Pretty much since she started releasing records in the early 1990s, Ani DiFranco’s songwriting has been the gold standard by which others in her realm are measured. And, yet, very few even come close to challenging her gift. They can’t. DiFranco’s phrases and phrasing are so unique and specific to who she is as a person that they simply can’t be challenged. While her latest release, Allergic to Water, may seem more peaceful than a lot of her works, it’s no less puissant. No longer someone who is living in clip, DiFranco offers a languid meditation on life as she knows it, in this moment… not the next. The next moment, and each one after, is ever up for grabs in the life of the Little Folksinger turned mother of two.
There’s a Maya Angelou quote that reminds me of you… “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Is that part of your goal — keeping a sense of the overall feeling even while getting the finer details down?
I don’t know if that’s my strategy. I really love that quote. I’d never heard it. And I feel where she’s coming from, so to speak. But, I don’t do that consciously. I work from my spleen and my subconscious and my heart. I think, though, that’s in there. It’s partially that I’m trying to do this work for myself. I’m trying to become myself, and be okay with myself, and go against the grain of my society, a lot of times. And, in so doing, you do that for others, as well.
I’ve become aware, over the years, certainly, through many interactions, and many letters, and many responses of how I’ve made people feel… more empowered… loving and accepting of themselves more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had crying people holding my shoulders saying, “You got me here.” Or, “You got me through high school.” Or, “You got me through the worst.” That really powers me now. I guess that’s in the back of my consciousness. It gives my work a lot of meaning, for me. Sometimes I’m like, “Ugh. Fuck it.” [Laughs] You know, when the bad parts of the job get overwhelming or I’m just sort of like, “How can I write one more song?” The awareness of how it can help people or buoy them up makes me more dedicated to what I do.
That must be a lot to hold. You have the fans approaching you with those stories. Then you have critics saying you have few, if any, peers. How do you process that? Because you’re also just Ani.
Right. Well, I don’t process it. [Laughs] I don’t read about myself. I abandoned that activity many years ago, realizing that it was not helpful to be ingesting people’s opinions and judgments.
Good or bad, I take it.
Yeah. Definitions of who I am and what I’m doing from outside. So that helps, for me to not feel too claustrophobic in all of that. I guess, basically, that’s it. I focus on my work. I focus on the audience that’s before me on any given night. And I try not to do things for or because of the chorus.
anigreyBack to the details… even if you are subconsciously going for an overall feeling, your details are there, too. I saw a podcast title the other day that reminded me of “the groundspeed of joy” (from “School Night”). Phrases like that or the pause in “clutter in my… bed” in “Dithering”… where do those moments come from?
Wow. Pulling quotes from all kinds of decades! [Laughs] You’re paying attention!
[Laughs] Oh, yeah!
Oh, no!
Step it up, babe.
[Laughs] So I gotta pay attention.
Well, what am I… 44 now… 34… 24… I mean, I’ve spent 25 years doing this in a pretty focused way. Even when I was a kid, I was into poetry. I was writing little poems just really into language, really into the music of it. Just completely enamored. For me, there’s never really a distinction between the music and the words or the politics and the art. It’s all one thing in me, so that’s how it happens.
When details like that — a line or an image — come to me, I try to, now, thumb it into my phone. It used to be jotting it on a piece of paper. But I try to retain those details along the way as they pass through my consciousness because I know that those are the moments that make big truths ring true. When you have little moments that people can be present in with you, it makes the truth that you’re trying to express so much more authentic. So that’s one thing I’ve learned to do over the years is try to document those images before they’re lost.
And, then, the bigger songwriting process is kind of always happening underneath my daily life where I’m coming up with overarching ideas for songs. Then these little details get plugged into their appropriate places.
Maybe it has changed since the kids came along, but do your songs linger just under the surface or is it a bit of a mining expedition to get to them?
I’ve noticed, since the kids — especially now that I have two and the baby is pushing two years old now… it’s been a long two years because he’s a high maintenance fucking baby — I’ve found that, for the last two years, I couldn’t finish anything. I have reams and reams of half-finished songs and scattered ideas. That’s the mommy state I’ve been in. But, recently, he turned out to be such a bad traveler… he brought down the whole operation.
[Laughs] Get on board, Dante!
[Laughs] We tried! I brought him for three or four tours and it was excruciating. He just doesn’t sleep. So, the baby is a bad traveler which means that I’ve started leaving him behind and traveling solo again for the first time in many, many years. Now, I’m happy to report that the last three months of touring without any children, I’ve been in songwriting boot camp. I was writing a song every week or two on the road because I think I’ve just been so pent up. And I suddenly found myself a hands-free device! [Laughs] And I just was on fire so now I have a lot of new material and I’m very excited that I’m not dead yet, artistically.
[Laughs] I second that emotion!
Yes! Cool! [Laughs] These days, I need to get away from the kids in order to have the focus to create songs.
Ani_DiFrancoByCharlesWaldorf_6Sure. Just the psychic space, I would imagine. Now, how does it feel to let go of what songs mean to you once they go public? Do you manage to keep at least a piece of them for yourself even while your fans remake them in their own images?
Oh, yeah. I never let go of what they mean to me. And, again, I don’t really get too deep into what they mean to other people and all the guesses or reactions. I think they’re everybody’s songs once they are out there, so they have the right to mean different things to different people.
Sometimes I think it’s kind of surreal, the difference in what they mean to me and what they mean to the next guy. Like “Rainy Parade,” the last song on this record… to me, it’s a birthing song… it’s a song I’m singing to a woman in labor, in a sense. But, that might not be true for anyone but me! [Laughs] Which is totally fine. And which doesn’t mean that they don’t get it. That’s what I love about poetry is that there are many, many ways to get the truth out of it for each individual.
