The first words we hear on Ani DiFranco’s new album, Which Side Are You On? are these: “Every time I open my mouth, I take off my clothes. I’m raw and frostbitten from being exposed.” These lines are not surprising coming from a folk-punk singer/songwriter who’s built a remarkable career by forever opening her mouth and ruthlessly exposing her feelings about herself and the world around her.
No, the surprise comes when we slowly realize that DiFranco isn’t singing as herself but as an actual homeless woman with “red scabby hands and purple scabby feet” who uses a park bench as her “Life Boat,” the name of the song. It’s a reminder that DiFranco isn’t limited to the narrow formula of the confessional folkie singer/songwriter; she can create characters as deftly as John Prine or Mary Gauthier.
That confessional formula is further eroded by the jazz-swing guitar rhythm behind the vocal. For this is not a bleak lament for the plight of the homeless; this character is no saintly victim but rather a real person. She may stink so badly that you can smell her coming down the street; she may maintain an incomprehensible running monologue, but she also has moments of grace when a knowing grin breaks out on her “tired old face.”
“I enjoy tricking the listener with that song,” DiFranco says by phone from her home in New Orleans, “because people are used to hearing me sing about myself. People assume the narrator is always me. That’s why I chose that song to start the record, because you start listening and you assume what’s happening; then it shifts and you have to adjust.”
It’s not the only trick she employs on the new album to wriggle out of the confessional songwriter box. She uses New York jazz musicians such as bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Allison Miller to lend odd harmonies and elastic rhythms to some songs and members of such New Orleans funk groups as the Neville Brothers, Galactic and the ReBirth Brass Band to lend a rubbery syncopation to others. Perhaps most surprising are the trio of romantic ballads that boast strong pop melodies and unalloyed affection.
“Very early on, people developed expectations that may not have had much to do with the actual me,” DiFranco laments. “I’ve devoted myself to political work since I was 11 and sang about saving the whales. But because I wrote songs about loving women and because that was what society was least ready to accept, that’s what they focused on. In the media, I’m the bisexual, militant folk singer, but meanwhile, I’m doing all these other things that no one is paying attention to. When people write about me, they’re usually writing about themselves.”
DiFranco herself is not exempt from this tendency. When she was writing about the homeless woman in “Life Boat,” she couldn’t help but put a bit of herself into the character. There was a point in DiFranco’s own life, she admits, when she was a pregnant teenager, jobless and scattered, who might have headed down a path that led to that park bench.
“I’m an emotional, sensitive person,” she says, “so I very much relate to the overly sensitive and their plight in this world. But for a few drops of mysterious chemicals in my endocrine system, I’m on this side of the condition called bipolar and someone else is on the other side. I’ve been able to stay connected to other people through music and not be that woman on the bench. Some days I really feel like that there but for the grace of the goddess go I.”
Instead she became one of the most charismatic live performers of her generation, able to headline 1,000-seat venues and sell hundreds of thousands of albums without the support of an outside record company. From her first studio album, 1990’s Ani DiFranco, to her 16th, 2008’s Red Letter Year, she became such a major figure in the folk community that she became an inevitable invitee to Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Celebration in 2009. She had two slots: a duet with Kris Kristofferson on the traditional “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and a solo version of Florence Reece’s 1931 coal-miner protest anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”
“As is my folk-singer way,” she says of the latter number, “I started changing it. Even though you can hear the original verses echoing through mine, I wanted to take the spirit of the song and put it in a modern context. So I added references to Katrina, Reaganomics and feminism. It’s a much-loved, much-used song in political rallies and occupations, but it can get real dirgy.” Here she imitates such a demonstration sing-along as if the song were a 45 record played at 33. “I didn’t want that, so I gave it that New Orleans beat, so it sounded like an army of righteousness coming by your door, so it was such an urgent call to action that you want to put your boots on and go out the door.”
