Ani DiFranco has been making gutsy folk music that shakes listeners from their Top 40 stupors and rallies audiences to action for almost 30 years.
Offstage and on, she uses her feminist icon status to raise awareness about political and social issues at a grassroots level. A tireless entrepreneur and independent musician, the 45-year-old known for her unconventional vocals, blunt lyrics, and enviable fingerpicking guitar skills has released over 20 albums on her own label, Righteous Babe Records.
DiFranco, a Buffalo, New York, native, now lives in New Orleans with her husband/producer and their two children. Her 18th studio album, Allergic to Water, came out in 2014. She spoke to City Pages ahead of the Minneapolis stop of her Vote Dammit! tour.
City Pages: Why did you decide to make politics the focus of your concert?
Ani DiFranco: It’s kind of everybody’s focus these days, is it not? Every time we have an election year, I’m always out there stomping for voter participation. Our voter turnout statistics in America are so dismal. I firmly believe that if everybody who could vote, did, we would just have such a better country. I feel so strongly about trying to encourage people not to squander their right to vote.
CP: Have you always been this passionate about getting people out to vote?
AD: Oh, yeah. 2000 was the first Vote Dammit tour and the first election that George W. and his regime stole. In 2004, we were out there again. This is another year where we just can’t go slack. The peril of Donald Trump’s popularity is really real and it’s really endangering America. All voters, all elections, we need to stay engaged, but this is a very dynamic and very important election.
CP: Have you in any way measured or heard anecdotally that you’ve inspired people to get out to vote?
AD: I don’t really read about myself. I’m not on social media. So I’m not sure. Hopefully, on a lot of these dates, we’ll have voter registration happening at the shows. In Minneapolis, we’re going to have a really cool organization, Lady Parts Justice, headed by this fabulous comedian, Lizz Winstead. She’s going to do a little comedy set in the middle of the evening.
Lady Parts Justice is an organization that focuses on reproductive rights for women. This uphill struggle for reproductive freedom continues to be really important. I feel like until we achieve that, on a federal level, in a real and permanent way that they can’t chip away state by state, we can’t move on to more pressing business. It’s this endless energy suck, fighting for basic rights for women.
CP: Why is music a good medium for political or feminist messages?
AD: Music is a great medium for any message. It’s the thing people carry in their hearts. There’s something very human about music and very important to our understanding of ourselves. Music is like this magic language that people all over the globe speak. What better way to communicate what’s most important to you? Music has been on the forefront of every social movement there ever was.
CP: Have you found yourself wanting to write about different subjects or making music in a different way as you get older?
AD: Sure. It’s always evolving. I’ve been writing songs for 25 years and I’m still finding new challenges. Some I invent for myself. A few years back, I challenged myself to write a happy song [laughs]. What a novel concept!
Like many songwriters, I turn to my instrument in times of trouble, when I’m struggling. In happy times, I’m quite mute. I did manage to crank out some songs about the happy, and the simple, and the good aspects of life, but it’s very challenging.
These days, I’m writing a lot of super political material. I just went through a few years of circling the wagons and going inward. I had a baby, so it was heavy family and personal time, so my songs reflected that. Now the kid is three, so I’m getting my life back and I’m getting back on my soapbox.
CP: Love is a major theme of your music, too. Some of your most beautiful songs are about love even if they’re not happy. What is it about love that you find inspiring?
AD: Oh, well, it’s the stuff of life, isn’t it? I don’t think any songwriter who’s alive could not write about love. It’s the thing that will knock you flat in one way or another. It’s nice to hear you say that some of my songs of love have touched you because I’ve gotten criticism over the years for writing about love.
Like, if I take a moment out of the crusade, I’m going slack, which to me seems like a very reductionist way of looking at life. I’m going to write about everything that touches me. Sometimes, for years on end, it’s love and love lost and love gained and all those foibles.
CP: Where are you hoping to go with the Righteous Babe label?
AD: We managed to have survived all these lean years as the music industry was burnt down and resurrected around us. I’m hoping this is an era in which Righteous Babe can be reborn. I’ve expanded our team and we have a lot of new, energetic people involved.
I can’t say anything specifically because the projects we’re looking at releasing are not definite or final but there are things in the works and they’re cool things. I’m pretty excited about Righteous Babe these days.
CP: And when can we expect a new album from you?
AD: Well ... I don’t know ... I have 12 songs that I recorded with my terrific band but I’m on baby time so the recordings are sitting there, waiting to be fleshed out and finished. Between the mom-ing and the touring, it’s hard for me to get very many moments in the studio for my own work. Definitely this year, but I don’t know when I’m going to have it done.
CP: You live in New Orleans now. What about that city enticed you to live there?
AD: Music, music, music. That’s what first drew me here. Then I met my husband here and I have family here. It’s a musical epicenter of the globe. It’s an awesome place to live if you’re a musician. There’s not many cities — especially of this size — where you could go out any night of the week and be inspired by some amazing shit. I love New Orleans for that.
Ani DiFranco's Vote Dammit! Tour
With: Chastity Brown.
When: 7 p.m. Sun., April 10.
Where: First Avenue.
Tickets: $45; more info here.