Would you be able to survive the world as it is, if you didn’t have music? Would you even want to?
Yeah, I doubt it. I mean… I have never tried. [Laughs] Like many troubled kids, I was hell bent on self-expression as a way of freeing myself, of getting the pain out and healing myself. And I scrolled through a lot of art forms as a young un. I thought I was going to be a dancer when I “grew up.” I did art — painting and drawing.
But there was a reason why I gravitated toward music in the end and fell fully into that art form. There’s something so interconnected between music and people. It’s, literally, the other language. There’s French and Japanese and Swahili, and there’s music. Music is the universal language. The more experiences I have where white girl from Buffalo, New York, shows up in Burma in a refugee camp, pulls out guitar, and becomes family with people who have no common experience with her. It’s such a powerful experience over and over in my life that music is the international language that can make kin out of complete strangers.
It goes back to what Maya Angelou said… people may not know what you’re saying, but they know how you’re making them feel.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s universal stuff. These other art forms that I dabbled in, they had their exclusive communities and audiences and areas in which they operated. And music is everywhere. So it’s hard to imagine the human race… I think we’d be quite doomed without that saving grace between us.
I know I would. When you’re performing… I saw you a few times 20 years ago, in small clubs in L.A., and I was always exhausted afterward. How did you manage that? Where did all that energy come from?
I think I was just, quite basically, born with more than my share. Seriously. And now I have a mirror to look in in the form of my son. He is cut from mommy’s cloth and WOW. He just exhausts anyone around him all day long.
[Laughs] So now you know how I felt after seeing you at the Troubadour!
[Laughs] Yeah, right! Yes, after I made a mess of everything! And you got to clean it up. [Laughs]
I think we’re all born with different levels of stuff burning. I think I just had energy to spare along the way. I feel quite different from that now, though. [Laughs] I’ll tell you what, as you get older and more tired in life, when just being completely unstoppable has been your shtick, it’s like, “Oh, shit. Now what?”
The way I look at it… I went to those shows and I wanted to be on board because there was so much about you that I loved, but some of the aggression didn’t quite suit me.
Yeah yeah yeah…
But then, once you settled in a little bit, like with Revelling/Reckoning, I was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
Yeah, right. All of the energies have their places and purposes in the world. I feel the same as you, I think, from this standpoint. I certainly can’t listen back to that old shit. It’s like, “Whoa whoa whoa whooooooaaa! Wow. Okay.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] “Too much!”
“Too much!” Yeah. [Laughs] But, of course, if you’re 18 and you’re female and you’re trying operate in some big, urban environment and you’re dealing, on a daily basis, with these completely unspoken power dynamics that are just eating your head, I can see where that kind of expression is like, “YESSS!!! This is the primal scream that I’m feeling.”
Obviously, your fan base evolved over the years. Have LGBT folks ever gotten over your supposed “betrayal” in the form of getting hitched to a dude… twice now?
Ha! I should hope so. A lot’s been happening in this world! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Right. No need to continue beating you up over living your life.
Yeah, I mean… people are people. And everybody needs to see themselves affirmed in the world around them to feel like they fully exist. We’re social animals and, if you are having thoughts and feelings and life experiences that only you are having, it’s very alienating. And I understand, because of my own life experience, what it is to be in the margins and the sort of desperateness that comes with that place in the world. So, I understand the instinct to latch onto somebody like me. And I understand the feeling of, “No, no. Do what I need you to do! Not what you, yourself are doing!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, “Don’t live your truth… live mine!”
Yeah, right. But I think each of us in this world, eventually, has to find their own way and not count on somebody else to make us whole. I would imagine that, way back when, when there was a backlash to my marriage, I’m sure that I and all of the backlashing people have changed a lot since then.
Let’s finish up with a riddle, of sorts… If you “have the kind of beauty that moves,” what kind of talent do you have?
Oh, wow…
Right? [Laughs]
Yeah, hey… HEY! [Laughs] I like it.
It’s gotta be the same kind. It’s the same organism. Definitely.
This is my problem making albums, to begin with, is that they do not move. There’s a stagnant… I may as well write my words down on paper while I’m at it, if I want them to just fucking sit there. It’s very hard for somebody like me to say, “Oh, that moment in time. Yeah, that one. Let’s keep that forever as the permanent record.” I’ve made incredible mistakes along the way in my recording career because I’m so living in the moment and I’ve been that same person in recording studios and, in the blink of an eye, I’m like, “Okay! There it is! Let’s go! Moving on!” And, then, years later, you look back at this recording and you go, “Noooo. That was not the moment. That was not…” Look at all these beautiful songs that have dubious to highly unfortunate recordings.
But it was “a” moment, even if it wasn’t “the” moment…
Right. Right. But, what you want for a record is the moment.
But, BUT… like you say, that’s the kind of artist I am, though. The consummate moment… it happens on stage. It comes and it goes. That’s where my art lives. That’s where it’s truest. All of my songs will be most resonant on a stage in a moment, not on a recording, because it’s translating something there. The art, itself, when it comes to me, is happening in time. And, I think that’s what I’m most comfortable with. And I think the change… and then you’re onto a new moment… and the song is transforming all the time. To me, that’s truth. Call me a fucking woman, but truth is ever-contextual and ever-changing and flowing and fluctuating. And the more we try and make things into absolutes and make them into permanent, affixed things, the further from the truth we get.
Look at you, answering a riddle with a paradox. Well played, DiFranco!
Hey… Hey… I mean, I’m just trying to keep up here, pal!
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.