Ani DiFranco revealed a seldom-seen timid side when she told me that she was out of the country (touring, of course) when her 12th album, Up Up Up Up Up Up (Righteous Babe Records, 1999) was released last January. “I honestly don’t know exactly what people are thinking or saying about the record, and it’s partially by design — ’cause I just don’t want to know,” she declared in her signature richly textured voice.
“That’s my new strategy when I release a record now … to leave the country for as long as possible,” the punk-folk singer continued with a laugh, “so I can escape the awareness of what people are saying, because it can be [pause] … it can be really scary, I guess, as an artist, to be putting out ideas. … I hate reading the press or critical assessment or even person-to-person assessment of what I’m doing, because, you know, every person’s interpretation is so different, and if you start to worry about it … like, ‘Oh no, I’m being misunderstood,’ or ‘No, no, no, you didn’t get this right,’ … it’s totally overwhelming and frustrating and distracting from the real work that needs to be done.”
It’s true the mainstream media hasn’t always been exactly simpatico with the prolific, often-controversial 28-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., who started her own record label (Righteous Babe Records) in 1990. Di Franco notes that the press has been wrong about her age, her hometown and her discography — and, even worse, has often misconstrued or taken her piercingly honest, politically charged lyrics out of context.
“It’s really terrifying for me, and very enlightening, to have myself be a news item these days, because I realize how sort of haphazard and faulty our sources of information are,” she notes. DiFranco acknowledges, however, that at some point she has to simply make peace with forces she can’t control. “One of the things [I’m trying] to learn how to do is just try to make music and then just let it go,” she muses.
The singer/guitarist is known for raw, passionate, humor-spiked performances that elicit an almost evangelistic fervor in her predominately female audiences. And Up Up Up Up Up Up manages to capture some of that live energy, with the help of her latest touring band: Jason Mercer on bass, Andy Stochansky on drums, and Julie Wolf on keyboards, accordion and backing vocals. “I’m basically a folk singer, and like all of us, um, sort of socially marginal folk-singer types,” she says, giggling, “I’ve spent most of my life making music by myself.” Accordingly, several of her earlier releases were solo-acoustic-guitar heavy. The new disc, however, is filled with more lush, textured arrangements — all the while remaining true to DiFranco’s emotionally wrought blend of feminist-infused political fervor and deeply personal meditations.
DiFranco admits that the recording process for this release presented a bit of a challenge: “I like a lot of space in music — you know: a lot of air, a lot of space to move around and to breathe in — so when you have more people playing, more instruments at any one time, it becomes more challenging to leave spaces. … What I say to the band a lot of the time is, ‘Okay, play less,’ or, ‘Drop this out,’ or ‘Mute that note.’ [I’m] always trying to blow holes back into the arrangements.”
She calls her recent European club tour a flashback to earlier days, when audiences were small and shows were more intense and intimate. And, she notes, the European press is just beginning to unfold her story, asking questions like, “So, you’re a feminist?”
With her fan base still growing after a decade of touring, DiFranco reveals that she has yet to adjust to the concept of huge audiences in huge arenas. “It’s nice because it means I can afford to hire another musician to work with or get my own lighting person, … but it’s more difficult for me to really derive energy from the audience ’cause they’re further away and there’s more of that kind of distance,” she says. “It’s harder for me to really reach across it.”
The crazy-glue bond between DiFranco and her fans has resulted in 75-plus fan-generated Ani Web sites. And although she stays, as she puts it, “real-l-l-l-ly far away” from the Internet, she thinks the phenomenon is cool. “This whole thing of me — Indie Girl, U.S.A., sister-doing-it-for-herself — the truth of it is, it’s not just me. There are other people who do a lot of work and make it happen. … I think it’s really amazing how people are networking amongst themselves and also policing each other and stuff. It always does my heart such good when I hear somebody is trying to sell a bootleg of my work and other people on the Internet are like, ‘Hey man, f••k off.’ So it’s great; it really shows that, regardless of the industry and the corporate control of music in this country, there’s a lot of power held just in the hands of the people, in terms of networking and deciding things for themselves and talking about it and spreading information.”
DiFranco emphasizes that she’s not a “born performer.” In fact, she was once terrified by the spotlight. “Now that I [perform] all the time, the challenge is more about how to make it new and fresh,” she reasons, adding, “I [need to learn] how to bring the panic back into it. … I really want to make every show different and invest myself emotionally, even if it’s the last thing I feel like doing at the time or feel able to do.”
No stranger to Grammy nominations (she’s been up for Best Female Rock vocalist two years running), DiFranco claims to be unfazed by music-industry grandstanding. “I think, ‘Whatever,'” she relates. “It’s, like, so unimportant and so unimpressive to me. I mean, most of the music that really rocks my world doesn’t register on the Grammy radar. I think the fact that I’ve been nominated is interesting … but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just not a contest. Music is not a contest.” (Nonetheless, she was honored by the Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA) this year with its annual Outmusic Award for advancing gay/lesbian causes through her music — a fitting tribute, since she often acknowledges and embraces her own bisexuality in her songs).
These days, DiFranco says she’s pretty happy with where she is — though there were points in her career when she wanted to give it up completely. “I was just totally overwhelmed, totally stressed out, really overworked, really lonely, really tired, really despondent — driving around by myself going to these bars and having these confrontations with people everywhere that just were really bogging me down,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t deal with this.’ But now, I have help. I travel with my friends, who help me with all the various things that have to be done on the road. And I have people to play music with on stage, and I don’t have to worry too much about whether anybody’s gonna show up to the show anymore, so it has gotten better after all these years of working.”
She promises a host of new songs on her Up tour, but won’t get into the particulars. “I’m not gonna give it away now,” she deadpans. “[People] are just gonna have to come find out for themselves!”
[Additional reporting by Marsha Barber.]