Ani DiFranco On 'Binary,' Folk Sing-Alongs, Activism & Gardening
Ani DiFranco has spent nearly 30 years just under the shiny surface of pop music fame, with its pre-requisites of radio hits, a public persona and viral moments. But from her post deep beneath the skyscraper of mainstream, in the boiler room of folk rock, she's churned out 20 albums, remained fiercely independent, become an LGBTQ pioneer, and given a voice — both personal and political — to her droves of devoted fans, showing them how to handle a world out of order, enact a positive change, and be good to themselves and each other in the process. In many ways, DiFranco embodies the timeless power a folksinger can wield with simply her words and chords.
If anyone questioned the power of her perspective or her work, they would have been silenced immediately by the near-deafening screams of appreciation as DiFranco took the stage for a sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 10 in Brooklyn, N.Y., as part of her Rise Up tour. Stepping to the mic, she reveals she'd thought of leaning some "old folk songs" for this tour so that she could lead a massive sing-along, but after hearing the crowd join in some of her early material, she realized she'd already done it. "Yeah, old folk songs, like 1993," she laughs, adding that they would make Pete Seeger proud.
Indeed, the lights above the stage were pulled forward to illuminate the packed house during early-set sing-alongs of, "They're gonna be mad at us," the verse refrain of the sexually unapologetic "Shameless," or "Everyone is a f***ing Napoleon," the scathing punchline chorus of "Napoleon," both songs from DiFranco's 1996 folk-in-your-face masterpiece, Dilate. Together, the hundreds of voices in the room rose to a roar, and meant it.
But this particular type of group singing wasn't always the norm at the folk hero's shows.
"When I was young, everything was pretty different," DiFranco says. "For me, [the audience singing along] was a pretty overwhelming and disruptive feeling, like, 'Oh my god, shut up so I can try to feel the music and follow it and not be overwhelmed by the caterwauling coming at me.' Now, flash forward 20 years, and I'm just like, 'Louder!' I just feel like whatever has changed, myself and my relationships, and my own damn life, I just feel like I embrace it so much more."
Anything but an exercise in nostalgia, the Williamsburg show saw the GRAMMY winner play several songs from her latest album, 2017's Binary. She even closed the night's main set with a moving version of the album's title track, a barrage of rhymes atop a soundbed of instruments bouncing off each other, bookended by a galvanizing mantra.
The resulting effect is an instrumental chaos reflective of the chaotic modern world the lyrics paint. One main difference on Binary is, for the first time in her career, DiFranco enlisted help in mixing the album. And who better to start with than GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer Tchad Blake, who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits. She likens receiving mixes from Blake via email to opening a "box with a big red bow." But these were not gifts she would have been ready for earlier in her career.
"I think it was really good that I've made freaking 20 records already, because I think if this was my second record, I wouldn't have been able to just delegate and let go," says DiFranco. "When I'm making a record, I think I have that kind of DIY thing very deeply in me where it's just like, 'F*** it. I'll just do it. I don't have time to call in the professionals, I'll just f***ing do it.' This time, it was like, yeah s***. I don't know anything, except that I don't want to be alone in this moment, in this world, moving forward, so I just started calling all the brilliant people I know and getting them involved."
If DiFranco has mellowed in her creative process, she's only gotten more ardent in her activism efforts. For her Rise Up tour, she partnered with Emily's List, an organization focused on electing pro-choice Democratic women candidates, and will headline the LEAF and Clearwater festivals in support of arts in the community and environmental protection, respectively.
"It just seems like it's easy for all of us to get so weighed down and overwhelmed by the idea that we have to fix everything," says DiFranco. "I think what is helpful, for me at least, is to refocus as to not how can I fix or change the bad guy, but how can I help the good guys?"
"We so often fall in that trap of trying to convince somebody they're wrong, when really it's just go find the good people doing the good work and help them out."
As a mother, a songwriter, an artist, an activist, and the head of her long-time independent record label, Righteous Babe, DiFranco's life is full of cultivating ideas, causes and art into fruition. So when asked about what she enjoys outside of making music, her answer is appropriately symbolic: gardening.
"I really like having dirt under my fingernails. I really like interacting with plants and attending to my little slice of goddess' green acre. It's literally grounding for me," she says. "Like I said in a song once, I've planted a few trees. Just the idea of tending to something that lives beyond you … planting a tree and watching it grow and helping it thrive, it really does my soul good, bearing witness to that sort of life force."
DiFranco also mentioned in her recent "Talks At Google" appearance that she's tackling writing a memoir. Like gardening, it's a process involving a healthy amount of slow progress.
"I'm getting there. I have another couple of months, according to my publisher, to bring this thing home. And I'm going to use every second of it. … I've got a hundred thousand words," says DiFranco, calling the experience surprising, challenging and gratifying. "It's funny, after 30 years of writing songs and exposing myself in many ways through my writing, this is even a deeper level of exposure."
While the personal journey of self-exploration is a lifelong walk for DiFranco — and for her fans — her memoir stands to shed light on all paths, or as she puts it in her song "School Night," "I'm looking for my door key, but you are my porch light." Over the past three decades, few songwriters have illuminated our world, our hearts and our purpose as brightly as DiFranco.
Whether it's DiFranco's uncanny ability to articulate a personal feeling, political purpose or social urgency, her fans often find some form of transformation in her music. For many, the open dialog about sexuality in her songs since day one has provided the strength to stand by who they truly are. For others, her explorations of the grey areas in the mind and heart have shined rays of comfort into the complexity of being human. Either way, her music unites and empowers.
"I've received so many letters over the decades, just mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, tears-in-my-eyes letters," she says. "People who have said, 'Your music came into my life, healed or enabled me in some way and then I went and became myself, and this is what I'm doing, and this is who I am.' For me, that's my salary. That's my reward. It's feeling like I dropped somebody into their own skin."