Two decades and nineteen albums later, Ani DiFranco in her twentieth takes to electric sound and a new concern â€“ her daughter.
“I am not as hungry as I was when I was young,” today Ani DiFranco might not choke the microphone with her militant verse or arrest the voice of the dissenting youth. Today, the feisty singer-songwriter sits rested at home, cradling her baby daughter, Petah Lucia, revelling in the idea of family with her partner (“My baby’s daddy” as she puts it,) Mike Napolitano, who is also the co-producer of her latest record, Red Letter Year. DiFranco explains where she is at in her life and career with a touch of sagacity, “I am not as eager anymore; I am not as convinced of my rightness and all of these things that propel you when you are young. But I am happy, being with my family who I love, who inspire me, and I feel like happiness is the greatest motivation. And I have been writing, but in different ways, with a different energy, a sense of myself and a grounding which I didn’t have before.” The Grammy award winning artist is embracing an existence which might not challenge her faculties as much as when she battled the world single handedly. Her songs today might not exactly be the reflections of a lone woman and her swashbuckling adventures in mostly Buffalo and New York – uncorking feelings on relationships gone wrong, the uncertainty of tomorrows and the trials of having to function within an inadvertently male dominated society. Time seems to have tempered the rebel. Or perhaps it’s just life taking its course.
DiFranco’s story boosts the morale of the independent artist as it busts the myth that mainstream labels are key to the commercial success of musicians. As The New York Times once very appropriately stated – “Ani is the ultimate DIY songwriter.” In the same vein Rolling Stone previously lauded her as being “fiercely independent.” In a way DiFranco is one of the few who took independent to the mainstream. She has built herself her own self sufficient queendom – her record label and production company Righteous Babe records which shelters myriad indie artists, a rundown church converted into a concert hall endearingly christened Babeville and her own distribution network through Europe and Canada. Back in the day when DiFranco gave the boot to mainstream labels and managed to sell herself with compelling success the press gorged on her business-savvy alter-ego as if breaking down a successful business module. In the late Nineties LA Times published an article on Righteous Babe stating that the singer thwarted the corporate overhead by choosing to remain independent, thereby pocketing $4.25 per unit, as opposed to the $1.25 made by Hootie and the Blowfish or the $2.00 made by Michael Jackson. The story was reprinted by The New York Times, Forbes magazine, and the Financial News Network. She responded to a mention of the same in Ms magazine in an open letter “So here I am, publicly morphing into some kinda Fortune 500-young-entrepreneur-from-hell, and all along I thought I was just a folksinger!” Today Righteous Babe as a record label has nurtured and discovered over fourteen artists with immense regard for their art and little creative meddling and has been responsible for some compelling finds such as Andrew Bird and Michael Meldrum. She maintains that her intention was not to feed an already thriving business but in sincere appreciation of the art she came across while on the road. “That’s one thing I can say in my credit, cause none of the other people on Righteous Babe have ever made money. I make money and then I spend it on other artists. But you know, what are you going to spend your money on? I live comfortably, eat well and I’m fine. So we have this money which I’d rather invest in art and political endeavours.” DiFranco keeps a watch out for promising independent artists who are in dire need of support, and that’s where Righteous Babe essentially steps in. “I scout artists when I introspect with working musicians who are out there and doing it by themselves during tours. We are like a label which can help the working musician to put their records out there.” Speaking with DiFranco you interact with the sum of its parts – the musician and the maverick entrepreneur. The radical punk folkie feels the need to give her manager, Scot Fisher, his rightful due “I have an inherent sense of balance you know, and an inherent sense of instinct but I do not have a business savvy mind. I have a very good manager in Scot, he gets very little credit. He is the person who really constructed Righteous Babe records according to my vision and his vision and our dialogue born over the years.”
Her own beginnings were not ambitious. At the young age of 15 a young girl walks out of home to rough it out in the Big Apple and gratifies her artistic incline by busking exhaustively through Buffalo and NY. Resuscitating Woody Guthrie’s ghost as did Dylan, DiFranco prowled on every platform she got, big or small, ensuring her presence on the scene. By age 18, with her first record, she started her own label under the name of Righteous Babe with a humble investment of $ 50. Since 1990 till day, DiFranco has come out with an album every year without fail and sometimes even two. Almost two decades into her career and she has championed women’s lib rights, challenged Christian conservatives’ views on abortion and sexuality, figuratively punctured corporate arteries and called war on the Bush regime. It’s been an untiring protest which has – to whoever’s been listening – reinstated awareness and prodded dormant minds.
