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Ani are you okay?
The ever-righteous, incorruptible folkstress brings her eloquent brain to bear on music, politics, 9/11 and America's corporate delinquency
Eamonn McCann, 24 Jun 2002
In the days following September 11, Ani DiFranco was a lion in a den of Daniels. The scale of the horror of the World Trade atrocity had snapped the nerve and somersaulted the sensibilities of all, or almost all, of Western popular culture. In the acrid murk of the aftermath, blinded by pity and terror and an officially-required fever for revenge, all ideological bearings seemingly lost, many of the most right-on swerved, or stumbled, sharp Right.
But cometh the hour, cometh the woman. DiFranco was on the road within a week, atremble with urgency to speak the truth she could still see and wanted still to be seen: – that the reservoir of evil which had engulfed Manhattan had been filled beyond bursting point by the powers behind the power presiding over the USA itself, seeking to order the world anew in their own class interest. Only the most clear-sighted, sure-footed, deep-rooted had the capacity to clench onto principle and stand firm. Of the scattering who did so, she stood tallest of all.
Di Franco describes herself as a punk folk-singer which is near enough, but really, more accurately, she’s a poet. Her post-9/11 epic will be parsed and analysed for its loving vision and its hard understanding a hundred years hence.
Peering at life through the prism of her personal experience, she explores the rough politics of love and the soft romance of ideas. She writes about racism, abortion rights, gun-control, the death penalty, poverty, loneliness and her apprehension about the girl-police’s reaction to lipstick. She is revered by grey-beard ukulele-players and college radio djs. She has a sweet, sharply-honed voice with a startling range of pitch and tone and plays the guitar with breathless delicacy until she changes mood and starts hitting it like a thrash metal maniac.
Born in Buffalo, New York, the buckle on the rust belt, she started singing in local bars at nine, moved out to live on her own at 15, had fully exhautsed the gig-potential of the town’s saloons by 17, moved to New York city and kept on keeping on, borrowed from her mates to finance her first album, released in 1990, by which time she had more than 100 original songs to select from, hit the road to criss-cross the US and Canada, hithering and thithering between folk festivals, clubs, community halls, wherever. Those she encountered who related to her felt they thereby had something important in common with each other, which made for a solid base and helped make it possible for her to steer clear of entanglement with the power-structures which were everywhere being clamped on the business.
She isn’t on an indie label, much less a major, but has control of every aspect of her output, production, art-work, distribution on (her) Righteous Babe Records, not out of preciousness or power-freakery – she’s not that kind of freak – but because what she does would be otherwise undoable, what she is otherwise impossible.
She hesitates when you ask her where she finds hope in a cultural climate where even scary recent outlaws of popular music have been easily subsumed into the bourgeois consensus. But for some, she is herself the shining harbinger of hope.
“God forbid but it’s true, I started singing in the days of Ronald Reagan... I wasn’t writing about Ronald Reagan, mind, but about things a lot closer to home – about my life and my identity as a young woman. To an extent, I did see things through a political lens, observing the power dynamics between people. And as I kept writing and living in a country under Reaganomics, I started looking outward and relating the life I was writing about to political circumstances and experiences beyond me.
The purpose of most of my writing was to express what was inexpressible one-on-one. I was raised as a nice girl and I used to get walked over. Singing helped me exorcise those demons. A song about being walked on can be very catharthic, can teach you how to better become yourself for the next time.
I started in a typical way. I wanted to play acoustic guitar. I don’t know why. So my parents brought me to a little music store and said, “OK, let’s get a guitar”, and I met a guy there who was a local songwriter and barfly and a promoter of folk shows. We befriended each other. I was nine, he was 30 and a philosopher. He stared bringing me to his gigs. So for me from the beginning music wasn’t a commodity or even something on the radio, but just a thing that you did. You sat around and sang together, and eventually that was to bring me to the whole folk continuum, to the history that lay behind the music I was coming into contact with. Later, I realised what I was becoming a part of.
I was expressing all the joys along the way, too. I wasn’t always feeling angry, like you might perceive from my stereotype—which I feel the burden of less and less. The longer I have been around the more the stereotype just falls away, because what you are outlives the hype.
My audience has changed. At the beginning it was very small. It was just my tribe, other young women. I didn’t have any distribution until fairly recently. I released the first cassette independently. It was all young college women sending tapes to their friends. They’d write the addresses on the tapes, and then I’d be asked to come and play. That was the beginning of my touring, and after that the audience expanded, slowly. Eventually, folk festivals brought me to a whole other audience.
I absolutely saw myself from the start as a folk singer. Folk music was never cool. Even some of my folk-singer friends back in those days would jump into the traffic to get out of the way of that label. But I always looked at the folk scene as an underground, sub-corporate, community-based music scene operating nation-wide. Performers could make a living on that circuit without being part of a major label.
There were a few folk fascists who turned up their noses, but mostly people were really welcoming, and they welcomed my audience into their audience. I think some people were scared because this was too in your face, but a lot of the older folk singers like Tom Paxton, Utah Phillips, Pete Seeger, they were just so, like, “Yes!”, because they could see I was putting so much work into it.
