Whoever said “it’s lonely at the top” never met Ani DiFranco. For the 29-year-old indie folk-rock singer and record-label owner, it’s getting pretty crowded up there.
“I played music for so many years in some kind of crazy little vacuum,” she recalls from her house in Buffalo, N.Y., in a caramel voice punctuated by frequent laughter. “This business of being a little folksinger in a little car driving around from little coffeehouse to little bar is kind of a solitary existence. … So it’s really cool at this point in my life to have been out there in the world making music so long that I have friends, and I have a band, and I have a lot of people to interact with musically.”
But isolation is where it all started, and in some ways DiFranco is still an island. It’s just that now she’s floating around on a lot more charts — as evidenced by her last five albums’ appearance on the Billboard Top 200. Impressive, considering that DiFranco has always eschewed major labels: As a joke, a little more than 10 years ago, she wrote the words “Righteous Babe Records” on her first studio recording.
Today, that’s the name of her own label, an outfit that employs about 20 people and ensures her creative freedom.
And despite four Grammy nominations, a regular slot on the Billboard charts, and a spot on VH1’s list of the “100 Greatest Women of Rock,” her guitar and her songs remain a sanctuary.
“There were a lot of people in my childhood who wrote songs and played acoustic music in little bars, and so that was … familiar … to me, and by the time I could put two thoughts together, it just seemed like the thing to do,” DiFranco explains. She says she started playing bars while she was in the “single digits” (age 9, to be exact).
“I mean, I was colossally terrified for the first I don’t-know-how-many years, like any insecure young person would be, but I think life is more interesting if you put yourself in peril than if you stay safe,” she reveals. “So it always seemed much more compelling to me to try to make music, and to fight the trauma of it all, than to stay at home.”
DiFranco still thrives on speaking her mind, now through dynamic live performances. She identifies most with those of Pete Seeger’s and Bob Dylan’s ilk, but has done folk a favor by incorporating punk, electronics and all manner of funkiness into her sound. Meanwhile, she’s kept all the attitude and the best acoustics that folk has to offer.
Any vacation DiFranco takes from the road is really just a thinly veiled excuse to write her experiences down, so she can come up with more reasons to tour again. “It’s made a big difference in my life to be able to record at any time, day or night,” DiFranco says about her new home studio.
“I just walk into the next room and work,” she adds with a tone of pure joy.
That coexistence with the means of production has significantly impacted her 14th album, To the Teeth (Righteous Babe Records, 1999), which she’s now touring to support. “Swing,” perhaps the jazziest and most danceable track, is a masterful blend of folk and hip-hop.
“That was a little thing that I did at home, one of my little nocturnal jam sessions with myself,” notes DiFranco. The home laboratory allowed this mad-folk-scientist to concoct and play the song’s bass, acoustic guitar, megaphone, bells, triangle and vocals all at once. “Swing” also reveals that it’s not just about Ani and her guitar anymore.
“After hangin’ with Maceo [Parker, James Brown’s sax man], we were talking about playing on each other’s records,” DiFranco explains, “I was like, awwwh, I’ve got to make that [“Swing”] into a groove because it just seemed perfect for him, and he just totally elevated it when he came and played on it.”
In addition to her To-the-Teeth-mates, DiFranco has lately collaborated with folksingers Gillian Welch and Greg Brown, and with Prince. (“I think he’s back to Prince, although I’ve been calling him Arty,” she comments about the former “Artist Formerly Known As … .”)
Three million record sales into her career, DiFranco’s neighbors and fans enter heftily into the mix. Her success has meant that she can give back more, and she’s done just that — by sticking with her hometown of Buffalo and by founding the Righteous Babe Foundation — which funds all kinds of nonprofit artistic and political endeavors.
While never one to hold her tongue, DiFranco is more aware now that people are listening, and two songs on To the Teeth especially bear this out. The title track is an anthem inspired by the Columbine High School tragedy, which suggests we “open fire on the NRA / and all the lies they told us / along the way.” “Hello, Birmingham” recounts the murder of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, which she learned about after performing at a benefit for an off-duty Alabama police officer killed at a clinic bombing.
“I think in the process of writing those two songs I was trying much more than usual … to present a perspective that I just don’t see around me in the media,” DiFranco says. “Most of my writing is based on personal experience. I just find it the most valuable way of even telling a bigger truth … to tell a small one that you can really tell. Those two news events that inspired both of those songs, I guess I internalized them so, so deeply that they did become sort of personal events for me.”
DiFranco lives by her carefully chosen words, noting that “life is all about stories.” As is the after-life: One tale she tells — on “Providence,” another To the Teeth track — unfolds postmortem: “The first question will be / what were you thinking?/ and the next question will be / what did you say? / and then they’re gonna check to see / if the answers to one and two / matched up much along the way.”
DiFranco’s answers always seem to match up. That’s why, for her, there’s no “top.” There are just more people to share with.