Ani's Music Up for Grabs
Ani DiFranco revealed a 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, was released in January."I honestly don't know exactly what people are thinking or saying about the record, and it's partially by design," she said, starting to laugh, "'cause I just don't wanna know." Even her speaking voice is rich, textured, vivacious.Punk-folk singer DiFranco, who came back to the United States in March after touring in Europe, danced across a range of emotions when she reflected on her latest release on her label, Righteous Babe Records."This is my new strategy when I release a record now ... to leave the country," DiFranco said, with a laugh, "for as long as possible ... to 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, as an artist, 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."The media hasn't exactly been understanding of the prolific 28-year-old from Buffalo, NY, who started her label in 1990. She said the media has been wrong about her age, her hometown, and her discography. Not to mention misreading or taking out of context her piercing, first-person-ain't-necessarily-her lyrics."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 said, adding that she wonders what we really know about the situation in Yugoslavia.DiFranco said the media's misportrayal of her stems from critics who don't know artists, and who probably don't even go to the shows."I think one of the things I've had to learn how to do is just try to make music and then," she said, "let it go."DiFranco said she's more interested in her expression as it exists live, on tour. She's known for her raw, passionate, humor-spiked performances that connect with fans. When she recorded Up ..., she explored the world beyond a solo experience; she dealt with her band acquiring a voice of its own."I'm basically a folk singer, and like all of us, um, sort of socially marginal folk-singer types," she said, giggling, "I've spent most of my life making music by myself."When she writes, she said she likes solitude, but it's hard to find these days. She described her acoustic guitar as the cornerstone of her songs before; that's how the title track on the new record was born. But when she got into the recording studio this time, DiFranco had a new process for developing songs. She thought about the dimensions and the textures of the band and the various instruments. She started to pull away some of the original elements, like her acoustic, and worked with other ideas."For me, I like a lot of space in music," she said, sort of sing-songy, "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, so ... what I say to the band a lot of the time is, 'Okay, play less,' or, 'Drop out this,' or 'Mute that note,' always trying to blow holes back into the arrangements, even though there's more people there now."When she toured clubs in Europe, including in Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, she said it was like a flashback to her earlier days, when the audiences were small, and the shows were more intense and intimate, the appropriate setting for her songs. And the European press is just beginning to unfold her story, asking her questions like, "So, you're a feminist?"With her fan base still growing after a decade of touring (not because she has a hit single, a major label backing her, and a hit video on MTV), she has had to adjust to larger audiences in the U.S."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 said. "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 websites. Although she stays "reallllly far away" from the Internet, she thinks it's cool."This whole thing of me Indie Girl, USA, Sister-doing-it-for-herself, ... the truth of it is, it's not just me. There's other people who I've been working with and 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, and other people on the Internet were like, 'Hey man, fuck 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."Because she's so frank and poetic on stage and with her voice -- plus the appeal of her unshaven armpits, her nose ring, and her amorphous hairstyles -- she captures her dominantly female fans. She said she was not a "born performer" and used to be terrified in the spotlight."Now that I do it all the time," she whispered, "the challenge is more about how to make it new and fresh." She got louder. "How to bring the panic back into it! ... I really want to make every show different and invest myself emotionally in it, even if it's the last thing I feel like doing at the time or feel able to do."For the second year, she has been recognized by Grammy nominators -- she was up for best female rock vocalist this year, but Alanis Morissette won that category -- but DiFranco seemed unfazed. "I think: Whatever," she said. "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," she sighed, "as far as I'm concerned, it's just not a contest. Music is not a contest."Another music entity has noticed DiFranco this year. The Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA) will be honoring her with its special annual Outmusic Award for advancing gay/lesbian music through her work as an "out" musician. (She has addressed her bisexuality in her music.) DiFranco is also up for GLAMA awards in the rock/alternative category and female artist of the year for her last album, Little Plastic Castle.These days, DiFranco is pretty happy with where she's at. She said there were points in her career when she wanted to give up."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 was really bogging me down, and I thought, 'Wow, I can't deal with this.' And 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 those years of working."She even has new songs written that she's already performing on her Up ... tour, more perceptions and reflections about her world and the world she sees around herself. But she wouldn't get into the particulars; she said she doesn't think of her songs in terms of subjects. "Well, I'm not gonna give it away now," she said, her voice bubbly. "They're just gonna have to come find out for themselves!"