Every freakish thing about my school friends and me wasn’t so freakish in the altered social construct of Ani Difranco’s art. In fact, it was celebrated. Imagine that. Difranco guided this college kid through some rough periods between 1995 and 1999.
We, of course, recognized the patriarchy, the agony, the oppression she so eloquently pinpointed in Out of Range, Not a Pretty Girl, Dilate and Living in Clip, all released on her own label, Righteous Babe. These recordings let us know we weren’t alone in our beliefs and provided a jaggedly stark sound track to countless new experiences, experiments and discoveries. However clichéd that sounds, it was our reality.
She sang to us the gospel of independence and the hopelessness of inevitable defeat: “Fuck you and your untouchable face/Fuck you for existing in the first place/And who am I/that I should be vying for your touch/Who am I/Bet you can’t even tell me that much.”
Simple, sure, but it was powerful stuff.
Years later, after graduation, after I got a real job to pay real rent in a real city, Ani slipped a bit on the playlist, replaced by the music of my pre-college years, some really depressing shit. The blissfully naive and wise moments of those four years will never be recaptured.
But Ani has grown as well, as is apparent on her new double-CD release, Revelling/Reckoning, a mature display of her intensely personal politics, this time through lush musical arrangements, adding layers to her gritty-jittery guitar.
“I think the titles are big clues as to the nature of each disc and how they relate to each other,” Ani explains. “Of course, life is never that simple or black and white. So the first disc (Revelling) is not exactly a party album. With Reckoning, I noticed the ideas of a girl reckoning with herself and her relationship and her life and her responsibility, etc., etc., kept coming up. And as I spent a year or more just living inside of this album and expanding on the themes, the ideas about a society reckoning with itself at the turn of the century started to come into it as well.”
Just waking up after a long night out, Ani managed to wax prolific upon countless cans of worms over the phone from her Buffalo home. And while she has surely been bitten by sound and bitten others as well, it’s impossible to sound-bite her words.
Metro Times: Before Revelling/Reckoning, you released three CDs in 1999 and an EP in 2000. You appeared to be taking a much-deserved break, but then you came back with a double CD. Were these songs clawing inside you and had to get out at once? Was it really a break?
Ani Difranco: Well, you know that story about the big break and the big comeback, somebody made it up and somebody picked it up, but it’s sort of a myth. Between the Revelling/Reckoning CDs and To The Teeth is really not too much more than a year. It looks like two years because we pushed to get To The Teeth out in November of ’99, rather than January like we shoulda, just because that was the end of the ’90s. It was the end of the century for me, not the beginning of the new one, you know. So that was kind of an aesthetic thing.
And this one, because it’s two albums, the process really protracted and just became longer and more involved on every level. Of course, a musical one, then also the graphics, etc., etc. So it got pushed forward into the spring. There was no break. It was just me, you know, following my muse. This new record turned into two records for reasons of its own. My job is to really just try and sit and listen to what the songs tell me to do.
MT: Which album of yours do you think was the hardest to do or finish because of pressures you felt or created for yourself?
Difranco: I’ve made so many records now. Some of them were easier and some of them were harder for various reasons. This is definitely one of the most difficult on just about every level. Personally, emotionally, also just the fact of how involved and how much work it represents for me. It was really funny. As I was getting toward completion of these records, I started realizing, “My God, I’ve never felt so pregnant in my life.” I’ve never just wanted an album to get out of me so much. It just really struck me, “Oh this really isn’t an album. It’s really two albums. I’m really making two. That must be why it feels like twice the work.” Certainly a lot of the songs on these two records were some of the hardest I’d ever written in terms of showing myself in some of my most vulnerable, least flattering light. It’s much easier to be the hero in a song. But I didn’t find myself as a very heroic character this last year.
MT: Musically, you always go in new directions on each release. You get kind of funky and jazzy on this one, no doubt partially due to Maceo Parker’s contributions.
Difranco: I don’t create sounds in a calculated way. … Music for me is a much more intuitive process, and I think that’s how I get close to my truth or closest to the sounds that are inside me, by not trying to order them on the way out. My music changes as my life changes. These albums represent my new band. For the last year or more I’ve expanded my band to include a horn section so I’ve sort of been developing a musical vocabulary with my fellow musicians, really becoming more of an arranger. And now I write some songs directly for the band, rather than write them on an acoustic guitar and then fit the band behind them or into them. It’s sort of an expanded way of thinking and working musically for me. What it ends up sounding like is, I hope, maybe, a little bit more sophisticated than “songwriter with guitar and musical accompaniment.” Now I have a vision that incorporates all of those instruments and also a creative relationship with all of those people that resonates through the music now. It’s sort of our collective sensibility that is traveling.
