, the pickup going direct, which I would generally use for low-end snap, and then the two amps. It was the same as my onstage setup. During the mixing process, I would overdub other things onto the song and adjust the guitar tone to fit the overall picture. Recording acoustic guitars is tricky stuff, especially when you’re trying to sing at the same time. On most of the songs, the vocal was overdubbed, just to make things easier. That way, we can manipulate the guitar and vocal separately.
You have Adam Levy playing on the album as well. What were you seeking when involving another guitar player?
He’s just a wonderful player who has a different sound and scene from mine. Adam has been an acquaintance of mine over the years through friends of friends of mine. I was playing in New York a year-and-a-half ago and he came down to the Town Hall to sit in with me for a couple of songs. He played so wonderfully and that’s where I got the idea to invite him to perform on the record. So, I flew him down to New Orleans and we hung out in my garage for a few days and just pulled up every track on the new record. I threw the whole record at him and said “play that, play this” and saw what stuck.
I don’t play electric guitars. They’re just such different beasts. I have attempted it in the past, but I don’t have a feel for it. I don’t have an intuitive thing I’ve developed with guitar amps. Getting someone like Adam who has refined his tone and approach to electric guitar over many years is something I thought would balance out my acoustic guitar scene.
You’ve played a prominent role in getting out the vote in previous elections. Where are your energies directed this year?
It’s in the same area. Headcount, an organization that registers voters, has been tabling at my shows. If I think of it onstage, I remind people it’s okay to talk about our disillusionments, disappointments and frustrations, but we still have to get the fuck out there and vote our asses off—and if you’re not registered, there are people in the lobby who can sign you up. I still very much believe the trouble with the American democracy is we haven’t tried it yet. We have the lowest voter turnout of any industrialized nation. If we had 100 percent participation, it would result in a radically different political spectrum. If we can just get out there, we have the possibility of hope and change, and all those glorious words.
You’ve participated in several Occupy events. What’s your perspective on how the movement can harness its collective energy during this election year?
Amazing things are happening. It’s so inspiring to me to know there are people out there right as we speak, putting all of their time, energy and bodies into the cause of change, and trying to right the political, social and economic wrongs that have befallen this country. It makes me feel less alone and more hopeful. The media offers a condescending portrayal and divisive perspective of the Occupy movement as being a bunch of splintery, infighting extremists. It’s not true. These are normal, average people. A lot of them are on the young side. These are people with the opportunity take to the streets and set up tents in the most conspicuous places as daily, visible reminders of the things that are not okay for the average American. They keep the dialog going and have done amazing things. I’m hoping all working people in America will come to the realization that these people are fighting for them and that they will be supportive in whatever way they can. Most of the encampments have been busted up by the police and now we need to take the fight into the great indoors.
As a Canadian, I find it intriguing that you mention Canada twice on this record as a comparative state of societal being. You also did that on the To The Teeth album. Describe your perspective on what makes Canada a model to consider.
My mother is Canadian and I’ve been going to Canada every summer. She’s from Quebec and every summer I go to a cabin in the woods over there. So, I have a relationship with Canada. It’s not like I have some theoretical idea about Canada. I spend a lot of time over there. My first audience was also in Canada. I was playing bars when I met my booking agent. The first thing my agent did was book me at all the Canadian folk festivals. Suddenly, when I was 19, I was playing in front of much bigger audiences at these festivals. So, my audience expanded in Canada before it did in the United States. Even now, when I return to Canada, I get this sense of “Oh, Canada, this much more tolerant place where respect for diversity is still prevalent.” It feels like that’s been lost in the United States. We’re just so ready to fight each other and blame one another. I think it’s a deliberate effort by the 1 percent. I thank Occupy for giving me these terms I can use. I think the 1 percent has been encouraging us in the United States to hate each other for a long time. People who don’t like abortion are supposed to hate people who do think abortion is okay or a possibility. People of different colors and economic strata and regions also have such bile towards each other. I don’t think it’s accidental. I do think it’s cultivated.
Also, Canada has no legacy of slavery. I think the depth of the scars of slavery are still here until we wholeheartedly address the issue so we can heal. The scars won’t heal while we’re in denial about it all. I live in New Orleans and when Katrina hit a few years back, you could see how much slavery is still a dark and ominous presence in the United States. We haven’t addressed it and we haven’t made it right. So, I bring up Canada several times on this record. Here’s a society that's analogous to the United States, and look at how much cooler they are to each other. Can we please be nice to each other here too?
What is your take on the universe of streaming services like Spotify and the royalty situation they offer artists?
I try to look at the big picture. From the time I made my first tape, there was a slogan on it that says “Unauthorized duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.” It’s been on all my records ever since and is a Righteous Babe Records slogan. It embodies my whole stance on things. Sharing music is organic and I don’t feel the need to make a penny or buck every possible moment that I can. That just seems unrealistic and not right-minded. What I do ask of my listeners is to bring a consciousness to the situation if they can. If they are in a position in which they can buy a record directly, especially from an independent or small-scale audience, I encourage them to do that. I also encourage them to think about the livelihood of artists struggling in this world and balance it out for themselves based on their own livelihood and expendable cash situation. The same thing goes for downloading and streaming. The question is are you making enough to survive in this world and comfortable enough to continue pursuing your art? I, myself am. I’m very grateful for it. So, I’m not going to worry too much whether I'm making the most money possible. That’s something I abandoned a long time ago when I decided not to go the major label route. There are much more important things to consider. I think art uplifting people and social revolution are much more critical. If streaming or downloading music helps those things happen, it may very well outweigh the capitalist benefit.