There were ways it was easier to sustain the belief during the Reagan-Bush years. On a really brutal, practical level, things became easier when Bush No. 1 (or Snr) went out and Clinton came in. There was less of the daily headache and heartache of what horrible thing was being done or undone today, of how much further are we backsliding. But then there was a no-man’s-land feel about the Clinton era. So many bad moves, if on a lesser scale. And meanwhile, corporate powers were given more and more control and more and more loop-holes to jump through. That really did affect anybody trying to be independent in the music industry. Now the industry is just so corporately controlled. Even on a touring level when you’re working with independent promoters, there are venues with lock-outs except for certain promoters. There are levels on which we have to wage a battle now that didn’t exist before the ‘80s and ‘90s.
As to whether I ever get tired of the battle, well, I have a song that says “I’ll never be a saint, squint your eyes and look closer, I’ll never be between you and your ambition...” But of course, along the way there have been so many moments... I remember the first time I ever played the UK, doing little clubs. I can’t remember who I was supposed to be like then, I think it was Tracy Chapman. The next tour I was like Alanis Morrisette. When you see so many people coming up through the major label system and become big stars as you continue doing the same endless club circuit, you really have to question – Why... why am I doing it this way?
The answer for me has always been, first, that I liked my job, even all those many years that it was a struggle, all those years I was jealous of other people using the system, it was always rewarding . That really helped me to be patient, to reassure myself it was more important to be able to look myself in the eye in the mirror in the morning rather than listen to people telling me what they could do for me.
On the other side, there are all kinds of pressures I could feel if I choose to, or that I do feel on a bad day, from people who are maybe always looking for a chink in the armour, for ways that you are not living your life enough according to your ideals. I’ve found that it really helps not to read any articles about me. I used to, and I found myself reacting to it so much, but now I try to stay focused on my work.
As to how I feel about the way things are now – overwhelmed and daunted would be words that come to mind. I kinda feel that the Clinton years turned the heat down a little bit on a lot of issues, but underneath things were still heating up, with regard to the corporate takeover that we have experienced. It was really marked in the Dubya fake election, the coup in which he took office. For me, that marked the official end of the idea of the US as a democracy. It seems so obvious now that this is a capitalist system and not a democratic one. There’s so much work that we need to do, against a background of the tension and the anger in the rest of the world towards the United States because the United States has become synonymous with corporate power in the world. For the sake of the globe we have to figure how to change that.
Do I sometimes feel lonely in the climate that has arisen after September 11th? Totally! But then what happens is you become more grateful for what you have. I can read The Nation every couple of weeks, so I don’t need the newspapers which will lie to me. I have writers that I turn to. And my own writing. I am finishing a new album, it’s mastered, I’m proofing it at the moment, which has a performance of my post-September 11 poem with my band on it. I’ve written something even longer since. I find that I seem to be drifting away from the verse-chorus-verse format, because I have so much to say, so much to react to, given the political circumstances.
I was in Manhattan on September 11 with my band. We went on tour a week later, after we all had to drive home – and some of my band members live on the west coast. Meanwhile, everybody else was cancelling tours and audience attendances were down. There was this incredible fear, panic, and there we were travelling around middle America. We started in Montana and headed south. I felt so urgently about this thing that was on everybody’s mind that I had to speak about it every night. So I just started writing that poem, and I wrote it and wrote it for most of the tour. I even brought it out in its earlier stages and worked on it as I performed it, out of a need to speak to... it. For me, the most terrifying performance was in Carnegie Hall in New York last April 6. I did a solo show there and launched into the poem and a few lines in I panicked. Like, do I have the right? Who in this audience lost whom? What was that day for everyone here? By the end of it I could hear somebody sobbing in the back balcony... It’s such a reverberant hall.
What gives me hope? When I listen to the live recording of that poem on the album, and you can hear the audience just light into fire when I say, “George W. Bush is not President”, that gives me hope. People really supporting ideas that are not in our mainstream media and which are not supposedly the sentiments of the people of our country...my experience is otherwise.
I hope I am living and working as part of the broad anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement. I see that as being the epicentre of the people’s struggle now. Regaining ideas like democracy and putting socialism over capitalism is going to be a prerequisite for justice for any of us.
I know a lot of people, performers, who may not be widely recognised but who inspire me, whose songs I covet: Dan Bern, who has opened shows for me – in-your-face political punk folk-songs. And Bitch and Animal, who are really raw. Bitch plays fiddle and bass and Animal plays hand-drums and ukelele, they sing these really sex-positive, female, funny fierce songs and chants...
Where I am now, I am an American folk-singer, but there has been so much cross-pollenisation, since even before recording – the accordion came from Germany to Mexico and became a whole other thing. As artists we need to be citizens of one world, but if you are you have to recognise the fact of colonisation of one culture by another, that it’s not equal. I listen and respond viscerally to all sorts of music, to songs in languages I don’t understand. But in my own writing I am still drawing from personal experience, so my songs are still closer to home. Wherever you are, speaking from your own experience is often the most powerful place to be from. Each of our experiences is personal but also universal, new and also traditional.
I turned around one day and found I had a drummer and a bass player and a keyboard player, so I was forming a rock band! I thought – What a traditional thing to do, having come out of folk festivals and experimenting with or just being aware of all kinds of different instruments.
I think that this generation is born into a place where everything has a price. Look at the line-up for the Queen’s Jubilee – my invitation must have been lost in the post! You can see the same thing in that even before an album comes out every song is in a commercial. So what is real? It’s a tall order for this generation to figure it politically because you have a enemy you can’t even point at. Looking around, I still find it overwhelming that so many people come to see me perform.”