Ani DiFranco

Music, News & Commentary

Ani DiFranco on feminism, songwriting and creative inspiration

| |

Editor’s note: Ani DiFranco’s April tour of Australia has been cancelled in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This interview took place before the cancellation.

Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Ani DiFranco grew into a lover of music with a particular fondness for the acoustic guitar, which along with her social conscience led her to the life of a folk singer. She initially worked alone, but she gained a drummer then a bass player and from time to time has played and recorded with a band that includes a horn section and an organ, incorporating influences from jazz to funk and even a smattering of hip hop.

She has remained a fiercely independent artist with a bitter distaste for corporate record labels, the practical results of which are explored in her popular song Napoleon. This worldview led her to establish her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which has released the work of many off-beat artists along with her own work.

BENJAMIN WOODS asked her about her latest album Binary, her memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream and more else besides.


Benjamin Woods: I really like Binary and your previous album. You’ve brought the band back together again; it’s funkier than your noughties material which was stripped back with just you and your guitar. You touch on this in your book, was this just for personal reasons that you recorded all alone for a while, or were there other reasons?

Ani DiFranco: The book stops in the year 2000, when I said goodbye to my first big band and kind of circled my wagons and went back solo for a while and did some reckoning with myself … it’s been 20 years, and these days I’m working with a drummer from New Orleans, Terrence Higgins, Todd Sickafoose on bass who you would have heard on that last album Binary, and I just love this band so much. We’re pretty compact, just a trio, no keys or horns, things I was experimenting with back in the day. I really enjoy the trio so much because they’re such bad ass players and we sort of have room to play around.

BW: It seems, anecdotally in Australia, that Living in Clip [Difranco’s 1997 live album] is very popular, which featured your band as a trio, so I think people will like to see it again.

AD: Yep, that was a trio on that record, different people but it’s the same sort of stripped down – we can rock out but we can be very small and subtle too.

BW: I want to ask about some of the lyrics on the new album, in particular Pacifist’s Lament. I like the bigger picture but I also like the line, “stop in the middle of a battle and say you’re sorry,” which is what teachers say to kids at school when they’re fighting, and it is absurd as you point out. Can you tell us a bit more about that song?

AD: I’m sort of comparing what we expect children to achieve even though we can’t achieve that level of consciousness. In the adult world it’s a constant battle in many ways to really be adult enough to say you’re sorry when somebody else has wronged you even more, which is always the case isn’t it? It’s hard to find the humility to stay open to each other, to forgive each other, to apologise for own complicity in the problem.

You know all the sort of levels of humility and gratitude and awareness – it’s really hard to achieve. I guess I was reflecting on what does pacifism mean? Not just in a big P political sense but in our everyday lives and our behaviour.

You know all the sort of levels of humility and gratitude and awareness – it’s really hard to achieve.

BW: In the book you talk about the song Untouchable Face which seems to be very popular, understandably, it’s very good. Another one that seems to be very popular in Australia, which you don’t talk about in the book, is Napoleon. Triple J, which you might know, seem to have played Napoleon more than any other of your songs. Do you mind telling us how that song came about?

AD: First of all I wanna say that Australia is so cool for having more open broadcast laws. In the States they would never play either of those songs because they have the F-Word in them. Thankfully, somebody is thinking a little more subtly about language.

Yeah, I don’t know, those are both songs that were written in the same time period I talk about in the book in the mid to late 90s. It was almost the height of my popularity or notoriety or whatever the hell it is. My life was quite chaotic you know, there was a lot of stuff coming at me.

So you know, one of them is a sort of window into what was happening in my personal life at that moment, Untouchable Face, and the other, Napoleon, is just sort of my anthemic song of resistance to commercialisation. I was sort of trying to remind myself on a daily basis, “why the hell am I doing it this way? What is my point?” [referring to her dogged refusal to work with the “suits”].

BW: I have to talk about feminism. I have something in particular to bring up on feminism and patriarchy. I was reading Erich Fromm recently and there was a line that goes, “Patriarchy is actually the prototype of all exploitation, not only of a class, but of one half of humanity by another. I believe one can confidently say that exploitation in general will not be stopped until patriarchy is stopped”.

Would you put it like that? How do you see the roots of inequality in general?

AD: Yeah! Who is that? Erich Fromm? I’ll look him up because I feel exactly the same way and I don’t hear it said very often. People think whatever, feminism is dead, or women are equal and it’s not such a big deal. I think yeah, it’s a big deal; you can’t create peace when there’s an imbalance. If you consult the laws of nature which are the only laws that are real or permanent; If you start with a grand imbalance of patriarchy, it’s just not gonna lead us to where we need to go.

We need to go back and heal that initial oppression because unless you have the masculine and feminine sensibilities interwoven and equally weighted and spirallingaround each otherin all of our arenas – the social, the political, the cultural, you can’t have a healthy human culture, you can’t find the right answers.

BW: What female artists have had the most influence on you?

AD:  I feel like the process of writing the book finally uncovered a lot of it for me. I’ve been asked my whole career what my influences are and I’ve always been like, ‘I don’t know, I’m busy, I’ve [got] no idea’. But sitting down and reflecting, doing all of the remembering which was arduous, just the memory aspect of it, I uncovered a lot about myself.

I went back and listened to things I haven’t listened to since I was a teenager. As soon as I pulled out the first Suzanne Vega track from 1987, I was like, “Oh my God! Here I am! Here it is, that’s where I started!”. She’s obviously a huge influence. You know I wasn’t self-aware, there was enough focus on me and the process of writing and making art in order to heal myself, so in order to then be my own critic, or academic, or whatever it is, I felt like, urgh. I wasn’t interested.

BW: I’ve got to talk a little bit about Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. They were both musical influences on you but Pete became like a friend but it’s interesting how you write that Bob Dylan has built a wall around himself with his persona. Was that disappointing? How do you see them both?

AD: I was never a huge Bob Dylan fan before I spent a few different tours on the road with him. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate his music but I think his influence was more vicarious on me than something I sort of fed off directly. So, I sort of went on tour once and then again, with a curiosity of “what is the fuss about? Let me see if I can really connect with this particular artist”.

I don’t think the experience of being in his sphere made me connect any more, you know, I think he had quite the lyrical and the song writing spark and the contribution the way he really brought something new to the game was immense. Just in terms of the artist, the man, the human being, the spirit, I’m not compelled so much or attracted to that sort of closed personality. I guess that’s why I wanted to compare him to another American icon Pete Seeger, who to me is so much more compelling in his vulnerability.

BW: I only have time for one more question. I’ve got to ask, who are you supporting in the US election?

AD: Anybody but the Cheeto! Anybody but the Cheeto! I’m going to be very humble and go to the ballot box and vote for my least favourite Democrat if I have to.

One response to “Ani DiFranco on feminism, songwriting and creative inspiration

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *