In 1-800-On-Her-Own, Ani DiFranco Takes a Rare Look Backward to Move Forward

We spoke with director Dana Flor, MUNA’s Katie Gavin and DiFranco herself about the brand new documentary, which recently made its debut at Tribeca Film Festival.

Music Features Ani DiFranco
In 1-800-On-Her-Own, Ani DiFranco Takes a Rare Look Backward to Move Forward

Sometime before the world plunged into pandemic, documentary filmmaker Dana Flor met prolific singer, songwriter and activist Ani DiFranco before a gig in Woodstock. They went for a walk through the woods near the venue and, by Flor’s recollection, immediately bonded—so much so, in fact, that the fast friends completely lost track of time. Ultimately, DiFranco missed a cue from her panic-stricken team, prompting them to launch a search for her. “Her tour manager was like, ‘Where the fuck is Ani?’” Flor recalled with a laugh in a recent Zoom interview with Paste. “We had such an affinity for one another. She’s really foul-mouthed, she’s really smart and she’s so dynamic.”

The need to make a film about DiFranco—now, a 56-year-old woman trying to look back at a legacy of ahead-of-its-time lyricism and forward at the stories she’s yet to tell—wasn’t just obvious to Flor, but a matter of urgency. Especially after the show later that night, as she spoke with innumerable fans who confided that DiFranco’s music quite literally altered the trajectory of their lives. Months later, production on 1-800-On-Her-Own began and lasted through the COVID-19 lockdown until after vaccines were administered and masks began to come off.

This week, the film—which, thanks to ample archival footage, follows DiFranco from hungry teenage indie folk singer, to self-signed label owner of Righteous Babe records, to wife and mother struggling to achieve equilibrium—made its debut at Tribeca Film Festival. DiFranco, her band and Flor celebrated the culmination of years of chronicling DiFranco’s next chapter: a new record, Unprecedented Sh!t; a new venture of starring as Persephone in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown on Broadway and, perhaps most importantly, all the new ways she’s telling the truth about the world and herself.

It’s Ani DiFranco’s authenticity and activism that resonated with MUNA’s frontwoman, Katie Gavin, who was also on hand for the film’s premiere and a post-screening Q&A. Gavin, endearingly starstruck by DiFranco’s presence, has been an admirer for years, citing Out of Range and Dilate as pivotal sources of inspiration for her own songwriting. “I’m, frankly, really nervous to talk to Ani, because I know from studying her that she doesn’t like to be put on a pedestal. But, how the fuck can you not put Ani DiFranco on a pedestal?” Gavin remarked to Paste on the red carpet. “I have a lot of grief when I think about Ani sometimes, because I made different decisions. I am signed to a record label and I don’t own my own music. I think, in this day and age, the landscape is a little bit different, but she’s still taught me so much about doing things in a way that works for me, and that’s what allows you to build a career that’s sustainable and for people to connect with you. Ultimately, that’s what all of this is about: connecting with people.”

Meanwhile, in typical Di Franco fashion, she told Paste she hadn’t yet seen the film and likely wouldn’t. “I’m going to hide,” DiFranco said when asked if she’d watch 1-800-On-Her-Own in the theater with everyone else. “I have a room…there are beers in it. I think the only way I can write songs is by pretending no one’s going to hear them and similarly, with this movie, I just said OK, but I’m still deep in pretending no one’s going to see it.” Her apparent fear of perception is paradoxical given her enduring, evolving visibility. It’s also what makes her so damn relatable–as an artist, but a human being, too.

Earlier that day, Flor spoke with Paste about the film’s early stages, finding the perfect footage in DiFranco’s archive and her irreplicable legacy.

Paste Magazine: What’s immediately so striking about 1-800-On-Her-Own is the amount of archival footage that charts so many pivotal moments in Ani’s life–from the establishment of her label, Righteous Babe, to touring with her band. Where did all of that come from and how did you approach the daunting task of sifting through it all?

Dana Flor: Ani ended up sending me a U-Haul—literally, a U-Haul—of all of her archival stuff and she was just like, ‘Here’s some stuff if you want to sift through it.’ I ended up digitizing all of it. So, I had a basement full of what she had. She was actually really quite glad to have somebody look at it, because I don’t think anybody ever did. I think it was this kind of like, ‘Let’s just put it in a box!’ It was every format known to mankind, so part of the challenge of the film was that it was like a banquet of riches. I could have actually done one film of just archival and one film of just verite. There was just so much, which is a dream come true for a filmmaker.

