Ani DiFranco: Braving the Storms

"First leak it out about the president
then stand up and shout 'Impeachment'
Pulling coat tails out from under that little VP
Before he has a chance to get in the driver's seat"

-- "Millennium Theater" (download)

Ani DiFranco has never been one to mince words in her lyrics, and the wallop of an album that is her new release, Reprieve, hits the stores on Aug. 8. (Download an exclusive prerelease of "Millenium Theater"). After recording the album in her New Orleans studio, mostly before Katrina left her stranded and unable to finish it, DiFranco did what everyone else in the Gulf Coast did after the storm: She improvised.

But improvisation seems to be nothing new to the 35-year-old folk rocker from upstate New York. Founding her own record label, Righteous Babe, in the early '90s, DiFranco's music has continued to resonate with fans who appreciate her honesty and forthright style, not to mention the ever-evolving sound of her albums. The lines between personal and political evaporated long ago for the self-named "little folksinger," and AlterNet had a chance to catch up with DiFranco in late June 2006.

Deanna Zandt: Let's talk about the making of the album and what happened with your recordings.

Ani DiFranco: It was recorded last July in my little apartment in the Bywater, in the middle of New Orleans. Then, of course, the storm hit in August. I had -- very fortuitously -- moved out of that apartment just before on August 1, into the Quarter. So, I was high and dry for the storm.

We had recorded the bed tracks, and then the big spiral with the big flashing arrow pointing towards at New Orleans started to appear on every TV screen. We were actually in the last wave of ne'er-do-wells to leave town on Sunday night. We got in the contraflow, all that traffic, and drove through some of the arms of the storm which were already appearing the day before. It was wild, wild weather. We headed to Lafayette for what we thought was a few days. Everyone evacuated thinking, "Oh, the power will be out for a few days; it'll be hot, let's go."

Then the news reports started rolling in, and later we just started panicking, thinking, "Oh my God, we left all the master tapes …" We were in the middle of my record, we were in the middle of the new Hamell on Trial record, and my partner is also a record maker, so there was no end to the masters we'd left behind in New Orleans. We decided, "All right, we gotta go get 'em."

So we got into my friend's mother's Toyota Corolla and drove into town from Lafayette. I must say, it was incredibly easy. There were maybe about four or five roadblocks along the way. I mean, you had about eight guys trying to lock down the city. It was an impossibility. Every time they would say, "Get off at the next exit, ma'am," we would say, "Sure," and keep going.

We cruised right into town, and saw not one Army truck, not a single National Guard person, no FEMA people, nothing. No one. The storm hit Monday morning, and this was Thursday afternoon. Flooding, absolute flooding, craziness. Devastation, people on their roofs, and we saw nobody there to help. And any reports of "you can't get in there" were, I can tell you, bullshit. We couldn't believe this was the United States of America. I felt more naive than I have in a long time. We just saw a lot of poor, mostly dark-skinned people abandoned, thirsty, hungry, roaming the streets, under and on bridges … it was insane.

There were all these reports that they were not even letting people walk over the bridge. People without cars or credit cards who attempted to evacuate on foot, they were turning them around on the bridge. People would come from the Ninth Ward in droves from their flooded, devastated neighborhoods to the National Guard station on the levy, and they were turned away at gunpoint, like, "Get the fuck outta here."

DZ: The footage we saw on the news of that was just incredible.

AD: It was somewhat amazing to see the media almost on the side of truth, for a change. They were actually there and reporting, "There are people here without water," right to the head of FEMA. CNN was actually doing good work for a change, which was an amazing flip of the 21st century script.

DZ: You talk about that script in "Millennium Theater."

AD: Yeah, the media henchmen of this regime, yes. It was heartening to see the media actually helping a situation for a change instead of just exacerbating it. Or indoctrinating.

DZ: It seems like Katrina has fallen away from the national consciousness again, and now we're back to flag-burning and marriage amendments. How do we reengage people?

AD: I think complicity is very habitual. I think there's a whole lotta people out there who are towing the line, and it's become the modus operandi in mainstream media. Katrina was a heartening blip on the mainstream media map, but they easily slipped back into just reading the press releases and not really striking out to make their own story, to make something relevant or of import.

DZ: How do we keep pushing Katrina into the spotlight? As individuals, as independent media makers …

AD: We keep talking about it! That's what I do every night on stage … I'd been living there, so it's easy for me to do.

I think we go there. I hear people saying, "Well, I guess I won't be goin' to Mardi Gras for a buncha years," and I say, "No! Go! Now's the time! New Orleans needs warm bodies with tourist dollars in their pockets, more than ever!" When a part of our national body has been injured, we can't turn away, we can't ignore it, we have to go there. The laying on of hands … we have to see for ourselves, and bring home the stories.

