Interview by Adam McKibbin
Also published on ARTISTdirect
Well before the digital democratization of the music industry – back in an era when major labels were supposedly the end-all, be-all for breaking artists on a national level – Ani DiFranco struck out on her own. The career expectancy for a folk singer from Buffalo couldn’t have been long, particularly for one who refused to play ball with “business as usual.” Almost 20 years later, DiFranco is almost certainly the best-known and most influential folk singer of her generation. Her unapologetic politics and tireless independence have made her a beacon for an increasingly large cross-section of listeners, from collegiate feminists to small-town punk rockers.
As adamant as she’s been about not changing the principles behind her music, DiFranco has been equally insistent on changing and evolving the music itself. On her new album, Red Letter Year, the “Little Folksinger” plays with a brass band and a string section, singing about the newly discovered joys of love and motherhood one moment and the travesty of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath the next. Unusually polished but never sterile, it’s one of her best albums of the decade (no small achievement for someone so prolific).
As 2008 came to a close, DiFranco spoke about crying on Election Night, rediscovering the Jackson 5, and daring to not support the troops.
As someone who isn’t religious, per se, do you have a plan for raising a child in a country where some fun, ubiquitous holidays are tethered to religious orthodoxy?
Well, it seems like we could pretty much have all the fun of all the holidays without the Jesus part – and many people do these days. That doesn’t worry me half as much as the question of Santa Claus. [Laughs] How are you gonna deal with that one? To lie or not to lie! Yeah, you know, kids are smart – they’re probably smarter than adults. My kid’s just two, but I imagine she’ll be aware that there are religious types and not-religious types and she’ll make her own assessment.
Hope was the big buzzword of 2008. But now there’s this “buyer beware” voice that’s rising amongst progressives. [Noam] Chomsky gave a speech recently where he basically said that for all the important historical aspects of the election, it really boiled down to the same thing as always, which was money and marketing.
Chomsky! Dude, c’mon. [Laughs] Let’s get happy. Stop killing my buzz, man.
I know! And Naomi Klein has been warning that the pre-inauguration weeks could set a precedent of leaving a progressive agenda out in the cold for the next eight years. Is there a devil on your shoulder saying “Don’t get too excited – it’s going to be the same as always?” It doesn’t sound like it.
No. I think my instinct as a person is that when you find something really good, something night-and-day from what you’ve had… I see Obama as an intelligent, thoughtful, aware leader. That’s something I’ve never known in my life as an American. I’m so grateful and so excited. And my instinct, I guess, is to support it and allow it to be as good as it can be.
Of course you can look to the age-old criticism of the Left – which has so much validity – that we’re just shooting each other in the foot. We’re fighting each other rather than working together against much greater evils. I think Obama really brings this spirit of unity with him. Even in the days leading up to his inauguration, I hear progressive voices saying “Ohh, he’s appointing Republicans to his Cabinet and there aren’t enough Lefties.” I’ll tell you – that moment in his acceptance speech when he said “To all those whose support I have not yet earned, I will be your president, too” – that just made me bawl. What a leader. And that’s exactly his job – to listen to everyone, to include everyone, and then try to focus America’s talent and energy toward its own salvation. I really have faith – faith is a dirty word, and it felt weird coming out. [Laughs] It’s not as though I intend to blindly follow and wave my Obama flag; I intend to engage with him in a supportive way. I think it would be unfortunate if we couldn’t step out of our habits of cynicism and kneejerk criticism that we have rightfully formed over the years. Now is the time to shift gears and really try to work together.
Early in the primary season, you’d given an interview to the Guardian where you talked about your support of Dennis Kucinich. At the time, you were thinking that Obama and Clinton were “lame” candidates who represented business as usual. Was there a turning point, a pivotal moment where Obama changed your mind about him – or was it a gradual getting to know him over those long months?
Yeah, a gradual getting to know him. I think at the time I probably hadn’t seen him speak that much and hadn’t felt him out – I was going on my general impression of Dennis versus the rest of the political life. [Laughs] Yeah, I think over the course of the primary campaigning, I became more and more of a fan of Obama and less and less of a fan of Clinton. I will always support Dennis’s vision. Just the caliber of [Obama’s] campaign was incredibly impressive and showed a level of leadership that, say, my great friend Dennis – who is a political visionary – doesn’t necessarily possess.
The press release for Red Letter Year really plays up the happiness angle – and there are songs like “Smiling Underneath” and “Way Tight” that bear that out. But I’ve noticed that the press has really run with that angle and maybe overpursued it.
I know! I noticed fairly recently that it was in my fricking press release, how happy I am. I was like, oh, here’s the problem right here! [Laughs] Because you know how people are – they will just repeat things. So, yeah, it does seem a little distorted. As you know, there’s a lot of political [content]… my usual ranting and rolling.
Do you feel like the inverse has been true in the past? That the lighter, brighter side has been overlooked?
