Backstage With Ani DiFranco
On her new ode to feminism and PTA meetings slowing down her songwriting
At about three in the afternoon, as I am led through the stage-entrance passage at the Town Hall in New York by Ani DiFranco’s tour manager, Heidi Kunkel, I see the back of a short figure in plain clothes, hunched over a table, in conversation with someone. I know it is DiFranco. I have never met DiFranco or watched her live in concert. I have only seen her in recorded performances. But I have been often told – in the way that people make observations about artists whose role in performance mode transcends their life-size dimensions – that her physical stature doesn’t quite equate with the propulsive energy she steers on stage. DiFranco has a small, petite frame and one of the warmest, most welcoming smiles. She is taking a coffee break from the rehearsal for her concert that night at the Town Hall.
This concert is the last stop of her mini-winter tour, after which the 42 year old singer-songwriter will be taking a brief hiatus as she is expecting her second child. DiFranco tells me that she took time off before delivering her first born, Petah Lucia, and that worked out quite well. Petah, who is now five years old, was on the road with DiFranco till she was about three-and-a-half. “She learned to walk on a bus, rolling down the road, so she is very sure-footed,” DiFranco laughs.
The peaked center of the distinctive, tribal tattoo on her chest, peers out of the cornflower blue cardigan she is wearing, and slender lines of ink snake around the fingers of her left hand. Most of these tattoos date back to her earlier years as an artist, I reckon she has only one recent tattoo, a wedding band. DiFranco professes her love for husband Mike Napolitano on her latest album – “look here I tattooed a wedding band…when that little needle said I do” (‘Albacore’). She wears her hair in a wavy, bob do, and soft lines easily crease around the corners of her eyes whenever she smiles.
Sitting in her dressing room, I sneak a peek at the set list on the table beside us, old songs like “Dilate,” “You Had Time,” “Hypnotized” and “32 Flavors,” are pressed between tracks from her latest album and completely new numbers (“Genie,” “Woe Be Gone” and “Careless Word”). With a career spanning two decades, DiFranco could release a retrospective in another ten. “I look back at everything, I cringe, I laugh, I cry. I’ve made, I don’t know, twenty records or something, just a lot of songs and some of them are very different lifetimes,” she says. She refers to songs like “Dilate” and “You Had Time” as written from a period in her life where she had to deal with a lot of pathos and heartbreak. “It’s actually been challenging the last few years of my life to write about happiness, it’s tricky. It’s much more automatic for a songwriter, when they are struggling and in pain, to pick up their instrument and try to work through it, but to express the simple, and the happy, and the contented feelings in life is very challenging.”
In January this year, DiFranco released her seventeenth studio album, Which Side Are You On?. The record released at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement was driving a healthy, sustained dissonance; the country was warming-up to the 2012 Presidential elections; women’s rights were being debated by, mostly male, bureaucrats; the climate was turning into something of an unruly specter [as the GOP would have us believe]; and DiFranco settled under the firmament of an enduring love. The title track is a workers-union anthem, “Which Side Are You On?,” popularized by Pete Seeger, and contemporized by DiFranco to address the pressing issues of our time. Seeger’s original overture, the simplistic twang of the banjo, relays to a revved up, foot-stomping thrum, as DiFranco urges people to vote -“they stole a few elections/still we the people won/We voted out corruption/and big corporations …are you part of the solution?/or are you part of the con?” The politically charged album seemed to tie in with various debates on the table, from climate change (“Splinter”) to legalizing the use of marijuana (‘J’) and abortion laws (“Amendment”) to the economy (“Which Side Are You On?”). There seems to be a prophetic quality to some of these songs as this year comes to a close. President Obama renewed his wedding vows with the country, the states of Colorado and Washington okayed the recreational use of marijuana and New York just took a massive hit in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Many had predicted that the election race would be close and former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a strong shot at victory. DiFranco dismisses it as the kind of possibility that could only unravel in some dystopian fiction, “I can’t fathom it, you know, it’s like saying what if your mom had cancer? Now I am not going to think about that, it would be too dark.”
While the album is rife with socio-political commentary, the folk musician made plenty considerations – “Hearse,” “Albacore,” “Mariachi” – for love, her husband Napolitano, her family. Back in New Orleans, where she lives, DiFranco assumes additional roles, “I maybe the feminist of the universe but I am also the cook and the cleaner in my house.”
Later in the evening on stage, as she introduces one of her newer songs, DiFranco tells fans about her new drift, “I’ve got some new stuff. It doesn’t come as quick as it used to, a lot of PTA meetings to go for, I am the lunch lady in my kid’s school. I’ve never loved my job this much!” When she tells me about a work-in-progress, a “Poem” she has been working on for years now, she also admits that, for an artist as prolific as her, she is still getting used to this slower pace of songwriting.
DiFranco is dressed in an elegant, black and red, floral blouse – a small departure from the basic sleeveless vest, one is accustomed to seeing her in during performances – paired with light grey, drawstring pants, her hair softly falls along the sides of her face. She opens the night with “Fuel” (Little Plastic Castle, 1998), followed by the soft lilt of “a folk song with the planet in mind” (“Splinter”). As she revisits old songs, DiFranco delivers with effortless craftsmanship, but emotionally, she doesn’t live here anymore. “Here’s a little visit to the bad old days,” she says as her fingers pick the melancholy notes to the painfully beautiful dirge, “Dilate.”
On “You Had Time” a smidge of irony plays up as the audience rouses a soft cheer around the lyrics, “you’ll say, did they love you or what?/ I’ll say they love what I do/the only one who really loves me is you.” As the night strung along, with DiFranco’s conversational digs at just about anything, she threw in a customized knock-knock joke – “Knock, knock – who’s there? – gay rights, women rights, a bald eagle, motherfucker, and some weed!” But there was also the poignant stretch, as DiFranco read the new version of the “Poem” she’d been working on. Her face lit-up when she chatted about it earlier in the day, particularly with regard to a new book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess by Leonard Shlain, which has had a tremendous impact on her and “infected the poem.” The poem is essentially an ode to feminism, a constantly evolving conversation on women’s emancipation. “I never really got a good picture of how it started, like how did we get to global patriarchy, like I know it wasn’t always so,” she says speaking of the book and how it traces patriarchy back to the alphabet. DiFranco steers into this discussion about the defined roles of the sexes and how they align with the left and the right brain, while trying to touch upon the book’s complex engagement with brain psychology, linguistics, human history, patriarchy and monotheism. These theories strongly intertwine and with her underscoring philosophy of balance in life. The feminist convictions were reinstated, as she powerfully delivered her verse in spoken word.
DiFranco suggests that while she will not be on the road in the near future, she will be getting together with her band to record music and has already written a “pile of new songs.” One of the more recent songs she performed on stage was “Genie” – “we woke up married/after one drunk fuck/I didn’t believe you found me/I didn’t believe my luck” – which is dedicated to Napolitano.
Even though DiFranco played a bunch of new songs from her latest album and otherwise, she gave the fans plenty of what they wanted that night, from the flirtatious licentiousness of “The Whole Night” to the rabid, percussive thump of “Shameless.” Towards the end, DiFranco had the audience up on their feet, like a modern-day Woody Guthrie, a true folk-musician, she rallied loud and sonorous with “Which Side Are You On?”