Ani DiFranco talks Obama, writing, and Minneapolis

Ani effing DiFranco

Ani effing DiFranco

The life of a music writer is flush with contradictions. Stray too far from a critical viewpoint and you're a fangirl; critique too harshly and you're a bully. Stay firm, but not too firm; stay objective, and admire the creativity from afar. And whatever you do, regardless of how deeply personal the music you are reviewing might be, heaven forbid you impress the faintest outline of your own emotions into your work.

But then, out of left field, comes the day when you are staring down the receiver of your telephone and trying to come to terms with the fact that the voice on the other end of the line is your Favorite. Musician. Ever. The one who is your default reply to every "What kind of music are you into?" question. The one who has appeared at least once on every mixtape you've made in the past five years. The one for whom you've lost all objectivity, whose mere voice is enough to make you go soft inside, whose songs have nursed you through devastations and cheered on your celebrations and become wrapped up in your very personality, your very being.

That voice, for me, is Ani DiFranco's, and the day came fast and hard. All of a sudden, I found myself crouched on the floor of my bedroom, jerry-rigging my recorder to my old rotary-dial telephone, and painstakingly dragging my fingers over the numbers to her studio line in New Orleans. It seemed appropriate, somehow, to conduct the interview this way, in much the same way I had listened to her music—on my knees in my room, just her and me. My heart was so far up my throat that I could taste it in my mouth. My breath stopped short, and my whole body froze as the phone rang and a voice came onto the end of line. I shook my head at all these nerves—what kind of journalist was I?

It only took a few seconds for her to suss out the situation and put me at ease. "I love your voice. It's very cute and sexy," she giggled. "So yeah, there, we'll start like that."

Ani DiFranco is many things to many people—a model feminist, a pioneer of independent music, a leader of the political folk movement. At a recent performance at the Rothbury Festival in Michigan, she debuted a song she had written for Barack Obama—and unlike the rebellious anthems typically associated with the political folk genre, her song painted the president in a positive light and celebrated his accomplishments as a teacher and leader.

"It's such a great time to be a songwriter, a folk singer," she says, reflecting on Obama's new presidency. "A lot of our energy as activists, as progressive people, gets poured into fighting an uphill battle. Fighting against somebody else in power. And it's somewhat wasted energy. The longer I live on this planet, the more I realize that I should dedicate all of my energy to supporting those that are doing the right thing, rather than try to change or convince or fight those that are doing the wrong thing."

Which isn't to say that she is lacking in criticism of the status quo. "I wish that [Obama] was king, and that he could ignore all those other people right now. [laughs] But not only is he not king, he's merely president, and merely one man. Some people are starting to get really critical of him that were formerly supportive, and I think we should be critical of ourselves. This is a challenge for all of us, to participate in this debate rather than rely on him to be our hero once again."

But DiFranco is more than just a political songwriter. Much of the material that occupies her massive back catalog of albums is intensely personal, giving the listener a firsthand look at her relationships, her struggles, and even her own feelings of insecurity and self-loathing.

"Until you say it, it's hard to really know it," she reflects. "And it's certainly hard for somebody else to know what it is you are made of, until you speak it. That's just the way that we're made as humans. I definitely find, in relationships, that unless you speak it and put it on the record, it can all be subject to doubt, or forgetting. Words are very powerful in that way—and very useful, and very dangerous, at turns."

"That's why I write," she says, "to write myself into being."

DiFranco also says she's excited to return to a rock club like First Avenue "after so many years of playing theaters in Minneapolis." And on behalf of superfans everywhere, rest assured that Minneapolis Ani fans will be excited to see her back in the rock 'n' roll realm.

You'll find me in the front row. 

READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT of this interview on ANI DIFRANCO plays with Gregory Alan Isakov on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775.