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Ani DiFranco Tells It Like It Is

Ani DiFranco has never shied away from dissecting her own experiences in her poetic folk music. Over the last decade, she has candidly explored the politics of the interpersonal, raising questions about her own romantic relationships and her relationship to the world community. Since founding her own record company, Righteous Babe Records, DiFranco has hewn to a fiercely independent vision. The prolific singer releases and records her own records, tours exhaustingly and participates in political activism.

Fans of DiFranco have followed her career's blossoming from her solo beginnings, just DiFranco and her guitar, the ultimate folkie-troubadour, to her construction of a band that, at one time, included a full brass section.

Beginning with last year's Evolve, DiFranco's twentieth album, though, fans began to notice major changes in her life — most strikingly, her decision to break up her band and hit the road solo.

In a very frank and warm interview, DiFranco spoke about her evolution as an artist and her latest album, the spare, heart-wrenching Educated Guess. The album features 14 tracks — all produced, recorded and performed by DiFranco. Totally solo.

Educated Guess pushes the bounds of DiFranco's independence and wholly succeeds with its textured sound. Recorded with only eight tracks and using natural sounds, the hour-long album features both spoken-word poetry and sung tunes that document the startling sea-changes in DiFranco's life, chronicling her personal sorrows as well as the liberation she's experienced as a solo artist once again.

DiFranco was calling from a tour stop in Santa Barbara, Calif., and she was receptive to very personal questions, handling them with total honesty and her trademark giggle.

Brian Orloff: I've always been interested in how you portray yourself within the narrative of your songs. I remember reading that earlier in your career, you strove to portray yourself as a hero in your songs. But it seems you've allowed yourself to become more vulnerable, especially on this album.

Ani DiFranco: Well, I don't think I was ever trying to portray myself as a hero... I think that traditionally I sort of set up a song [with a structure where] there's setting, action, then there's what happened, and then there's [she raises her voice] what will happen next time. Or what I'm going to do. I just think my inherent optimism and a will to empower myself subliminally, or believe in myself, used to come out through my songs, I think, more than it does now. [laughs] Maybe it's just the fact of growing up a little more, and I just react differently to myself. So, I suppose you're right and I'm right, and it's probably true that I show myself in different lights now. Just places like shame or regret or sheer sadness, or whatever.

Orloff: Are you feeling more comfortable in expressing that? I think you've always been quite candid, but is it easier to express that publicly now?

DiFranco: Well, no. [laughs] It's not easier. In fact, it's harder, I think, if anything. I think there's kind of an accumulated weariness of bearing oneself that I'm feeling. I certainly don't want to go onstage every night and just give it up, show myself or use myself to speak about things that are bigger. But this is the job I've invented for myself, so I feel like I have to use myself as a writer. Because what else do I know? Anything else is kind of conjecture. [laughs]

But I wish it was getting easier. I guess I'm maybe changing as a writer as I get older, and it comes out in different ways.

Orloff: The reason why I ask is just because I've been looking at the lyrics. You start off right away with "Platforms" and are incredibly direct from the get-go. Not that it was veiled in the past. It just seems sort of more raw on this album.

DiFranco:That's cool to hear. It's funny, I have so many conversations with people over the years, different impressions or reactions, and sometimes I hear that I'm not as raw or not as political as I used to be. And I'm like [sounds incredulous] "Huh?" [laughs] "Sure. OK."

But I guess I feel more like you do, that it keeps getting more raw for me. Where else can I go but try to keep going in the direction of truth, or my own truth, for what it's worth? But I think raw is a good adjective, in that it smarts more and more.

Orloff: Another prevalent theme, I think, is the concept of making a journey back to yourself, like moving toward a more authentic version of yourself. Talk to me about that — did you feel for a while that you became someone whom you weren't?

DiFranco: Not somebody that I wasn't, but I just became less and less of anyone at all. I guess, well, I was surrounded by a lot of people. Never alone. The circumstance of my life changed drastically from the girl who wrote those first few albums — she was alone in a little car, driving alone — a lot of time alone. I've been living on my own since I was 15 and I've just always been very independent. And then the audience grows, so I can afford to have a crew, and have some more help, and then I get a band together. And suddenly I'm surrounded by people 24/7. I'm married to somebody that I work with [laughs] so it's constant company. People to attend to. That was on- and offstage.

