Releasing 17 studio albums in as many years doesn’t leave much time for looking back. Add a slew of national tours, multiple live albums, an extensive collection of poems and paintings and the daunting task of running your own record label and it’s a wonder Ani DiFranco has had time to breathe.
But now, with the January birth of her first child, the iconic singer/songwriter has taken a moment to reflect, compiling three dozen tracks for her first retrospective, the two-disc collection Canon.
DiFranco says Canon is something that had been discussed for years, but never got off the ground because of time. “No time to look back, always moving forward,” the singer told interviewer Ron Ehmke earlier this year. “But of course my life has taken a sudden left turn with the baby, which involves a lot more time at home, and it was sort of an obvious juncture to actually try and manifest some of these theoretical projects that have been looming around.”
Unlike many of its contemporaries—seemingly thoughtless compilations of singles arranged haphazardly—Canon plays like a calculated mixtape, deliberate and cohesive. Encompassing sixteen albums—including five rerecorded tracks—the project was no small undertaking. For an album-oriented artist like DiFranco, compiling a unified tracklist from such an extensive catalog meant making sacrifices along the way.
“I wanted to be somewhat chronological,” DiFranco said, “and that became the big hurdle then, because in any evening of music, whether it’s live onstage or at home in your own CD player, you want [the night] to have a flow all its own.
“It became a challenge of, ‘Well, I would naturally pick this song, this song, and this song from these three albums, but they don’t flow well together, so now what?’ Some of my favorite songs were left out in lieu of some more obvious ones. It’s a radical distillation, for sure, but it’ll serve its purpose as an introduction.”
Revisiting early recordings was also an arduous process for DiFranco, who admitted she is quick to find fault in her older work. The singer has learned a few things about producing records in her nearly 20 years as an artist, and she says that, in part, influenced her decision to re-record several tracks for Canon.
“It was partially dissatisfaction with the original recordings and part: ‘That would be a fun one to reinvent,’” she explained. “There’s never been a band version of ‘Both Hands’ recorded. It’s one of those songs that I’ll play alone as an encore at the end of the night so it seemed like a good contender. ‘Shameless’ on the other hand, is one I always play with the band, so to record it solo is fun and different. A treat for listeners who are really familiar with the originals.”
Along with fresh recordings, the double-disc also includes some stage banter and a few tracks from DiFranco’s 1997 live album Living In Clip. “A live performer first and foremost,” the singer said it seemed natural to include tracks from “one of [her] most beloved albums.”
“That interaction between the performer and the audience is what drew me to music in the first place. I’ve always written and painted, but those are solitary art forms where you are creating alone. The social aspect of music is something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Nothing if not prolific, DiFranco capitalized on her newfound home life to compile a collection of poetry and spoken-word pieces to coincide with the release of Canon. Verses, DiFranco’s first published volume, spans years of the singer’s writing and includes many works never before published or performed. And while writing song lyrics and poetry certainly share a common thread, DiFranco says writing in verse grants a freedom that is inherently lost in songs.
“Poetry is much less restrained,” she said. “So when I want to sit down and write without having to concern myself with time signatures and bars, poetry allows me to do that. There is definitely some sharing going on between my songs and my poetry, but for the most part, I know when I begin writing which it’s going to be.”
A “novice painter,” DiFranco also selected a handful of originals to grace the pages of Verses. That, she says, was the most nerve-wrecking process of all.
“That’s a very tender area for me,” she told Emke. “I’ve never put drawings or paintings of mine out there in the world at large in such an exposed way, so I feel kind of vulnerable about that. It’s kind of a queasy feeling for me. That’s where I’m hanging my insecurity at this point.”
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Ani DiFranco with Buddy Wakefield
what: Trail-blazing singer/songwriter
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Sunday, Nov. 11 (8 p.m. $34. www.ticketmaster.com or 251-5505)