Feminist Folk Singer Tackles Tough Subjects

Monday Magazine | August 7, 2004
Some artists you want to talk about. Others, you hope one day to talk with. But when somebody falls into both camps, it’s often best to let them speak in their own words. Take Ani DiFranco, for example—the outspoken, indefatigable and incredibly talented singer-songwriter who has built herself both a career and an immensely dedicated public following over the course of the past decade.

An icon to many, a great deal of DiFranco’s fame hinges on the fact that she tends to write powerful songs about things most artists won’t even begin to discuss: rape, politics, abortion, gender identity, women’s resistance, political dissent, police abuse of power, the current suppression of democracy in the United States . . . all from a woman’s point of view. No, strike that. All from a feminist’s point of view—and a young, American folk-singing feminist at that.

Intentionally or not, thanks to the strength of her opinions and her music, the hard-touring DiFranco has become the public face (and voice) of one of the most under-represented segments of modern society: the scrappy, young, in-your-face woman who dresses how she pleases, kisses who she likes, and is not afraid to say, “Fuck you, I’ll do it my way.” And considering that her Righteous Babe Records has become a do-it-yourself music industry success story, it’s clear she’s doing something right.

If you know who she is, then you already have an idea of the kind of things she says; if you don’t, well, it’s probably best to let her speak for herself:

People, we are standing at ground zero
Of the feminist revolution
Yeah, it was an inside job, stoic and sly
One we’re supposed to forget, and downplay and deny
But I think the time is nothing if not nigh
To let the truth out
Coolest f-word ever deserves a fucking shout!
I mean, why can’t all decent men and women
Call themselves feminists?
(“Grand Canyon,” 2004)

I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger and never their own fear
Imagine you’re a girl
Just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
And smiling
(“Not A Pretty Girl,” 1995)

DiFranco, who returns to Victoria this week for the first time in eight years, also just released Educated Guess—astoundingly, her 16th full length album in just 14 years. The 34-year-old native of Buffalo, New York, also recently received a Grammy Award (“Best Recording Package”) for 2003’s Evolve; recently passed the three-million mark for total album sales; had High Fidelity author Nick Hornby pen an ode to one of her songs (“You Had Time,” from 1994’s Out of Range) in his latest work, Songbook; was selected as the cover girl for Utne magazine’s “Indie Culture” issue; was chosen to help launch Air America Radio, the new U.S. liberal broadcaster; opened a Righteous Babe office in London, England; established the Righteous Babe Foundation to support grassroots cultural and political organizations; headlined as the closing act for the prestigious Winnipeg Folk Festival’s 30th anniversary; and, when the New Jersey Performing Arts Center refused to allow a peace group to have an informational table in the lobby at one of her recent shows, DiFranco threatened not to perform unless the centre’s officials changed their mind—and, when management did indeed back down, a triumphant DiFranco took to the stage saying, “In this time of war, when all major media sources are co-opted and controlled by the military-corporate monolith, it is especially important that we disobey any attempts to silence us. They tried to shut us down tonight, but once again we have proven that there is power in numbers.”

Like I said, Ani DiFranco is clearly doing something right.

Revelling and reckoning

One of the last times she played Victoria (could it have been as long ago as 1995?), the venue for DiFranco’s concert was changed at the last minute—without her knowledge—to the Royal BC Museum’s Newcombe Theatre (now the IMAX), and it was all downhill from there. Thanks to the ferries, she arrived late and went to the original venue, where she was informed of the change; was given no time to eat or perform a soundcheck; was provided with such a terrible sound system that then-drummer Andy Stochanski walked off mid-show; and was forced to verbally defend herself against an angry crowd . . . myself included. It’s a concert I can’t help but remind her of when we have the chance to speak last week.