I love my band very much and learned so much from working with them. But it takes a colossal amount of time and energy to be a bandleader, to be an arranger, to get five people up at 'em every night, [to] not just power myself but power this big machine every day and attend to it. And feed it. And fuel it.

So, I found myself feeling kind of depleted. Just empty. And I was not in touch with who I was or what I was feeling or what I wanted. I made some changes.

I let go of the band. I also let go of my dear lover. And I'm sort of alone now. Onstage. In my dressing room. At home. I feel like I'm only just beginning to feel myself over the past few years and come to terms with who I was amidst it all and attend to that more these days.

Orloff: And it sounds like, as a process, certainly it's going to be gradual. Has it been really liberating being on the road solo this past year?

DiFranco: Liberating is a good word. In a sense it's taken me a long time to come back into my own skin and feel at home here again, but in another sense it was like instantaneous. It was like, "Oh yeah, me!" [laughs] Oh, I remember me. I fuckin' love to play guitar, first of all, something I'm getting to do a lot more now that I'm not making all this musical room for a lot of other people. So, just stuff like that. And making a show by myself, and just relating to the audience one on one. I have found it to be really gratifying.

Orloff: By the same token, is it also a bit daunting?

DiFranco:Yeah. [laughs] Yeah. Daunting. Devastating. Lonely. Yeah. It's funny. I'm still searching for that balance. If anything I'm sort of verging on the colossally lonely these days, but it's what I need in terms of just also being able to get back in touch.

Orloff: It sounds like those feelings probably fueled the process in which you approached Educated Guess. Just totally solo.

DiFranco: Yeah, that was a first. I've certainly mixed all my records and been heavily involved in the recording process, but there was always at least an engineer there to at least push record and set up microphones while I was doing this.

And this time it was just me, by myself, recording myself [laughs] with me [laughs]. It was like an exorcism of sorts, just [a] very lonely, very frustrating, excruciating process, but also really empowering and really instructive. I found at the end by the time I was finishing that record, I hated to see it end. It was very liberating to just be in my own space and make a record in the most solitary way I ever have.

Orloff: I'm sure. And just to talk a little about the sound of the album — because maybe if people think "she did it all by herself," they'll imagine it to be very spare-sounding. And certainly in some places I think there's a spartan quality. But I love what you did with layering vocals over each other and different guitar tracks. How did you approach the solo recording of the album but, um, make it sound so fleshed out?

DiFranco: You're the first person that I've talked to about this record at all, so I'm intrigued by your reactions. I guess that's cool it sounds fleshed out, since it was only eight tracks, but I guess the simple answer is that I just approached it naturally. Just as indigenously as I could. I sing and play the songs, and then I look around and, "Well, I could play some bass. I'm pretty all right on the bass." So a few of the songs have bass tracks.

And then some harmony singing, most of which was done through a telephone receiver into an amplifier... because I've just been really getting into that kind of — well, basically just singing through a telephone. That sound. And then I was pretty much full up being that there's eight tracks. I guess it was a matter of just using the stuff that was around me in my house, and the available space on tape, and working within the limitations, just in a really natural, unconscious way.

Orloff: I think some of the texture comes from, like you were saying, just using natural elements. I hear the rain on "Grand Canyon." Obviously those sounded like impromptu choices, just using whatever was available.

DiFranco: Certainly, I've made fucking, I don't know what, 20 records now or something, and there's this kind of unspoken assumption that you're supposed to get clean sounds and separation between the instruments. And you're certainly not supposed to have any ambient noise in the background. You go into these hermetically sealed recording studios and try. But I sort of abandoned that on this record out of necessity, because I was recording in my house and the ambient sounds of the world... it was hot and I wasn't about to close the windows. So there it was.

And there's trains and there's rain and there's traffic and children. After a while it just became part of the music for me, and it felt like it made sense, for the setting in which I was recording was very much a part of what happened or why. So, it's all there on tape, which I love now. Probably my favorite part of this record is listening to it through headphones and the in-between songs. [laughs] It sounds like home to me.

