Innerviews, music without borders

Ani DiFranco
Dynamic Contrasts
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad.

Ani DiFranco is a creative force unto herself. Since first hitting the folk circuit in the late '80s, the Buffalo, New York-based singer-songwriter and guitarist has forged a singular path that’s inspired and challenged listeners worldwide. Musically, she’s stretched the folk genre to its limits by infusing it with a variety of funk, pop, rock, electronica, and world music influences. Lyrically, her songs are often unapologetically political, typically drawing from her deep social conscience that seeks to explore and expose injustices and inequities wherever she sees them.

DiFranco’s business acumen is also legendary. Since the beginning of her career, she’s released all of her albums—at least one a year—through her own Righteous Babe record label. During its two-decade existence, Righteous Babe has evolved into a highly successful business that’s developed a significant artist roster. With millions of DiFranco records sold, it has also inspired many other musicians to forego traditional music industry trappings and blaze their own trails.

Without question, DiFranco puts her money where her mouth is by using her influence to benefit grassroots political and cultural organizations throughout America. Her Righteous Babe Foundation has provided funding to groups working to protect women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian organizations, and the movement to abolish the death penalty. And her concerts are typically bustling with teams of volunteers ready to provide information on her favorite causes to attendees.

In 2004, DiFranco’s political voice was heard louder than ever. That July, she traveled to Thailand and Myanmar with Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. Together, the duo visited refugee camps and met with dissidents determined to advance freedom and democracy in Myanmar—a nation ruled by one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships. Upon her return, DiFranco felt inspired to help launch the 2004 Vote Dammit! tour. The roadshow saw DiFranco journey through America’s swing states to help spur apathetic voters to exercise their democratic muscles, as well as champion progressive causes and candidates. Though DiFranco was anything but pleased that George W. Bush seized the presidency again that year, she took solace in the fact that the tour motivated thousands of newly energized voters to go to the polls.

DiFranco’s songwriting often incorporates meanings and messages gleaned from the numerous movements she takes part in, but it’s usually just as steeped in personal storytelling. For instance, 2005’s Knuckle Down found her heartfelt vocals and intricate, percussive fingerpicking situated within one of her most reflective collections to date. Splintered relationships, familial drama and moving on to higher ground take center stage on the album. Like the songs themselves, DiFranco’s creative process also straddles several realms.

Describe how you go about putting songs together.

For me, songs are born with a guitar and my journal at my side. My various guitars have different voices and they function as my singing and writing partners. The unique qualities of a guitar’s voice have a real effect on what comes out. I also just follow my muse and her pace and bidding. I’m on the prolific side of writers. My muse is always there, whispering in my ear. So I just have to pay attention to her in very intentional ways. The songs are created as uniquely as they come out. They tend to have different natures. I’m not one with a really specific sound or formula that I rely on each time. The songwriting process is either really visceral, emotional and immediate, where I sit down and write something from start to finish, or it’s an ongoing meditation that gets sculpted and re-sculpted. The latter process has more of the intellect involved. For instance, on Knuckle Down, “Parameters” was a real vomiting of words, whereas a song like “Lag Time” was more of a process. It was something I worked on for months. It represented the “Oh! I finally got the bridge” kind of writing.

I’m always touring and performing, so throwing things out at an audience is also often part of the writing process for me. It’s certainly part of my song development. I’ll write a song and the words and chords will be there, the melody will mostly be there, but performing it is where the song grows up and really becomes itself. A lot of that has to do with audience interaction. For instance, I’ll write a lyric and won’t realize it will be misunderstood until I sing it at people and see that they’re taking it the wrong way. Or I’ll write lyrics that I didn’t realize were funny. It’s very enlightening to be a public, performing writer.

In terms of documenting and recording the songs, that can happen at different periods in the song’s lifespan, depending on the song. Some songs I’ve only just written when I’m going to record them and others have been alive and moving through the world for awhile. So, some songs I’ve documented in a more infant stage and they might develop and change afterwards. Others are more mature by the time they hit tape.

How have you evolved as a songwriter across your career?

It’s a constant evolution with me. I feel like a new person every month or so. [laughs] But songwriting itself is definitely a muscle you work on and develop over time. Having said that, some of the old songs still hold up. I’m still playing them and they’re as good as anything I’m writing now. I guess I’ve always had my sensibility, but I have been working on the craft for 15 years now. That really came into play with the writing of Knuckle Down in that I basically wrote all of these songs in the space of a few months. It was because I invited Joe Henry, who’s also a great singer-songwriter, to co-produce the project and we set a date to make the record. So I sort of wrote to a deadline which represented really exercising the craft of songwriting. It felt good. It made me feel sort of powerful in my work, like “Okay, I’m going to make an album in May. I better write 10 songs and just set to it.”