Well, thank you! [Laughs] Can I tell ‘em you said so? Yes, indeed – being sort of stereotyped up until now as the angry girl was a little oversimplified. I guess, in fairness, I’m trying to be more intentional about including the lighter side, the joy in my life, in my music these days. Just before Red Letter Year, I put together a compilation album called Canon that spans all of my records. Listening back to my body of material – God forbid – it was something that struck me, that I have that typical songwriter’s disease where when I have a problem, I reach for my guitar, and when I’m happy, I’m busy being happy. I did decide somewhere inside myself to try to reach for my guitar when I’m happy, too.
Happiness can be really motivating. It’s real fuel. People have been asking me “Now that you’re all happy and content, are you done?” For me, I feel like I’ve just begun now that I have a firm enough place to stand in my own life. All of the songs that I’ve written since that record are very political. I’m not obsessing over my personal foibles, which frees me up and motivates me to get to even more important work.
I always think it’s interesting when songwriters who you know are happily married or in longtime healthy relationships keep churning out tragic relationship songs. They must have deep pools to draw from.
[Laughs] Yeah, right – and it’s interesting, too, how people crave that. When I first got together with my partner – who’s now my baby daddy and co-producer of this record – he pegged me right away. He said, “You listen to too much sad music. That’s what’s wrong with you.” And he started making me Jackson 5 compilations – and, I swear to God, it was like “Wow, whew, you’re right! I feel better!” [Laughs]
And then just living in New Orleans really made me realize, wow, white people are just looking for shit to whine about, aren’t we? [Laughs] And I’m another whiny white kid with a guitar.
You’ve said in the past that you haven’t always been satisfied in hindsight with how you’ve captured yourself on studio albums. Red Letter Year was made over the course of a couple years, which is a longer time than a lot of those older albums. Did slowing the process help toward the end of capturing yourself in a truer fashion?
Yes, immensely. And having super high-caliber help in the studio is also sort of a new thing on this record. I’ve never had a co-producer in this way and had the luxury of just being “the artist.” So, yeah, I feel like this record will stand up as a better representation of these songs than other past efforts.
You dare to say “I can’t support the troops” on a song, which I thought was very brave and bold. That’s kind of the final frontier of political incorrectness. Have you gotten response about that line? Has it proved to be controversial?
Well, see, that’s the brave part – then the stupid part is when I elaborate and talk about that line on stage. [Laughs] I really dig myself a hole there. No, no reactions directly back to me. I stay very far away from the Internet and the chorus. But, yeah, you picked it – if there’s any line on the whole record that I’m very aware I’m not supposed to be saying, it’s that one. It’s a queasy feeling because on stage, I’m standing there – generally in a crowd of progressive people, but there has been many a solider who’s been a listener of mine. There are many of their brothers and sisters standing there. So I don’t want to be disrespectful, and there’s such mass confusion over that slogan and the ways that it’s used. It’s a perilous feeling to say it, for sure.
Earlier in your career, you were hyper-scrutinized by a segment of your fanbase that was very upset that you were in a relationship with a man, upset that you wore a dress, upset that you let the NFL use a song of yours. Have you always had that chorus tuned out – or when you say that you don’t pay attention to it now, is that a reaction to what happened earlier?
A reaction. I think we made one T-shirt ten years ago, our first T-shirt, and immediately got a letter and got a phone call. In some ways, it’s amazing to have thousands of politically aware voices of conscience hanging over my shoulders. In other ways, it’s very claustrophobic, as you can imagine. I think it was ten years ago that I vowed to never read anything about me again. I’m such a healthier person.
I reviewed a book recently that contained commandments for aspiring musicians. A recurring one is that music and politics don’t mix – which isn’t that unusual a sentiment. Carrie Underwood, for example, said recently that music should be an escape from politics, not a place for politics. Where do you think those blanket statements come from?
It seems like it comes from that long, dark Reagan-Bush cultural revolution, in which we’ve been systematically taught – and now we have generations who have grown into this – to be consumers and not citizens. Obama, of course, represents a reinvigoration of that citizenry. The idea that you can separate politics and music is a fallacy. Politics and anything. If you choose to witness injustices around you, and you choose to say nothing and do nothing, that’s a political decision. Everything you sing about has a political angle. I’m certainly aware of that as a female, for instance. To be singing about relationships, I think of it as a political act. I don’t see that you can separate politics from anything in life, even if you tried.
In closing, I wanted to give you a chance to play ambassador for New Orleans. Do you have any tips for local artists that the rest of the country might not have on their radar?
Wow, that’s a nice question. Well, the Rebirth Brass Band that’s featured on my new record is going strong – as are many brass bands in the tradition. It’s the ultimate party music, and something that New Orleans does so well. My pal Mike Dillon, who plays in my band, lives in New Orleans and goes out on tour with many different ensembles. The local scene is so vibrant. I totally encourage people to come, especially now – not that anyone has spare money anymore for things like vacation. But, once again, I think coming down here and partying is a political act. To tip your waitress well is to participate in New Orleans reconstruction.