Orloff: One thing I read is that you're releasing some additional poetry with the album. Is that true?

DiFranco: Yeah, there are a few poems on the record, and I have all these poems, and I was deciding which ones to put on and which ones not when I was trying to hone in on what exactly to include in this record. And then I thought "Well, maybe some of the poems, just printed on the page in the package, ones that don't appear auditorally." It's just something kinda special in the package so there will be a few extra that you can't hear. [laughs]

Orloff: The packaging, especially for the later albums, has been really intricate. What's the concept for this one?

DiFranco: Yeah, it's hopefully going to be another nice thing to hold and feel and look at. Basically, we're sort of going with the vague reality that the music industry [is] imploding and people [are] not buying albums anymore and just downloading, or whatever it is people do in this computer age, so record sales are down for everyone. For independents, it really smarts. It's a big deal.

So, I guess, the only thing we can figure to do is make something that people want to buy. That's special. A reason why they should go to a store and pick it up. So, this one there's going to be a nice book inside. Actually, I did a lot of artwork for this one too, which I haven't done in many years. I did a lot of pictures, illustrations and poems that you can't find anywhere else. Things to make it worth it — the trip to the store.

Orloff: My assumption is that you're constantly working. Is it fair to say, "Listen to this album and see where she's at now"? Because it seems like this was a document of one time and now you're somewhere else, perhaps.

DiFranco: Yeah, exactly. Yes. What he said. [laughs] I'm pointing to you. That's kind of the way it is for me. By the time a record is released, I'm somewhere else. It seems like an excruciatingly long amount of time between when I'm done with it and when it's actually released. I know it's only a few months, but for me that's lifetimes.

Orloff: Is it true your next project will be a live record?

DiFranco: The next thing that I want to get together is a solo live [album] just kind of representing what I'm out here doing. So, I am taping shows now. I guess over the winter I'll probably put together a live record that represents this here.

Orloff: You mentioned before the idea of staying true to your politics. And I saw your solo show in Chicago last November, and one thing I remember you talking about was the idea of protest and the need that people should be more musical and incorporate music and joy in protest. I was wondering how you see yourself fitting into that, especially as you're touring now?

DiFranco: I think I try to do that a lot, like infuse joy into activism or encourage others. People have been asking me a lot lately, like "Is it especially hard now to be outspoken politically given today's climate?" And I honestly have to say to them, no, it's especially easy. I'm telling you, all I have to do is stand up and say the obvious and I get so much support and so much gratitude for it. I've made so many friends through activism, and it's made me a more appreciated, respected person on the planet. I've certainly endured many, many years of condescension, especially being independent and tiny and female, and whatever it is that allows people to write me off for most of my life, or step on me.

Now, that I've just been sort of out there trying to make good in the world. Trying to help other people. Trying to empower myself. Trying to pursue truth and honesty. I find in the course of trying to help other people, I have improved my own life immeasurably. It's really sort of sinking into me now that — and I guess I'm trying to say what I feel that people don't always realize — because we are certainly not activated a nation as we could be; there's a whole lotta people sitting in front of their TVs just wincing, going, "What the hell?" and "How can this be happening?" and sort of hand to their brow like, "What can I do? What can I possibly do to change anything?"

And, I think that just, rather than getting bogged down fighting the great evil, which is an impossible task for any of us, I think that just getting up and leaving your house and going and helping somebody else do a little good, just helping people who are doing good things, and really making the effort, dedicating a little bit of your time to an activist group. Or even getting up on voting day and going out and voting. Or participating in some way to create a democracy, to create justice, I think what people maybe don't realize is how much purpose and meaning and joy it can bring to their own life. You know? I think sometimes we look at it like, "Oh God, more work."

So, I think a lot of what I've been doing lately — not necessarily consciously, even, but just instinctually — is to try and show people how it doesn't have to feel like work. Activism or that kind of thing can be the best part of your day [laughs]. There's really nothing like getting together with hundreds of thousands of other people in the streets and screaming your fool head off for truth. — Brian Orloff [Monday, February 9, 2004]

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