What she did retain from Reece’s original version was the repeating, rhetorical question of the title. From Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” (“Is this the best way to grow our big orchards?”) to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (“How many roads must a man walk down?), some of the best political songs have relied not on providing answers but on pushing listeners to provide the answers themselves. DiFranco applies this same technique to two of her own songs on the album. “Who put the poison in the atmosphere?” she asks on “Splinter.” “Who put the poison in the way I think?” On “Promiscuity,” she asks, “How far is too far? How much is enough?”
When DiFranco finally got around to recording her 17th studio album, Reece’s song became the title track. Seeger himself played the unaccompanied banjo intro, but soon the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, a brass band of New Orleans youngsters, come stomping and honking into the song, making it sound like part-protest-march and part-Mardi-Gras-parade. DiFranco, who is on the board of the Roots of Music, a non-profit, after-school program led by ReBirth’s Derrick Tabb, still chuckles at the memory of a recording session where six-year-olds banged on bass drums as large as themselves and teenagers tilted the bells of their big, brass tubas to the beat.
DiFranco’s life was transformed in many ways by her move to New Orleans eight years ago. Having spent her childhood in Buffalo and most of her adulthood in New York City, she was glad to trade bitter winters and a frenetic pace for the Big Easy. She was entranced by the smallest city in America where a musician can make a living without leaving town and perhaps the only city that scrupulously keeps its own musical history alive. She was further fascinated by a way of life where people are glad to stop on the sidewalk and chat, where people are more likely to ask, “Where did you eat last night?” than “What do you do for a living?”
She didn’t decide to stay for good, however, until she met a local recording engineer named Mike Napolitano. He became her engineer on 2006’s Reprieve, the father of her daughter Petah in 2007, her co-producer on 2008’s Red Letter Day and her husband in 2009. She describes him as the personification of his native New Orleans’ easygoing charm.
“Mike is somebody who really changed my life,” she acknowledges. “He’s the most chilled out person on the planet—to a fault—so we balance each other out in that way. He taught me the art of hanging out, of doing nothing, of expecting nothing. Before I met him, I was pretty much incapable of sitting down, shutting up and relaxing. As a society, we suffer from a lack of contemplative time. When I don’t get enough contemplative time, I know I make bad decisions and don’t sleep well.
“Now I see that all around me. I look around at other parents driving kids from this appointment to that appointment, running this gauntlet of schedules, and I thank god for Mike. Our daughter may not turn out to be a ballerina/archer/gymnast, but at least she’ll know peace. She’ll know how to sit by a lake and not be bored.”
The new album’s three love songs come out of DiFranco’s happy second marriage and new experience of motherhood (though she does balance them out with a sincere tribute to “Promiscuity”). She bristles at the suggestion that she has written classic pop ballads, for she’s allergic to the term “pop” and all the machinery and formulas that word implies. But there’s no denying the heart-grabbing hooks that underline the repeating refrain of “Just me, just me” in “Mariachi” or the sighing surrender of the chorus line, “I just don’t wanna strive for nothin’ anymore” on “Hearse.” The image from “Albacore” of tattooing a wedding band on her ring finger is one that Lorenz Hart never would have written, but the melody might have come from Richard Rodgers.
“I do love pretty,” she admits. “We all have our different versions of pretty, and I’m not one for pop music, so my version comes from my take on a jazz standard. I love a melody that takes me somewhere unexpected. In my more recent work, uncool is something I’m trying not to shy away from. I refuse to not write a pretty tune or about being a mother and a wife because it might spoil someone’s image of me.
“People keep asking, ‘Now that you’re a mom, will you lose your edge? Can we write you off now?’ But I’ve had a lot of interaction with fans who are moms now too. They say, ‘Wow, you got me through high school and now that I’m changing and having children, it’s so cool that you’re also going through changes.’ To me music is not about playing the fanciest chords; it’s all about always about being honest and being present. And this is where I am right now.”