“Oh my god!” whispers DiFranco from a tour stop in Chico, California. “I remember that show! That one is legendary, it went down in history as one of the top three worst shows ever. Ahhhh!” She gives a mock scream, then laughs. “Happily, things have changed a lot since that fateful concert you are speaking of—certainly in terms of technical support.” She keeps chuckling as she speaks, and I try to match the more mature voice I’m hearing with the younger face in my memory. “I now have my own crew and my own sound system, for example, which makes a show less of an electroshock therapy session and more of a musical performance. Also, the dynamic between me and the audience has shifted over time—partly naturally and organically, and partly from me spending a good year or two saying, ‘Okay, let’s shut up and sit down and make more room for the music.’ I think things have probably changed a lot—on a lot of levels—since my last visit.”

Indeed. Last time she was here, she was still just Ani (pronounced “Ahhnee,” not “Annie”) and not yet the public face of indie culture . . . not that she sees herself as such.

“Gosh, I’ve never thought of it as a monolithic, singular thing—‘indie culture.’ That might be a little like, ‘What do women want?’,” DiFranco laughs, “which I don’t know either. It’s diverse and many-faceted in its direction, if anything.”

Yet when I mention the recent cover of Utne, she does admit that she’s still surprised by all the accolades. “But there’s so much of my life that I didn’t imagine ahead of time,” she muses. “I just walked into it backwards.”

True enough. Before the age of 10, when most kids are still shy about speaking to strangers, DiFranco could be found performing for Buffalo’s folk-rich “Rust Belt” audiences; by 15, she was writing her own songs and fending off offers from label reps. Rather than shape herself to fit someone else’s image of her, however, DiFranco elected to start Righteous Babe Records quite literally as a “dining room table operation,” and after borrowing the money to record her eponymous first album (a simple cassette) at 20, she chose to distribute it herself while touring campuses, coffee houses and other freak-friendly environments. That was 14 years ago, and “the little folksinger” hasn’t come in from the road yet. (Righteous Babe currently employs a staff of 15, and a road crew of 12.) But does it ever get too much, I wonder?

“Oh yes,” DiFranco laughs, almost maniacally, “most days, most days for many years. Luckily, I’m young and I’m loving what I’m doing. I haven’t burnt myself out, and I’m trying to keep my energy fresh as well. My touring and, to a degree, my record sales, fund the company and then there’s these big holes on the other end that it all gets poured into. We’ve got this big effort now that is Righteous Babe Records, so yeah, somebody needs to gas up the car. I’m just travelling around fuelling up this little engine that could.”

DiFranco pauses, and her voice comes back with more conviction. “It’s certainly not just about making money, but it requires balance and sustainability. It’s sorta like sustainable farming: we just have to strike a balance with the income coming in and going back out again to all these political and artistic endeavours. It’s not getting easier.”

Living in clip

On one level, of course, she’s speaking of the Righteous Babe foundation, which has been donating money to such nonprofit organizations as Atlanta, Georgia’s Southern Center for Human Rights and to gallery and performance centres in Buffalo. But on another level, DiFranco speaks as the head of a record label which features 10 artists besides herself, including Toronto-based musical sensation Kurt Swinghammer, African-American poet Sekou Sundiata and socialist folk icon Utah Phillips. There are also plans afoot to launch Righteous Babe Publishing (or Press, it’s not quite decided yet), the first release of which will be a how-to-start-your-own-record-label manual based on the history of Righteous Babe.

“Another thing we’re doing is renovating a church in Buffalo to open up a performance space,” DiFranco continues. “So we’re going to embark upon running a venue and putting on live music shows—which is almost the focus of what we do, and what I do. It’ll kind of diversify our business in order to have it survive.” Given so many projects, I ask what keeps her going; her answer is surprisingly simple. “I love what I do so much, I’m fed so much by my work, that it’s hard for me to think of reasons to stop.”

Shifting gears, I mention the commonly held perception that all of her songs are autobiographical: that she is in actuality all of the restless, bisexual, angry, searching, hopeful, giddy, lesbian, romantic, political misfits of which she sings. Is it possible, I ask, for her to put too much of herself out there?

