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Ani DiFranco On 'Binary,' Folk Sing-Alongs, Activism & Gardening

Ani DiFranco

Photo: GMDThree

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Ani DiFranco On 'Binary,' Folk Sing-Alongs, Activism & Gardening

The inimitable singer/songwriter, activist and DIY pioneer talks connecting with her audience, cultivating her plants and enacting positive change in the world

GRAMMYs/May 16, 2018 - 12:45 am

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 fing 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."

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

Director Allen Hughes' four-part documentary takes home Best Music Film honors for its portrayal of the unlikely partnership that changed the music business

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 02:09 am

The team behind The Defiant Ones celebrated a big win for Best Music Film at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. The crew awarded include director Allen Hughes and producers Sarah Anthony, Fritzi Horstman, Broderick Johnson, Gene Kirkwood, Andrew Kosove, Laura Lancaster, Michael Lombardo, Jerry Longarzo, Doug Pray & Steven Williams.

In a year rife with quality music documentaries and series, the bar has been set high for this dynamic category. The Defiant Ones is a four-part HBO documentary telling the story of an unlikely duo taking the music business by storm seems better suited for fantastical pages of a comic book, but for engineer-turned-mogul Jimmy Iovine and super-producer Dr. Dre, it's all truth.The Defiant Ones recounts their histories, their tribulations and their wild success. These include first-hand accounts from those who were there in Iovine's early days, such as Bruce Springsteen and U2's Bono, as well as those on board when Dre and Iovine joined forces, such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

The competition was stiff as the category was filled with compelling films such as One More Time With Feeling, Two Trains Runnin', Soundbreaking, and Long Strange Trip. 

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Photos: WireImage.com

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Also see James Fauntleroy, Reba McIntire, Latroit, and more after they stepped off the GRAMMY stage

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 05:39 am

What do artists do the moment they walk off the GRAMMY stage from presenting, accepting an award or performing? Now, you can find out.

Take a peak at Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner Bruno Mars, 60th GRAMMY Awards Host James Cordon, Cardi B minutes before her electrifying performance of "Finesse," and more!

Also see Best Pop Duo/Group Performance GRAMMY winners Portugal. The Man posing with their first career GRAMMY Award, Best Roots Gospel Album GRAMMY winner Reba McIntire right after she walked offstage, Best R&B Song GRAMMY winner James Fauntleroy, Best Remixed Recording GRAMMY winner Latroit, and many more, with these photos from backstage during the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Glenn Danzig

Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Dark punk legends to play first show with Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only since last year's Riot Fest reunion

GRAMMYs/Aug 22, 2017 - 05:28 am

There's big news today for punk-rock fans aware that the Misfits made much more than just T-shirts.

The massively influential punk band announced a special show touted as the "only 2017 performance in this world… or any world" and billed as "The Original Misfits" in Los Angeles at the Forum on Dec. 30.

This will be the first Misfits show featuring original singer Glenn Danzig and original bassist Jerry Only with long-time guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein since the band reunited for a pair of Riot Fest appearances in Chicago and Denver in 2016. Last year's Riot Fest gigs, which featured drummer Dave Lombardo, marked the first time in 33 years the original Misfits members played together.

"OK Los Angeles, you've waited almost 35 years for this, here's your chance to see the "Original Misfits" in this Exclusive L.A. only performance." said Glenn Danzig. "No Tour, No BS, just one night of dark metal-punk hardcore brutality that will go down in the history books. See you there."

Tickets for this "one night only" show go on sale Friday, August 25.

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

The Hawaiian native takes home Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like" at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 08:11 am

Feeling the 24K Magic, Bruno Mars' successful progress through the categories he's been nominated in at the 60th GRAMMY Awards picked up another one at Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like."


Christopher Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence co-write with Mars under the name Shampoo Press & Curl. The other winning songwriters for Mars' hit tonight in this category are James Fauntleroy and production team "The Sterotypes" — Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and  Jonathan Yip.

For additional "Finesse" on stage at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Mars was joined by Cardi B for a reprise of their 148-million-views hit remix.

The Album Of The Year GRAMMY Award wrapped up the night and wrapped up Bruno Mars' complete rampage through his six nominated categories — now six wins.

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