Just ahead of her upcoming Boston tour date, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco sat down with staff writer Mina Rose Morales. The two covered off on DiFranco’s lengthy career, from writing her first song at age 14 to where she stands now, with 22 albums under her belt. She also previewed her upcoming album, including one track which she centered around a life-changing book she read this summer on the origin of Roe v. Wade.
WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?
Ani DiFranco: Um, well, let's go with folk singer… (Laughs)... Yeah.
AND WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
AD: I'm from Buffalo, New York.
YOU KIND OF ALREADY ANSWERED THIS, BUT IF YOU WANT TO ELABORATE, YOU CAN. WHAT TYPE OF MUSIC DO YOU PLAY?
AD: Well, it's funny, I've been asked that, you know, for my whole life. And I've never really known what to say. It’s a hard one to answer if you're me.
I always remember a day that I was in a taxicab in Singapore, oddly. I was riding in the cab with a fellow who plays saxophone, and he was in my band at the time — my friend Hans — and the cabbie. We had our instruments with us, and the cabbie said, “What kind of music do you play?” And I looked at Hans, and I was like, “Well, what kind of music do I play?” And he said, “It's music with a story.” In a sentence that works for me.
HOW FAR INTO YOUR CAREER WAS THIS ASKED OR DID THIS MOMENT HAPPEN? WHERE YOU WERE, YOU KNOW, WAS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO RESPOND TO THAT?
AD: Yes, it's just always been difficult because my music doesn't fit neatly into a genre, I suppose. I say I'm a folk singer, but because I think that it's somewhere deep in the intention of the music and the community that it was born out of that's true but of course, there are many other elements to it. But yeah, that day in the cabin, Singapore was probably in the early aughts.
SO, WHEN YOU STARTED KIND OF AROUND?
AD: Oh, well, I mean…
LIKE HOW FAR INTO YOUR CAREER?
AD: Oh, several decades. I mean, I started playing gigs in the ’80s, when I was a teenager.
Ani DiFranco: And I started my record company in 1990. So it's been a long go. And I still don't know what kind of music I make, (laughs), and I don’t really care.
GREAT ANSWER— I LOVE IT, IT'S VERY HONEST.
YOU BASICALLY SAID THAT YOU'VE STARTED PRETTY EARLY ON WITH MUSIC. SO, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW, HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN MUSIC?
AD: Um, well, I remember when I was nine, I wanted a guitar. And I think my family was troubled, and I had trouble in my little body. And I, I just guess I was compelled to express myself to get it out in some creative way. So, I just wanted a guitar. I thought that I wanted to play guitar and maybe sing. I just remember asking my parents, and they humored me. And they got me a little child's guitar. And so, I started playing and then by the time I was about 14 I started writing my own songs.
OH, WOW. DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST SONG YOU WROTE WHEN YOU WERE 14?
AD: I do. Well, I don't remember it, but I know the name of it, because I had, I started keeping a list at that time of all my songs. And, I mean, by the time I made my first record, I actually had created maybe 80 or 100 songs.
As a teenager I was already on this path of just generating songs. God forbid, none of which I want anyone to hear (laughs). And in fact, my recorded canon— I'm not sure if I could make them evaporate, I'd might do that too. But the first song on the list was called “Winter Mist.” I remember that name.
DO YOU EVER PLAY IT STILL?
AD: Oh, no, no. Yeah no, I don't. I don't remember any of the songs on that original list.
AND YOU DIDN'T LIKE KEEP THEM OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT, LIKE, IN A NOTEBOOK? OR DID YOU?
AD: No, I wasn't really documenting at all, you know. I didn't record anything. And I didn't have a way. I was just a kid in the, you know, late 80s. And, I didn't really write down the words. I think I sort of had this idea that if a song couldn't be remembered it wasn't worth remembering. So, I was just moving through expression at the time. It wasn't until 1990 that I recorded my first album. It's still in the world, you know.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU RECORDED YOUR FIRST ALBUM?
OH, WOW THAT'S GREAT. SO I THINK I KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS, BUT I JUST WANT TO MAKE SURE. HOW MANY ALBUMS DO YOU HAVE OUT? I SAW QUITE A FEW.
AD: Yeah, yeah, about 22.
OKAY, I THINK I SAW 20, BUT IT'S ABOUT 22 NOW?
AD: Yeah, 22.
YEAH, THAT'S A LOT OF ALBUMS.
FROM ALL THE ALBUMS THAT YOU HAVE OUT SO FAR, IF YOU CAN NAME ONE THAT YOU SAY THAT ONE TOUCHES YOUR HEART A LOT, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE? DOES THAT EVEN EXIST FOR YOU? OR DO YOU HAVE A COUPLE THAT REALLY SPEAK TO YOU?
AD: I mean I guess my first answer that came to my head is the one I'm working on, because I am working on another one (laughs). That's the one I'm really excited about and most emotionally invested in. And then I'd probably sort of work back from there. My last record that got released, I still feel very much like the person who made it, you know. The songs that are on there represent most closely where I am now.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN TELL US ABOUT THIS ALBUM THAT YOU'RE WORKING ON? I KNOW, IT'S ALL SECRET SO FAR.
