Ani DiFranco: The extended interview


My column this week is about my recent conversation with Ani DiFranco, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicians. You can read my giddy recounting of our interview in the print version of my column, or see below for the straight transcript of our conversation. Ani plays tonight in Rochester, tomorrow night in Duluth, and at First Avenue this coming Sunday, September 20, with Gregory Alan Isakov.

Are there musicians or writer or artists that have affected your life in a profound way?

Definitely. People like Greg Brown, Utah Phillips, my folk singing comrades. I think Suzanne Vega was a super early influence, and also an acquaintance when I was a kid. Then it was Thelonius Monk, just the way he phrases, and Betty Carter, this jazz singer, later on in my singing--she was my singing teacher. At some point, I stopped playing guitar and singing along, and really started singing. So many. So many people along the way. Maceo Parker, when I was hanging out with him, he really got me on the groove side of life. I can hear my music from the time we were hanging out, it's just total emulation. And then later on, incorporation.

Have you gotten the opportunity to meet you idols? You've worked with Maceo and Utah, obviously.

And Prince, yeah. Bonnie Raitt. I've met a lot of amazing people along the way, just being out there, on the road.

Do you still get nervous when you meet people?

Oh definitely. Sekou Sundiata, who was a poet that released a record on Righteous Babe, was also a teacher of mine, literally, in college for the few years that I went. And he was such a rock star to me. I couldn't breathe when I was in his presence, you know. I can be as much of a fan as anybody else.

You recently wrote a song about Barack Obama. What are your impressions of him as a president?

Well, I think right now is a tough little juncture. This health care bill is not going well. I think that Barack and all of the democrats have made way too many concessions; I think the bill is kind of bullshit already. I'm not even sure if I hope that this passes. I think we need real, socialized medicine, and I'm kind of aching for him to really stand up once again, the way he has done most of his political career, and question the kind of presuppositions of the media, which I think are very much still wedded to the conservative mindset of the past bunch of years. Even this silly accusation of "This is socialism!"--which, unfortunately, it's very far from it, but I think this is the time--Barack is such a great teacher. And I think this is his chance to stand up and say, what is wrong with socialism? The Cold War is very far behind us, and has capitalism really served us all that well, people? Let's look at the free market compared to the role of government, and really start shifting the way we're thinking about these things.

I agree, I feel like he's been pushed around lately, and we need him to be strong again.

Yeah, you can tell he's just being a little prickled right now, under the pressures of working in Washington. I don't envy the man, his position. I know I can't begin to fathom what those pressures and constrictions feel like. I wish that he was king, and that he could ignore all those other people right now. 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.

Often times, when folk singers get political, it's a way to speak out against injustices and wrongdoings. As a political songwriter, how does it feel to write a song about someone you actually like and support?

It's great. It's such a great time to be a songwriter, a folk singer. A lot of our energy as activists, as progressive people, like you say, 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. I think the stronger we can make ourselves, the more people will just come along. It is a really good time to have positive momentum to work with, to sing about.

It seems like recently, especially with the release of the Canon collection, that you are incorporating more of your older material into your sets. When you look back at everything you've written, was anything difficult to revisit?

Yeah, 98% was totally excruciatingly hard. Even songs that I love, I don't love the recording. So that was just a really hard process, putting together that compilation. But I think, like you say, that it did set me more on the course of, "let's re-learn some of those old songs that are kind of cool and have fallen away."

Are there songs that you won't play or can't play live?

Yeah, lots of 'em. There's just tons of songs I don't know how to play anymore. I have so little time these days, being a mom, it seems like if I'm not on stage or working on somebody's record, I'm mom-ing. It's hard to find the time to go back and re-learn old stuff, or write new stuff, all of that--the creative process. But I would like to get some more of the old canon in my vocabulary now. But a lot of the songs, I'm not feeling them right now. Songs about tortured love triangles or whatever. That's not where my life is anymore, thank god. [laughs]

As a writer, I sometimes feel like I haven't even experienced something until I've written it down--almost like it didn't even happen until I documented it. Have you ever encountered that?