What responsibility do you feel as a songwriter to reflect the truth as you see it around you?

That’s at the epicenter of what I understand songwriting to be. Even if you’re inventing a story or messing with the facts, it’s still all about telling the truth. A song really needs to ring true in order to connect with people. Even a fictionalized truth still needs to really be based in showing oneself or a sort of bravery in terms of openness and honesty.

Is it sometimes a challenge to balance personal perspectives and proselytizing?

I’ve been struggling a lot with that lately. Since the songs I wrote for Knuckle Down, I’ve been veering towards the external and political with a big “P” and that’s harder to do. Love songs are easy compared to communicating very specific and deliberate political ideas. It’s difficult to avoid sounding pedantic, heavy-handed or preachy. You have to be very careful with how you use language. A word like “love” will just flow right by in a song, but if you try to use a word like “patriarchy,” suddenly the world around you is slamming on the brakes and running for cover. It’s amazing to me that it’s almost impossible to use certain words and language that are just as essential and basic to our ever-present realities as love. There’s love all around us, but there’s also patriarchy around us worldwide, every day at every moment in every society. Yet it’s very hard to sing a word like “patriarchy,” much less “multinational corporation” in a ditty and get away with it. I regularly discuss this with my political writing comrades. There are some friends I have like Hamell On Trial and Dan Bern who also endeavor to write political material. We’re always asking ourselves “How do we do this?” To speak politically lends itself to prose or academic writing. But to make it flow within a musical context is something I find very challenging.

How do you manage to remain so prolific and also find time to run your own record label?

The truth is, I’m not there running the joint. Having a great staff and Scot Fisher, a really powerful, brilliant best friend who is the label president, factors in heavily. He’s the one that built the office from the ground up. He started working with my other best friend at the time way back in the day and has slowly and organically built the ongoing concern that is Righteous Babe. My involvement with the label is much more on the conceptual, direction, inspiration, and political levels. Scot and I have an ongoing dialogue that manifests itself in my work out on the road performing and writing, and his work at home trying to keep the label going. So it’s mostly his business sense and prowess that factors in there. I’m certainly not there every day working. I just get the credit. [laughs]

Even with Knuckle Down just coming out as we speak, I’m already working on my next record. I already have 10 songs and am spending my holiday vacation in New Orleans trying to record them. I get up every morning, start patching in stuff and try to subject myself to the sound of my own voice again. I have to try and make records happen in my downtime because I tend to go on tour for months at a time. So I’m really good at setting imaginary deadlines for myself and chasing them. It’s part of being your own boss. You really have to be self-motivated and that’s something I’ve kind of got down.

Why did you ask Joe Henry to co-produce Knuckle Down after producing all of your previous records yourself?

My last record, Educated Guess, was a totally solitary endeavor. I’ve always been one for contrasts in life, so after going through that process of making a record alone at home and being alone a lot in my life, I felt it was time to get out of my own little head and world and collaborate again. In the past, I’ve worked with my own band on records, but the way Knuckle Down was made was very different. With my band, we would tour and come off the road and just go into the studio. We’d be totally rehearsed, tight and just perform the songs to tape. With Knuckle Down, it was more of “Hi, my name is Ani! Okay, this tune is in D.” [laughs] So it was different working with session musicians. The other big difference was that I’ve always had a close hand in the recording and mixing of my records. This time, it was Husky Hoskulds the engineer who mixed, so Knuckle Down has a very different sound to it.

How did Henry’s approach affect how the album came together?

The way this record was made was a first for me. In a nutshell, Joe was a producer in an old-fashioned sense in that he brought along his team that he often works with on records, including an engineer, drummer and keyboard player. All of those people that worked on Knuckle Down have also made a bunch of other records together at The Sound Factory studio in West Hollywood. So, I sort of plugged into Joe’s scene there in Los Angeles and brought in my tunes, my fabulous bass player Todd Sickafoose and the special guests on the record. So it was a meeting of two crews. Joe was really involved in the pre-production and the assembling of the cast, and then we got in the studio and I just went to work with the band. We tracked two tunes a day which included teaching the songs to the band. We laid down the record live in six days.

Describe your relationship with the guitar.

The acoustic guitar taught me everything I know about music in terms of the relationship between melody and rhythm. It also taught me about dynamics. If there’s one thing I love the most about my instrument, it’s the dynamic range. You can just touch it and get a particular tone or sound or you can spank it. You can also pull a string six inches off the fretboard and slap it back down. Really exploring the extent of possible dynamics on the guitar has been a lot of fun for me.

I think of my guitar as my best friend. It’s always been there. Since I was nine years old, I’ve turned to my guitar for company, for release and for solace. I had a pretty fucked-up family when I was young and I started writing songs when I was 14 or so. It felt good to express my pain and let it out. There’s a reason it’s such a universal instrument. It’s a perfect accompaniment for singing. It’s also a perfect tool for making music in solitude. I think I’ve led a pretty solitary life along the way and the guitar is the one friend that’s always been there to console me.