AD: Ahh, yeah.
BUT IF YOU COULD TELL US SOMETHING, A CLUE, WHAT CAN YOU TELL US?
AD: Well, I mean, I've already started playing the songs live. That's generally how I do it. When I make a song, I just start sharing it with people. So, you know, people, if [they] come to my shows, they often have a great insight into the next album. The songs are being sort of workshopped on stage; and they're already living in the world.
For me, sort of the essential state of music is performance and recordings are peripheral. For me, they always have been. For me, music is a social act, you know, first and foremost. And so, these songs, I've started the process of recording them, but really they just are out there living in the world and reflecting what I want to say right now.
There's a song about reproductive freedom, there's a song about identity and labels, there's a song from the point of view of the Earth, but also a person who is experiencing disease. And I hope that it communicates the idea that, you know, we search for these diagnoses of why we can't sleep, and we're so riddled with anxiety and all of this. And it's because we are — in my heart and what the song expresses — part of the Earth. We're not separate. And the earth is being suffocated, you know? The earth can't breathe; the earth can't be at peace. So how could we?
DOES THIS SPECIFIC SONG ABOUT THE EARTH DOES THAT ONE HAS A NAME YET?
AD: It’s called “Spinning Room.”
I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR IT SOMEDAY.
SO, FROM ALL THE SONGS THAT YOU HAVE RELEASED SO FAR, IS THERE ONE THAT YOU REALLY ENJOY SINGING THAT MEANS A LOT TO YOU?
AD: Well, you know— like I said, there was just about 100 before the first record. And I don't know how many since then. So, it's like, imagine if you had hundreds of children, to pick one. Even to have three children and pick one does not feel natural, you know. So there are many songs that I enjoy playing for different reasons. So, there's no one. And then there's a bunch of other songs that I don't feel anymore and that fall away along the way.
IF THERE'S ONE YOU CAN THINK OF NOW, LIKE THE ONE THAT COMES NATURALLY TO YOUR HEAD, CAN YOU NAME IT AND TELL US WHY YOU ENJOY PLAYING IT?
AD: One of my brand-new songs that I've been playing is called “Baby Roe.”
I'm a— well, I don't know if I could say I'm a big reader because I'm busy and traveling, and I have kids, and so I don't get as much time to read as I wish. But I love books. I have had my life changed by books many times. And I'm always compelled to share books that have changed my life with people.
So, I read a book this summer called “The Family Roe.” It's about the backstory behind Roe v. Wade— that victory. And it's a fascinating book filled with fascinating characters and [it depicts] how their lives intersected to create this moment in history and this great leap forward for women's rights. So, I wanted to tell people about it. And one of the best ways I have is to write a song.
So I wrote a song, it's called “Baby Roe.” And now, when I play it on stage, I talk about the book and I reflect it in the song. And it's just all stuff that I feel very passionately about. I think the book is brilliant.
WHERE DOES YOUR INSPIRATION COME FROM? IF YOU CAN JUST NAME A COUPLE OF THINGS, THAT INSPIRE YOU? INFLUENCE YOUR MUSIC?
AD: Yeah, I mean, so many things inspire me. Anything that touches me; that excites me; that attracts me; that thrills me; that enrages me. You know, of course, there's personal relationships— that's the most common stuff of songs. But then also, I get very passionate and take very personally political and social dynamics and power struggles and circumstances. So that factors in a lot too.
THANK YOU FOR SHARING THAT. THROUGH YOUR MUSIC WHAT ARE SOME MESSAGES THAT YOU TRY TO SHARE WITH THE WORLD?
AD: Yeah, umm, there’s just so many along the way, mostly…
YEAH, IF YOU HAVE 22 ALBUMS IT'S GOING TO BE VERY DIFFICULT TO HAVE TO COME UP WITH A MESSAGE.
AD: I think that the ongoing message that comes through my work is to be present within yourself and within your life. I've often in my life felt like a square peg in a round hole or whatever. And, like, is it me? Am I crazy? Because all this seems crazy to me.
And so, trying to find your own voice, your own perspective; to shed the perspectives that come into your mind and your heart without you knowing it and cloud your own. To shed those and try to get to your own truth, you know? And to really believe in yourself enough to stand in it.
THAT'S GREAT. ANY UPCOMING SHOWS?
Ani DiFranco: Yeah, I head out in a few days. We start in Chicago, and we're going to the East Coast — New York and Boston — and Minneapolis and the Midwest. Yeah, I'll be out for a few weeks.
ARE YOU STILL BASED IN NEW YORK?
AD: No, I live in New Orleans, Louisiana.
OH, THAT’S GREAT— THAT'S ONE OF THE PLACES I WOULD LOVE TO LIVE. A LOT OF GREAT CULTURE THERE AND GREAT MUSIC. WHAT SHOULD LISTENERS KNOW ABOUT ANI?
AD: What should they know about me? Gee, I don't know, (laughs). It’s all sort of there in the songs.
Ani DiFranco will perform live in Boston at the Royale on Wednesday, November 9th. Tickets are available here.