I think it's up to all of us to keep it in the forefront of our minds. This is an election year, and we have the House and the Senate up for grabs here. If the Democrats don't take back both houses, it will be a crying, crying shame. We have to keep talking about New Orleans and relate that to the upcoming elections and the Republican Party.

New Orleans is the best example that we have of the success of the Republican program -- a dismantling of government. It's just a fact that, under Clinton, the head of FEMA was an experienced disaster-management professional. Bush comes in and he appoints his bud who doesn't know a damn thing, they completely de-fund the whole organization, and it becomes a sham. They did exactly what they were capable of when the crisis struck: nothing. We have to keep Katrina, New Orleans, the whole Gulf Coast in our consciousness. It's very important and relevant for these elections we're facing. Not to mention the, um -- whaddya call that, the war going on.

DZ: There's that, isn't there?

AD: They should be and can be very powerful motivators if we can keep the momentum of awareness and concern at least through this November.

DZ: In your travels, are you seeing that momentum? Obviously your audience has probably made its decision about the Republicans already, but …

AD: My audience is a very progressive bunch, but that doesn't mean that they're voters. I think that they're also by and large a pretty youthful bunch, and with youth in the 21st century comes a whole helluva lot of disillusionment with things like the government, because it has been made a sham by the Republican regime.

We have been sort of brainwashed, even if you don't buy into the Republican agenda, that Big Government is bad. Which is, of course, just a way of deregulating corporations because you basically have a choice between Big Government or Big Business. And it's like, "Hey kids, guess which is worse?" [laughing]

DZ: That's dichotomy that we have to work with these days, isn't it? Big corporations or big government.

AD: Yeah, but if you look at who is saying big government is bad, and it'll tell you everything you need to know about that philosophy.

DZ: A lot of people talk about the idea of "All good politics is local," and you seem to promote that with the work you've been doing in your hometown.

AD: I come from Buffalo, and it's a very abandoned post-industrial city. It's definitely a small city that's a victim of "white flight," and suburban sprawl, and meanwhile it has this beautiful architecture heritage that's being devastated. Decade after decade, they've been tearing down half the city. So, saving buildings in Buffalo has been part of what Righteous Babe's work has been in recent years.

We took on this old 1870s sandstone cathedral that was going to be torn down. My manager and label president and good buddy Scott Fisher said, "Is it OK if I take some Righteous Babe money and hire an appraiser, an assessor to say, 'You don't have to tear this cathedral down, goddammit'?" We've done that with a few buildings in Buffalo, just personally invested in fighting the city demolition apparatus.

We saved this cathedral from demolition, and over the years we kept having connections with it, and our karma just seemed to be wrapped up with it, so we decided maybe this should become our new offices, and so it is. It's also a performance venue and an art gallery. We hooked up with this preeminent not-for-profit arts organization, called Hallwalls, that does avant-garde cutting-edge kind of galleries, theater, and art spaces that have been around for a few decades now. They're in part of the building; it's a real artistic hub that's in downtown Buffalo.

DZ: There was a book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," about artists being necessary for the vitality of a city's economy.

AD: Buffalo, for generations, has been a place that the young and dynamic evacuate as soon as they can. They head to New York or to Chicago because Buffalo can't sustain them. But if you're dissatisfied with your city, rather than leave it, change it! Start somethin'!

Not only is acting locally or getting involved in something in your community where it's at politically in terms of "changing the world," though -- it's fun. It's invigorating. We forget that. Even the act of registering to vote -- it's very simple, very easy, and then just taking a half hour out on Election Day and standing in that booth, it makes you feel better. This has been my experience. We feel so helpless and disempowered, but no matter how much faith you have in your vote or whether it's even going to be tallied, just the act of doing it, to be active in that half hour is a good feeling.

In New Orleans, you can go down to Habitat for Humanity and just show up and volunteer for a day and someone will hand you a hammer or a saw, and you can work for a day. For me, it lifts my heart. I think if people understood how much better they would feel with these small acts locally … I think we get a little tied up sometimes thinking that we have to change the world, but it's amazing how much we can just change our hearts and lift our hopes if we just make these small acts.

DZ: Is that how you recharge your batteries?

AD: For me, it's every night on stage, that's how my batteries are recharged. It's inspiring people through music and getting together with my community every night and being inspired by them. I have my own little subset of activism that I've turned into a job, and it's absolutely what keeps me going and feeling active -- and empowered.

Ani DiFranco's new album, Reprieve, is available for pre-order at Righteous Babe Records. She can be found touring the country throughout the summer and fall of 2006.

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