Ani DiFranco blew into public being in 1990 like one of those small earthquakes that rocks Alaska every couple of weeks. At the time, the slight rumbling seems no big deal: a little wobble, a little confusion.
But you know that below the surface, everything has moved.
Deciding from the outset that she wasn’t for sale, Ani produced her own albums and started her own label, Righteous Babe Records — clearing a path for untold singer/songwriters since. She toured. The industry yawned.
Audiences, however, felt the tremor. Nothing comes close to word-of-mouth as a marketing method. And word spread.
Ani, it seemed, didn’t shrink from asking the really tough questions. Imperfectly (1992) launches immediately into a full-frontal assault on the dominant paradigm: “What if no one’s watching/ What if when we’re dead, we are just dead/ What if it’s just us down here/ What if god ain’t looking down/ What if he’s looking up instead?”
By the time she released Dilate in ’96, Ani had fully hit her stride. The album opens with “Untouchable Face,” its hook worthy of Harry Connick Jr., sucking you in before the chorus spits out a condemning litany of “f••k yous.” Then Ani segued into the freshest take on “Amazing Grace” yet recorded — industrial rhythms underscored by motorcycle revving and a backdrop of granny-voiced scriptural admonitions. Faith lurched to another dimension.
And faith again took it on the chin in “Adam and Eve,” where the singer deconstructed the morning after a one-night stand (“Don’t treat me like something that happened to you”) before memorably declaring: “I did not design this game/ I did not name the stakes/ But I just happen to like apples/ And I am not afraid of snakes.”
Ani toured some more, she released some more, she toured, she released. And in 1998, she picked up the first of five Grammy nominations she’s nabbed to date, for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Fast-forward to last year, when Ani came out with Evolve, an album of growling and laughter tucked between vocals that bend and spark as smoothly as hot iron in a forge — but wrapped in art. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences awarded Ani and her longtime collaborator and art director Brian Grunert the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package. And if anyone wondered whether the musician inside bridled at having finally won her first Grammy for design work, the answer came this past winter.
With Educated Guess, released in January, Ani has outdone herself with another packaging tour de force: a 40-page booklet comprised of original artwork and photos by hers truly.
The new album is Ani’s 19th, and her first solo outing in more than a decade. She plays every instrument, sings lead and backing vocals, and this time has done her own recording and mixing, as well. (In her current tour she is accompanied by bassist Todd Sickafoose.) While the title song’s lyrics cover other ground, the title itself easily applies to the whole production: This is Ani’s best guess at how to create an entire music CD without outside help, educated by more than a decade in the business.
Guess won’t garner a best-vocals Grammy — there’s too much poetry here, too much subtlety, not enough hook. Nonetheless, it’s a brilliant work, featuring nuanced backing vocals, eclectic rhythms, gut-grabbing bass and sounds redolent of humpback keening. The passion is alive, the intimacy is palpable.
“Here I am,” she is saying. “Just me.” And in the words of an earlier song: “As is, as is, as is.”
Ani DiFranco plays the Asheville Civic Center’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Saturday, May 8. Show time is 8 p.m.; all seats are $33.50. Call 259-5544 for more information, or 251-5505 for tickets.