Now, after a successful run of 19 albums, comes her twentieth, Red Letter Year, probing the electric sound. DiFranco’s got herself a plugged in army, which, to a small extent impales her vocals. Peculiarly, a few songs invite a grunge inflicted soul on instrumentation but totter on a weak foundation as opposed to her back catalogue, which employed mostly an acoustic guitar and engaging vocals. Even with fewer resources her impact as a one woman army was more endearing. Somehow on Red Letter Year the intrinsic value of her songs gives in to the clutter of monstrous watt power over various sections. It’s mostly the rampant fuzz of guitars that has its incriminating effect. Also, DiFranco’s vocals have been laboriously processed rendering a very synthetic sound print. The experimentative singer-songwriter shrugs off my suggestion and stands up for her newly found sound and band. “Well, I am happy that the guitar is not inaudible, you know some points in my journey the guitar has been subordinated. And then I am working with a very cool band, I think that just provides a great basis, I mean there are amazing string sections, brass sections”¦I feel happy about all of the many other people involved,” she says. After years of solitary music making, she suggests the change is much welcome. Whatever the case, the album shall be definitive in moving away from the sensibility her previous work subscribed to, and in its rock friendly metamorphosis, just might, invite a larger audience.
Besides, the woman’s lyrical charm is still inescapable and the words out a more scrupulous DiFranco. Her newly found motherhood gushes on ‘Landing Gear’ – “You little bag of sugar/Floating in your bias-sphere/Summon the courage/To put down your landing gear /And come out here…you’re gonna love this world/If it’s the last thing I/The whole extravagant joke/Topped in bitter sweet chocolate goo/For someone who ain’t even here yet/Look how much the world loves you.” The doting mother wishes some things are different for her daughter growing up. DiFranco catches me off-guard when she lets me know that she has had to constantly struggle with self-loathing for the larger part of her life even after she was well on her feet and had hoards of patrons. “In my life self-loathing has been the biggest ingredient. You know, like I don’t have the prettiest face on the block and as females of course we are all raised to value our physical appearance over everything, and I’ve lived and still live with a lot of self loathing.” DiFranco cites the track ‘Present/Infant’ off Red Letter Year, which is written with the very intention for her daughter – “It’s about me wanting her to love and respect herself and her face and her life. That’s one thing I have been challenging myself about, like I need to address this so that I don’t teach it.” DiFranco listeners might be slightly confounded by this admission of hers as DiFranco’s music has always exuded an overbearing conviction in her being ”“ “When I need to wipe my face/I use the back of my hand/And I like to take up space/Just because I can/and I use my dress to wipe up my drink/I care less and less what people think” a disregarding DiFranco wrote on ”˜Dilate’ off her 1996 album of the same name. She laughs at my contention, “Yeah, you know its more like I am convincing myself that it’s okay and trying to make the world seem what its not!”
Her daughter maybe her world right now but with the change come a few compromises. Today, Petah rightfully commands most of her attention, allowing her lesser time to acknowledge the world outside than she would like to. “I just told my partner the other day”¦lately I have been home, my baby is a year and a half, so I’ve been home a lot with her and just not out and about, listening to music in bars, being inspired. I miss being out in the world, in society and live art that inspires me and triggers me. So I have to sort of make my inspiration by myself at home, so books and ideas that come to me in my little world are very valued.” Which is why, perhaps, DiFranco’s songs today may not redeem any skeletons in the closet or make for bold confessions of nights misspent on the road. But though circumstances and inspirations have changed, DiFranco hasn’t – she is still as sincere, grounded and frank. I sign off asking her if she is okay with people in countries as India who don’t have access to her work illegally downloading it off the net – “Jeez, I mean it’s a hard thing for me as an independent artist somebody who kinda counts on every album sale, but it’s not really for me to judge. Technology is changing and people are getting their music from different sources. Even people here don’t go to record stores and buy records! So I try not to diss too much and just accept the fact that things are changing, but I don’t know where this is headed. I am a live artist so as long as I can do live gigs I guess all’s well.”