The Curious Case of Ani DiFranco
“My first cassette tape had an address on it and that’s how I first started touring,” says Ani DiFranco. “Basically, young women at colleges would get a tape and write to that address and say, ‘Can she come play?’”
And so began the peculiar career of Ani DiFranco, then a teen from Buffalo, N.Y., who decided from the get-go that she would not offer up her soul as a co-op to big record companies, and therefore, never saw “big success” as a likely outcome. When big success came her way in spite of all that (and not at all by chance—DiFranco is a woman of immense talent and relentless work ethic), she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Remember, this is a kid we’re talking about.
“I think when you’re fifteen and female and operating in the adult world, you’re very aware every moment of the power dynamic that you’re working with—the power of your femaleness, especially your young femaleness,” she reflects over a cup of coffee at a local shop in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. “And then, when I was eighteen and shaved my head, it was a rejection of [that]—I don’t want that power. I want a different kind of power.”
For DiFranco, success—and, by extension, power—is a blessing primarily in the sense that it allows her to put her money where her mouth (and heart) have always been. She has managed to flout the unwritten rules of “how things work” simply by sticking to her guns and doing her best to make things happen on her own terms. (For example, she founded her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of nineteen in 1990). The fact that she has succeeded again and again with this approach says as much about the so-called rules as it does about her refusal to go along with them.
Chatting on a busy street corner in this artistically driven neighborhood—one that is almost certainly inhabited by a good number DiFranco fans—I can’t help but notice that not a soul has bothered her during the course of our conversation. There aren’t any adoring fans clamoring for autographs, googly-eyed stares or giddy whispers—just the occasional hello from a passing acquaintance.
With her toussled hair, easy laugh and her secondhand navy blue workman’s jacket that is rolled at the cuffs to accommodate her slight frame, there isn’t anything about her that screams, “rock star,” this afternoon. The only thing that may suggests this humble and tiny package is the source of such a long list of remarkable accomplishments is her infectious enthusiasm for topics that are dear to her, her razor sharp wit and her charming sense of humor. (At one point during our conversation, she challenges me to a boxing match in order to work out some of the caffeine that has amped up her already highenergy personality.)
Being in her presence is a little bit like being stoned in the sense that time goes out the window—what felt like a 30 minute conversation turned out to be, according to the timer on my little recorder, close to three hours.
But in New Orleans, she is just a neighborhood girl and it’s difficult not to contrast this laid back environment with the sometimes obsessive quality of her fan base, many of whom regard her as a personal friend despite never having met her. After speaking with a few DiFranco fans from the neighborhood, I found that every one of them had stories to tell about how her music had helped them through a difficult time. When I relate a story from a friend who is stuck in a troubled marriage and who sings “Joyful Girl” from 1996’s Dilate to herself as a sort of lullaby when she is feeling lonely and afraid, DiFranco tears up instantly.
On the other side of that coin, there are those in her “tribe” whose behavior can be quite dark at times. Although it is hard to imagine a longtime DiFranco fan who is not accustomed to the frequent twists and turns that have shaped such a long and unusual career, there are those who seem to wish that she’d freeze at a particular age and never move forward, to act as a sort of musical pet who may not stray from the service of a particular emotional need.
Even her relationship with her husband has come under fire. “He’s too tall for her!” complained one flustered message board contributor. And there are those who feel she is somehow betraying her art if she writes the occasional love song instead of keeping it all-political-all-the-time.
But such chatter fails to appreciate DiFranco’s creative wandering for what it is: a product of ongoing maturity and a life well lived.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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