MT: How do you define success? Apparently, it’s not through how much money you make or size of shows. You’ve headlined the FleetCenter (in Boston), but in Michigan, you always play Meadow Brook Music Festival.
Difranco: It’s definitely not a money thing, and it’s pretty much not a number of people at the show thing. For me, success is being able to make art and effect political change and pay the rent and keep the lights on at the office. What makes me feel best in life is to feel a sense of accomplishment on political and creative levels. I’ve achieved that in big rooms in front of a lot of people, and I’ve achieved that in tiny rooms in front of a handful of people. It’s really that feeling of giving and exhausting yourself that is so rewarding, that makes sitting down after a show and having a beer feel really good.
MT: Much political protest today is economic related, in terms of trade and multinational corporations. Music-wise, large booking agents control the majority of the shows coming to town. You’ve kind of held the anti-corporate stance all along. Revelling/Reckoning brings it up again.
Difranco: It’s encouraging to see young people recognizing the huge overarching, inescapable, evil forces of capitalism and corporate power in some of its facets. But of course, corporate America is getting away with murder, meanwhile. So I think the word revolution might be outlandishly helpful. There is some movement toward criticizing that structure, which is really thrilling. The protests that just happened in Quebec, in Seattle and in Prague. There are people dedicating their lives to stop the scourge. I think that we should stop worrying about the separation of church and state and start worrying about the separation of corporations and the state. Because I think they are certainly our new church and in terms of world power, multinational corporations are it and they are running our government. They’re running our society. They have a stranglehold on our culture. With the monopoly of the music industry for instance, it’s incredibly dehumanizing. There’s a controlling of information. I don’t know who owns your newspaper, but I suspect it’s probably not … oh yeah, you had those huge labor strikes there not long ago.
MT: Oh, no, those are the dailies. This is the alternative weekly.
Difranco: Bzzt. Try again. Oh well, yeah. Just the consolidation of ownership in the media is also another terrifying aspect. When the capitalist interest controls all the sources of information, you know for sure, you’re not going to get even close to the truth. The fight against corporate control is something that I’ve lived. It’s something that I started to pursue very early on in life. And I am glad to see that a new generation of people who never knew an America before it, who probably never went down to their local drug store, who never ate at a local Mexican restaurant — it was always chains and always major labels and commercial radio was always controlled and consolidated — I’m glad that those people actually do recognize the kind of corporate state that they’re living under. And that they’ve begun to try and fight it.
MT: Many bands these days are taking an anti-corporate stance and are receiving a great deal of attention partially because of it. Plus, we see multinational mergers failing, along with the dot-coms. We’re in somewhat of an economic downturn. Do you think these are signs of a crumbling corporate culture?
Difranco: The corporate state is certainly not going to crumble with George Bush in the White House. In fact, every single breath that he takes is done so that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and that is the state of our government at this point.
MT: Is it hard being your own boss? Do you have any advice on the topic?
Difranco: Sure, it’s hard. Basically, in order to do it, you have to have a really strong idea of why. Because it just isn’t the easiest route to fame and fortune. If that’s what’s driving you, it’s going to be an incredibly frustrating and discouraging route to be independent. … It’s funny. All those years that I remained independent, and people were like, “Oh she’s got too much attitude for her own good. She’s cutting off her nose to spite her face” and “We can get you out of this dumpy little bar and put you in a real bar and maybe you can sell more than hundreds of your new record.” All of those things were true. The only thing that’s going to make somebody say, “Well, that may all be true, but no thank you,” is a genuine belief in an alternative purpose. It’s not like there’s any guarantees … so you really just have to truly believe in living your political ideals. And that’s sort of what drove me. ’Cause it’s just not practical. But it’s such a rewarding feeling to have only worked in my life with other independents, with other political people, with other people who really believe in music, not in the bottom line. And at this point in my life, I have a whole community around myself of other people that I’ve helped grow or that have helped me grow. … I recommend it wholeheartedly.
June 20, Meadow Brook Music Festival
Oakland University, Rochester Hills