Ani is known and beloved for her candor, be it lyrically or otherwise. That said, were there any limitations in terms of what was filmed? Given we see her having what sounds like a very difficult conversation with her husband on the phone within the first 20 minutes, it doesn’t seem like it.

There was none. I had free rein and free artistic control of the film throughout. I was very sensitive to what was right and what might not be right in terms of looking out for her family and stuff like that. One of the most wonderful things about Ani as a character—and the most unique thing—is that she is utterly uncensored. Her whole thing is about authenticity. I think that, for her deep fans, finding your own voice and giving permission for other people to have their own voice is kind of her thing. She doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk, too. She’s a very honest person, and I think, sometimes, she regrets how honest she is—but it’s just who she is. And I think you see that. It was wonderful working with Ani, because she is an introspective, deep woman with deep thoughts and she’s all about sharing what she’s feeling.

This film is a celebration of her music for sure, but more than anything, it feels like a testament to her dynamism as a singer songwriter, activist, partner, mother, and friend. More broadly, it’s testament to the dynamism of women. We see her—at the age of 56—torn in at least 10 different directions and trying to show up for all of it in the best way that she can. Certainly, so many women can relate to that.

If you look at the scope of her work, she’s singing the soundtrack of many, many women’s lives. And she continues to do so through her music, but also in this film. It’s so relatable, and that was one thing that immediately really drew me to her—because here you have this incredibly dynamic, feminist icon who represents strength and breaking the rules and, at the same time, she is so conflicted. Ani is singing about and living what we’re all going through—this math equation that none of us are figuring out. How do we do this? How do we be mothers and wives and partners and artists and work full-time and raise children? I don’t have the answer to that. She doesn’t have the answer to that. I think it’s really important to put those out there for the world to see—especially for young women. That’s what I wanted the film to be because I think it’s important. That struggle, that equation that we’re all struggling with.

There’s a section of the film that really choked me up where we see a very young Ani and her band in the midst of this rise to fame. There are countless videos of them on the road in the bus just being silly twenty-somethings. They seem so present and just without care. It summoned to mind the number of artists I’m following who are existing in that exact blaze which will sadly—inevitably—burn bright until it doesn’t by virtue of the industry or just time. I would love to know more about how Ani felt about that moment.

I also love that section. I could have made that an hour long film because there’s so much great footage of them just being jackasses. On the road, there’s a lot of free time. They’re all in their 20s and really having the time of their life. There’s a lot of hilarity, there’s a lot of sleep exhaustion and there’s lots of joy. The people around her, the interviewees that I talked to, just loved it. That’s also the beauty of a film, isn’t it? It’s time in a bottle. You’re capturing that one moment. It’s bittersweet. In terms of what Ani thinks—Ani does not like to look back. She doesn’t like to look at it herself. She’s a very forward-thinking kind of person.

Ani’s record label, Righteous Babe, was a pioneering venture for its time–especially considering the artist–a folk singer songwriter and bisexual feminist–at the helm of it. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to, say, Phoebe Bridgers’ label, Saddest Factory, but there’s not many others going that route today.

I don’t think what Ani did then is replicable today. I think that we’re in such a different world. I love the story of Righteous Babe. It’s so emblematic of who Ani is, because she is a scrappy motherfucker. She’s a tiny woman. She’s short. You’d never think that she’s the dynamo that she is. And here she was this 5-foot, 95-pound teenager. She wasn’t going to allow her image and her sexuality to be exploited. She didn’t want to be objectified. And she just was moving forward. She didn’t have time to waste. Ani has done 23 albums. She was pumping out music. She never really had any radio hits, but she has this amazing career and none of that would have happened if she’d signed with a label.

The funny thing to me—and to her—is that she’s not an entrepreneur. She is not a business person. I mean, she did this and it turned out right, but she just wanted to make her music. She wanted to be independent. So, it was kind of a miracle that it happened, and it was done with a lot of humor, and a lot of love and a lot of craziness. She’s very plucky, you know? Just nerves of steel.

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