Tell me how your approach to percussive fingerpicking initially developed.

When I was very young, I took a few guitar lessons and learned some basics. I actually learned how to read music when I was around nine or 10, but I can’t do that anymore. I also learned some folk fingerpicking patterns. Then I kind of put down the guitar for a few years around age 11 or 12. I was doing other kinds of art and expressing myself in other ways. When I picked the guitar back up at age 14, that’s when my self-teaching started and I personalized my approach. In terms of that really percussive fingerpicking thing I arrived upon, it had a lot to do with the fact that I had already started playing solo in bars as a teenager in Buffalo. They weren’t the easiest gigs, especially when people were just there to drink and pick up the person next to them. They typically couldn’t give a fuck about the chick with the acoustic guitar in the corner pouring her little teenage heart out. [laughs] So I was developing ways of making people shut up, turn around and get interested. So, becoming more vehement with my playing was just inherent to my energy and necessary for the job at hand, which was survival in bars.

How do you look back at 2004’s Vote Dammit! tour and what you were able to accomplish?

I’m endeavoring to look back positively although I keep encountering friends all over the place who are right back to a place of disillusionment veering towards that kind of “throw your hands up” resignation. I know a lot of people who voted for the first time in November 2004, and since then, I’ve had a lot of conversations with those same people who say “See? It doesn’t work. Fuck it. It doesn’t help at all. Boy, that was an ill-fated mission you were on, huh?” I’m trying to be the person in that conversation who points out that the record number of voters who turned out in November was around 62 percent. Okay, a bunch of us finally turned out for the first time to vote, but we are still not voting in the numbers we need to be voting in. We need the rest of us to vote in order to make a democracy. During the Vote Dammit! tour, I heard a lot of people just saying “November, November, November—get out there and vote in November.” And I was quite clear about the fact that it wasn’t about November—it’s about from now on. It’s about changing our lifestyles to become citizens again so we can once again have a democracy, which we don’t have when we don’t participate. I’ve been trying to stay positive and help people feel like we’ve only just begun to fight and that you can’t give up after just one trip to the voting booth. That’s not what democracy is. We did make incredible strides in 2004. Even on my little tour, we registered so many people and so many became interested in politics for the first time. We need to continue building on that and not just resigning ourselves again. We need unity, strategy and energy.

You visited Thailand and Myanmar in 2004. How did that trip impact you?

Speaking of democracy, it was incredible to see people risking their lives every day for the idea of democracy and fighting for democracy in a violent, oppressive military dictatorship. It’s amazing when you consider the sort of complacent apathy of privileged American citizens. It was inspiring to see people who really believe in the concept of democracy that’s been so defiled in America, and hold it up so high. It sort of renewed my faith in the idea. On a musical level, we were traveling to refugee camps, orphanages, medical clinics, and displaced communities of very poor, beleaguered people hiding in the jungles, banished from their villages because of violence. Damien Rice and I were the musicians on this particular journey. The first thing that would happen is the children would all stand and sing us a song or two. Then the beater, bad-ass, backwards-strung guitar would be pulled out and we’d all sing. It was amazing how we would show up so very white and other and privileged, and they would look at us sideways and we’d look at them wide-eyed. Then as soon as the music happened and we opened up our faces and sang back, it was like suddenly we were family. Instantly, we were connected in the way that only music can make happen. On a daily basis, that really put me in touch with what music is and why we make it.

Does spirituality play a role in your music?

Sure, but being an atheist, I don’t think in terms of God or higher beings. Music is my church. It’s my way of uplifting myself and giving love to others. The act of performance, like after you’ve been jumping around, sweating, screaming, and wailing away on a guitar for an hour puts you in an altered state of consciousness. It’s also my transcendental meditation. [laughs] There are moments when I’m playing when I’m physically transported out of my body in the way other people achieve through meditation and other spiritual practices. So music is definitely my path to God as it were.

How did you arrive at the atheist conclusion?

When I look around the world, I see that human beings are animals. We are temporary and simply parts of a big whole. We have our animate phase that’s very tiny and brief, and then we return to the oneness of it all. So I don’t know that my animal eye recognizes death as the end. I look at religions and mythologies about afterlife and gods, and the poet in me recognizes that these are metaphors and stories we tell to explain things like good and bad. For example, some religions state that you should be good because otherwise you go to Hell. The way I see it is religions are full of essential truths as told through these metaphors and stories. I think if you lead a bad life and spread negativity, you end up in a very negative place. Negativity is what the world will give back to you and the world will be Hell. So I see religions as just being contexts in which people speak about morality and responsibility, but I don’t take the stories literally.

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