"Don't forget to have a good time."
If Ani DiFranco has said anything important over the years, and she has, this line from her last record, 2008's Red Letter Year, should rank right up there. It seems like an obvious statement, but it's deceptively simple. And even someone as lyrically smart and fearless as DiFranco has some trouble coming to terms with it.
"("Present/Infant") is about trying not to let insecurities or self loathing ruin your life, because there's a lot of fun to be had in this world," she says with surprising warmth and joy. "I wrote this song after having my baby, and babies are great teachers on so many levels. One of the first things her presence taught me is that if I am to love and accept my baby and her face, then I should love and accept my own face.
"Look at her, how unfettered she is by all this social baggage. What a wonderful way that would be to live," she adds. "I'm trying myself to achieve this."
Finding solace in motherhood and marriage (to 3-year-old Petah and producer/recording partner Mike Napolitano, respectively) probably isn't what the world expected from ostensibly arch-feminist Ani DiFranco. For the past 20 years, she's been a fierce and vocal proponent of various alternative movements (she freely admits to being "a very radical person"), and her drive to live and create successfully on her own terms through her label, Righteous Babe Records, has earned her respect as an independent artist and business woman.
She's still vintage Ani on newer songs like "Alla This," emphatically stating, "I won't pray to a male god cuz that would be insane." In general, though, predictability was never one of her strong points. Her stories have always been wildly honest and human, and this pretty, wide-eyed, self-described "little folksinger" does more justice to punk rock with her acoustic guitar and melodic, spitfire vocals than most musicians do with an arsenal of electricity and angry wails.
But there's one certainty: It's the new, more common aspects of her life that are shaping DiFranco and her music more than anything before. It took two years to record Red Letter Year, which might as well be two decades, when compared with her usual release schedule — 17 since 1990. However, the extra time she spent crafting the record resulted in what she says may be her most pride-worthy work to date.
"My process is slower because I dedicate most of my time to the baby now, and I think the record is stronger and deeper and wider because of the time she forces me to take. There's a lot of stepping away," she says. "It's not just, 'Go into the studio and record everything really quick and obsess really hard and then it's done!' and then it comes out and you start thinking, 'Oh, that song's a little slow,' 'That guitar's a little thin.' Slowing me down is just what the doctor ordered."
The current sad state of the music industry has a braking effect, too. Righteous Babe feels the sting, and despite years of proving that a little ambition coupled with something to say can work wonders, DiFranco laughs and says, "It isn't getting any easier, I'll tell you.
"It's not just major labels. The periphery is also struggling, and Righteous Babe is no exception. We've been trying to downscale my whole operation over the last few years in order to survive, and it makes it harder," she says. "We've been releasing other people's records for a while but that was never a money-making proposition. Now that we're living a little closer to the wire that gets harder. It's a day-to-day survival."
But it's always been a worthwhile, if uphill battle, and DiFranco exudes positivity when talking about what it means to her.
"I realized early on that if I signed with any of these labels that were trying to get me, I would have had a fabulous career. I would probably have sold more records, they would sound better and I would have this body of recorded material I wouldn't cringe at," she says through a laugh. "But I think the interests of big business are fundamentally contradictory to the interests of people and art. I just never wanted to be a part of that system. … I want to live my ideals, so I chose the path of making my own mistakes, and it was a path that was filled with all kinds of people I knew had all kinds of things to teach me."
It's still a world she wants to support, albeit a vastly different one. But with new realities come new perspectives, and "don't forget to have a good time" takes on new meaning.
In more specific terms, catching her two-night, end-of-tour stand at the Orange Peel might be a good move if you want to glimpse a smart, talented woman who's not afraid of a "life journey (that) has taken all kinds of unexpected turns."
"Kids breathe new life into everything. It makes the most boring and familiar scenarios funny again, and the past three years have been really cool having her on the road. But now that she's getting to an age where she's starting to talk, some of the things she says on a regular basis are, 'I want to go home.' So I'm starting to reconsider just dragging her around in my crazy life," she says. "I'm considering touring less in the near future, like a lot less in the next month, actually. I haven't made any big announcement, but you're going to see a lot less of me soon. It's time to go home and focus on the kid."
[Jennifer Gibson is a freelance writer.]
who: Two-night run Ani DiFranco with Erin McKeown
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, March 13 and Sunday, March 14 (7 p.m., $35/$38, 18+, www.theorangepeel.net)