Definitely. I think that's not just us writers. It seems like until--and this is such a big part of feminist philosophy, too--until you say it, it's hard to really know it. And it's certainly hard for somebody else to know it, what it is you are made of, until you speak it. That's just the way that we're made as humans. Our language informs the structure of our thought. Therefore, patriarchal language equals patriarchal thought. As women, it's hard to even reconcile who we are--it's hard to even say it in this language. But I definitely find, in relationships, unless you speak it and put it on the record, it can all be subject to doubt, or forgetting. I think words are very powerful in that way, and very useful, and very dangerous, at turns.

I heard you speak recently about the idea of self-loathing, and how you have come to terms with your self image. I feel like this is something that a lot of women in my life are dealing with. What advice would you give to a self-conscious woman? Did things change after you had your baby?

I don't know if they changed, but I certainly knuckled down my effort to make it change. It's hard to change your thought patterns. One thing that really has helped me recently in life to love myself is my partner. He just changed my whole life, and his love of me helps me to love me. And then along comes this baby, this evidence of all this love, and seeing her--I think, probably in that interview, I was talking about the song "Present/Infant." To hold this little person in my arms that has a face that really echoes my own makes me really check in with the fact that I hate my face. And it's an ongoing struggle in my life. Now here is this other little being, and god forbid I should teach her to hate her face. I so don't want to do that. So I've gotta fix this. I've gotta fix it now. It's been 38 years, and I haven't really been able to. But for her sake, I'm resolute at this point. I don't know how much headway I've made but that song--that's why I write, you know, to write myself into being. And in that song, anyway, I've done it. There's nothing wrong with your face. And for the moments that I sing it, I feel it, and I believe it, and in that way I slowly change myself.

You've stayed so prolific for so long. Does it ever get hard to keep creating?

I guess, for me, I'm lucky. Very early on I developed a work ethic and also the means to take my everyday thoughts and observations and forge them into songs. I'm highly motivated by the fact that I play live constantly. And I always want something new on stage, I hate to regurgitate and repeat myself. So that's very motivating. That's what makes me write. I know I'm going to have to stand up on stage tomorrow and the next day and the next day, and I just want to have something new to sing to keep it fresh. And yeah, these days, having a baby, it's kind of a Catch-22. I don't have the writing time, it's just not there. A couple of times--one time I went on tour for I think a week, or 10 days, without her, my daughter. And I'm going to do that again this tour for about a week. Last time I did it, I wrote four songs. A lot of it was very intentional, like I'm going to write while she's not here and doesn't need my attention.

How old is your daughter now?

She is 2 and three-quarters.

So she needs a lot of your attention.

Yeah. Oh my god. They just suck the life right outta ya. [laughs]

When you come to Mpls, you will be at First Ave. I think it's the first time in a while that you've come to town and not played a theater. Did you choose the venue?

No, I got lucky. My booking agent is mostly in charge of that kind of thing, what's the appropriate venue. But for myself, the smaller the better, and after so many years of playing theaters in Minneapolis, and actually that one theater that I find pretty hard ---


Yeah, it's boomy and you can't feel the audience. So I'm really excited to be in a club, because that's usually the funnest show, kind of rock and roll.

Are you working on a new album?

Well, right now I'm actually working on somebody else's record. I did start my new record, but it's just been on the shelf for months now as I do other stuff. But I'm very excited about some new Righteous Babe releases that I'm helping to finish up. Erin McKeown is about to release her record on Righteous Babe, which I didn't have a hand in the making of but it's a beautiful record, I'm totally psyched about it. One of the things I have been working on is the new Anais Mitchell record, she's a beautiful singer-songwriter from Vermont, and she's written an opera, where I sing one of the parts. There's a lot of different people involved. The scope of it is huge. So that's coming together. I'm also working on Animal Prufrock record, I don't know if you remember the duo Bitch and Animal, they released a few records on Righteous Babe a decade ago, and now it's just Animal's solo project.

Will you play new material at the show?

Oh, for sure. I favor the new songs, always. They're of the moment