“Yes . . . and I think I’ve done it for at least a decade now,” she laughs again, her voice trailing off to a sigh. “It can get kinda claustrophobic for me in this little house of glass that I’ve built for myself. I basically try not to think about it, because it doesn’t help me—in fact, it would stop me from doing my work if I was to even glance at what people are saying about me or if I was to read any critical reviews of me.”

“I don’t read anything about me in the media,” DiFranco continues, “because I have a very thin skin—believe it or not—and those kind of things just really hurt and make me want to not do this, not show myself, not put my butt on the line.” (Her voice starts taking on a cadence, a rhythm, much like one of her famous spoken word pieces.) “It’s part of my political pursuit to be that open. I think for many of us it’s a political act just to tell your stories, because there’s only certain stories that are reiterated again and again in the mass media, on the television. For the rest of us, we have to take it upon ourself to diversify the dominant discourse.”

So much shouting, so much laughter

I ask about the speech she gave at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center incident last year, if she feels she has a responsibility to speak out about injustices. “I don’t even contemplate my responsibility as a musician or a performer when I give a speech to a political situation,” DiFranco explains. “I think of my responsibility as much more primary—it’s my responsibility as a human being, as a citizen. The stage, the platform, the microphone—those are merely opportunities. Each of us shares in this responsibility to take care of each other in whatever work we do, to consider each other and help each other. I just happen to have this job that facilitates that.” I point out that her words probably have more impact than most people’s.

“Whatever effect it has or doesn’t have, it’s what I must do for myself,” she continues. “I just speak from my heart. My society affects me emotionally. An imbalance of power or a lack of justice or peace—these things depress me, they enrage me, they debilitate me. It’s like all of those adages: harm to one is harm to us all.” DiFranco pauses, seems to struggle for words. “I don’t, mmm, I don’t feel comfortable . . . I can’t have a good time knowing that people are suffering greatly at the hands of my government. In order to be able to have joy in my life and have a good time, I also have to work against these violent destructive forces, you know?” I know.

Realizing time is ticking down, I tell her about the time a buddy was riding in my car while she—courtesy of one of the 11 DiFranco albums I own—was singing on the stereo. “What’s with the chick music?” he grunted. Given such a slight to my masculinity, I can’t help but ask if, as a man, I’m still in the minority of Ani fans.

“Happily, not anymore,” she laughs. “That’s another change that’s happened over the past bunch of years . . . although when I visit places like Victoria where I haven’t been in a long time, the audience does revert back to being mostly chicks.” But it’s clear I’ve struck a chord, and she continues on.

“I think there’s a kind of gender awareness that rears its head when there’s a woman at the helm,” DiFranco muses. “Suddenly it’s ‘chick music’ and somehow the fact that you’re doing this translation as a man is an extraordinary and strange thing—to listen to a woman and relate to it. But I think that’s a necessary and wonderful thing, and something that women do all the time; we kinda, you know, just start translating. In order to find liberation in your favourite rock band or your religious apparatus or your society which is patriarchal, you translate. . . . So the opposite, of course, must happen for us to have balance: we have to be able to listen to women speak, and also listen to the universality of it, the humanness of it and the inclusiveness of it. That’s one thing that I’ve always been aware of—I’m not just singing to women, I’m not just singing for women, and I’m not just singing about women.” “But there’s always been this stereotype of me, this kind of double-standard that as soon as I start singing, it’s chick music for girls,” she sighs. “I think a lot of the mainstream media harping on that has been a factor in excluding men from the audience, you know? I’m showing up in town and somebody writes, ‘Militant feminist chick-singer playing for 13-year-old girls tonight at the whatever hall.’ Since when is an adult male gonna feel that it’s someplace they can go?”

“Basically, what I am is a live performer,” DiFranco concludes. “And that will never die, that will never change. What was it Joseph Campbell said? ‘All we want is to be completely human and in each other’s company.’ That’s the glory of live performance, that’s what I love and live for.”

And, for much of Ani DiFranco’s audience, that’s what we live for too.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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