‘Alive and vocal’: DiFranco plays Beaver Creek
Vail, CO Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado – Earlier this week, Ani DiFranco was taking a short break with friends in Canada before her upcoming shows in Colorado. Apologizing for delaying a phone interview for a couple of minutes, she said she was busy brushing her 3-year-old daughter’s hair.
That’s right. The iconic folk singer from Buffalo, New York, who at the age of 19 shaved her head, started her own record label (Righteous Babe) and moved to New York City (not necessarily in that order) turns 40 next month, is married to the father of her child and the guy who helped produce her last two records – Mike Napolitano – and is pretty happy with her life.
“I’m sorry, I just had to finish brushing my daughter’s hair or else I would never get to do it again. She would run off and leave me forever and then, you know, the dreadlocks are instant,” DiFranco said, going on to admit that dreadlocks (which she herself has sported over the years) wouldn’t be all that bad.
“Yeah right,” she said, laughing. “If it’s good enough for mommy’s hair…”
DiFranco’s daughter, Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano, has a different life than most toddlers. She accompanies her mother almost constantly, which means she abides more to the rock-n-roll clock than Mother Goose’s.
“You always hear from parents that you need a schedule. You gotta do the same thing every night – the bath, the story, the bed, dadada de da. Well, her life is completely devoid of that,” DiFranco said. “We may go to bed at 8. We may go to bed at 3 in the morning. We may not go to bed at all. We may be sleeping on a bus or in an airport. So I think she’ll be a good traveler throughout her life. It’s pretty cool. She’s definitely a flexible kid in that way.”
Although DiFranco is content with her personal life, don’t go thinking she’s getting soft. With her newfound inner calm, her eye for the injustices of the world has only become sharper.
“I’ve noticed since my personal life fits these days … I guess I was avoiding using the word comfortable … but I’m comfortable in the best sense of the word. My heart is OK. I’m not struggling with my relationships. I’m really happy. So that allows me this brain space and energy to look outwards even more than ever.”
And there is no shortage of subject matter. A few months ago, DiFranco furiously began writing a series of new songs covering a number of government-centered issues. After her stop in Colorado this weekend, she plans to return to New Orleans (her home of the last eight years) to finish mixing them into a new album – her first in the studio since 2008’s “Red Letter Year.”
“It’s a very political record,” she said. “When the oil started spilling in the gulf, I found myself with a new swamp full of things to write about and think about. I sort of have this will lately – not that I’ve ever been known to mince words … I’ve been known as a pretty in-your-face, political writer – but I have the will to worry less about the conventionally musical word choice and the easier things to hear in songs and I’m delving into a new area of political wrangle. I’m trying to write songs that are really direct and use words that you don’t usually hear in songs.”
Over 20 years and 20 studio albums, DiFranco has covered the gamut of relationships with men and women, social and political strife, civil rights and abuses, but she is breaking out the big guns (again) for her next record. Her songs have historically painted colorful and poetic pictures of the issues. She has written about “being escorted through the doors of a clinic by a man in a bulletproof vest,” and outlined the irony of a doctor being shot by a militant anti-abortionist (“a bullet ensuring the right to life whizzed past his kid and his wife and knocked his glasses right off of his face”) but has never actually uttered the word abortion in a song. Until now.
She describes a new song, “Amendment,” as “a direct proposal for a constitutional amendment” along the lines of the Equal Rights Amendment that guarantees equal rights for men and women under federal law but which is still not part of the U.S. Constitution.
“I feel things like abortion rights need to be considered part of the civil rights of women,” DiFranco said. “Women have a specific experience in society that is not specifically addressed in the law of our land. I think the state-by-state, case-by-case quibbling over things like abortion is very much used as a tool to divide people. They keep trying to break us down into factions, into those that favor choice and those that don’t favor choice for women into the religious and the non-religious, the black and the white, the gay and the straight. Every time there’s an election coming, conservative people use these issues to divide voters and disempower us time after time after time… So this song has the word abortion in it. In my new songs I’m trying to find a way to sing the word patriarchy, to sing the word abortion. For me, they are as important as love and skies and rain and angels … the things you hear every day, all day long.”
Also, the oil spill song is in its final stage of completion. At the beginning of the summer, DiFranco started a journal documenting her thoughts on the spill and the pages are now (pun intended) overflowing.
“The whole journal is this song. I’ve written 400 verses, I’ve crossed out 85 of them, then I write 200 more. There is just so much, so many connections to be made, so many things to give voice to that we’re not hearing on the TV and in the news.”
Most long-time DiFranco fans will be thrilled about the fresh fire behind the new record, but DiFranco knows by now that she can never please everyone.
“If you’re a public person, there’s always going to be people saying, ‘You should be more like you were two years ago … no, five years ago, no, five years from now …’ There are always people who want you to stagnate in one place or other that serves them or is appealing to them. But of course, any artist – any person – who remains true to themselves continues to change because we’re alive. We’re changing and growing and thinking about new things because our life presents us with new things. So, a while ago I forfeited trying to please everybody all the time.”
One thing that has heartened DiFranco recently is being told by other musicians that her boldness – always putting her neck on the line and sticking to her convictions at the risk of having her throat slashed – has inspired them to take more risks in their own work.
“I really love that,” she said. “That’s part of the way I can serve artists and the planet that I live on. I think that propelled me in this new song cycle. I somehow doubt there are going to be a lot of people writing about abortion or patriarchy or multi-national corporations. But if I can find a way to do it, maybe it will encourage somebody else to think about their politics … to be alive and vocal.”
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer based in Vail. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.