Ani DiFranco: Courageous Babe

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Ani DiFranco: Courageous Babe

PasteCover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

Carnegie Hall, April 6, 2002. Ani DiFranco’s second solo performance at the famed venue. The first was, oddly, exactly a year earlier. Same city, same revered performance space, same artist. Except that everything had changed.

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We know that Ani DiFranco, the independent musician’s idol, started her own record label at age 20 and became so successful the majors tried to buy it. She wasn’t selling, though.
And we know that as a bisexual feminist icon, she suffered cries of betrayal from her lesbian fans when she married a man a few years ago—which felt like she herself was betrayed. “There was no hypocrisy in me marrying,” she says. “All I’d ever said in my work was we should be able to love who we want and how we want.”

We know she’s a funky white girl from Buffalo who plays a mean guitar, who mixes up folk and funk, pop and poetry, rock and jazz in a delectable mix for the open-minded. We know from the beginning that she sang about all sorts of taboo issues including predatory humans, bigotry, abortion, the death penalty and our crumbling democracy.

But what we want to know, what really makes her enigmatic—and outrageous or maybe even downright scary to anybody who thinks some things are better left unsaid—is: Where did she find the courage to be so honest, so young?

Simple, really. Truth Tourette’s.

Okay, that’s a joke, and this very serious, hard-working, sometimes angry sounding woman doesn’t often come off as a joker, but talk to her for a little while and you’ll find yourself in an interesting conversation peppered with good humor, positive thinking and wisdom.

That truth Tourette’s is a congenital condition, she ribs. “Get me in front of a microphone and I just start saying what I’m feeling! It can be very awkward!”

If it makes you feel any better, her balls-to-the-wall honesty in song was never, still isn’t, easy. “In the beginning I used to spend a lot more time agonizing, ‘Oh, I can’t say that,’ or ‘What if my mother came to a show?!’ You think of all the people you know and exposing yourself to them first, let alone people you don’t know … it really occupied me and terrified me.”

But the truth Tourette’s would kick in and after the show somebody would come up to her and say, “Thank you for saying that.”

“I began to realize that if you get over your own fear of showing yourself as though you’re some sort of unique being that sprang for the first time from the bosom of the earth …” she says with a self-effacing laugh, “… we think that all these personal, private things are only our own, when really they are shared with countless other human beings. Everything that embarrasses us or makes us afraid or fills us with doubt or self-loathing, that keeps us silent, that—you know—fear of being accepted.”

DiFranco realized quickly that you can be accepted and be honest as long as you do it with an idea of mutual respect, “with a feeling behind it that is inclusive.” In fact, she began to feel it was more important to hear things like thank you for saying that than to stay in some self-constructed comfort zone. “I began to see it, I guess, as part of my political work, almost.”
And there’s lots of political work. Among other things, Righteous Babe Records pays the salary of an attorney at Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights. She is very vocal and articulate about social justice in many forms. In addition to her own life experiences, she credits her parents, particularly her mother, for fostering a belief in individual responsibility within the American social and political framework.

“I think I realized very early on that the problems of society were my own. My parents taught me that and it has been invaluable. Especially today when so many people seem to have divorced themselves from the responsibility of governing. Democracy is us. We must participate. As long as we just let the rich and powerful mind-meld us through the TV and confuse us as consumers and suck the citizenship out of us, we’ll never have the justice we all long for.”

So while the foundation of her humanity is grounded in such societal rules, after that, life is fair game. Crossing boundaries, challenging norms, breaking rules that limit; scoffing at any rigid approach to music, gender, race and religion, just for starters.

“I think those kind of divisions are constructed,” she says. They’re not necessarily real. Or natural. Like the line between music and poetry. Black and white, male and female. I think all these categories we put things in are only useful to a point, and then the truth of all art and all people is that we are organic things that are changing and moving and defy categorization as much as anything.”

Defying categorization is definitely DiFranco. Her courage comes from a self-confidence in having taken care of herself most of her life. DiFranco grew up in an unhappy home, and was encouraged towards self-sufficiency to the degree that she was allowed to escape the family “drama” by frequenting songwriting clubs in her native Buffalo when she was a mere child—“10 or 11,” she says. Her parents soon split and a few years later, when DiFranco was 15, her mother moved to Connecticut. Rather than go live in the woods where she could not envision a life in music, Ani chose to stay behind, staying with friends and performing out, tagging along with a local songwriter. Those early years, too, when she refused to participate in the anti-Cleaver show at home, she was the kid who’d lie in bed and listen to the fighting. “I guess if anything, maybe I was developing the ability to go somewhere else in my head. Maybe I use that a lot in my work, I don’t know. But I do know that escape is something that I kind of equate with happiness. I’m just sort of really coming to terms with that now, in all of its negative manifestations.”

Despite those difficulties, DiFranco is philosophical about the positive side of such an upbringing. “I must look way back and give my parents credit, because as much as they were struggling, they really infused me with an idea of self-respect. That was one thing about being a very independent child with a sort of laissez-faire, chaotic caretaker situation. It was, ‘You take care of yourself. I know you can do it, go for it!’

DiFranco also credits her immigrant and first-generation American parents with a legendary work ethic that drives her employees to do things like put up a sign at the office that says, “Make her stop. We are tired.”

“It was like, you work, you contribute, you pay taxes, and you are grateful for everything we have here,” she says. That foundation gave DiFranco the drive to build Righteous Babe into a formidable company now with seven artists on the roster and has sold more than a million of Ani’s own records (20, including EPs and remix collections).and The company is now financially solid enough to buy an old church to renovate as office space.

DiFranco just released a double live collection, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, 23 of her favorite tunes recorded in a variety of venues over the last two years. The songs, much like the artist, have evolved and changed over their lives, with the transformation giving new life and nuance to the familiar. The album features three songs not available on other albums, including the breathtaking song-poem “Self Evident,” which Ani wrote over six months after and about the events of September 11, and about the quasi-democracy into which we’ve devolved.

And so, back to that Carnegie Hall performance. “In 2001, I performed on April 6th. I got another solo date there exactly a year later, and it was a completely different city, I was a completely different person and I felt like I was looking out at a completely different room. It had become so much more beautiful to me through all of the pain and the struggle.” As she began “Self Evident,” she was unsure. “I started speaking and I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing? Where do I get the right … what am I dumping on whose lap at this moment?’ As she spoke, though, the hall became pin-drop quiet. Somewhere in the rapt audience, high in the third balcony, someone began to sob.

And such is the power of song—of the blatant honesty in the art of Ani DiFranco—to identify and express; to encourage and enlighten; to coalesce, transform, and perhaps even to heal. Says DiFranco, “It was one of the most profound moments I’ve ever had.”

About that courage … lest we think she’s a woman of steel, know that she suffers the same bouts of insecurity as the rest of us. In the studio, producing both her records and those of others, she agonizes. Personally, she’s trying to beef up that momentary courage to make interpersonal relationships as clear as her political positions. Becoming more accountable to her own complicity in all her problems, as she puts it.

“You’d never believe this,” she says, “because I’m supposed to be the righteous, tell-everybody-where-to-get-off girl—but there’s the other me, the one that walks through my life every day that has a tendency to not always make enough room for myself. Or I let people do things that I am then angry at them for. But I’m beginning to look at myself and how I allow things or don’t discourage things or don’t have the courage in the moment to be myself. I’m beginning to realize that unless I change, no one else will.”