Ani DiFranco: ‘I’m sorry if I’m not what you need me to be’May 17, 2019
Ani DiFranco has been many things in her 48 years: a folk rocker, queer activist and campaigner against war and environmental disaster. But for the past 12 years, when she isn’t touring, she has been a stay-at-home mother. “My life here is one of ‘mom’,” she says, laughing. “A lot of typical mom stuff goes down.”
The singer-songwriter, who has been responsible for more than 20 albums, including 1996’s seminal Dilate, has lived in New Orleans for 15 years, and it’s from here that she is building on her three-decade career as a performer, label owner (of Righteous Babe Records) and now author. Her impassioned memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, documents the first half of her life: growing up in Buffalo in New York state, moving to New York City after her parents’ divorce (her mother was moving to Connecticut and DiFranco did not want to follow) and the various trysts with men and women that ensued. We learn about her approach to her own image, the secrets of her songwriting and how she gained her fierce political views. The book ends after 9/11, before DiFranco became a mother of two. “The momentum of what I was doing was so fierce for so many years that there was no time to re-think anything,” she says of a career that felt non-stop.
Throughout it, DiFranco has always been an emblem of progress. She came out as bisexual in her early 20s and her songs documented relationships with both sexes. She hopped around genres before it became fashionable to do so, exploring folk, jazz, roots and rock and absorbing the influences of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis and Betty Carter. She didn’t pander to stereotypical appearances and chose unconventional haircuts (green and spiked on the cover of 1997’s Spin, for example). And she was heavily policed, particularly by her own community, in a time that predated “cancel culture”. “I’ve never heard that term,” she says. Her queer fans expressed anger when she married her roadie in 1998 (they divorced in 2003).
“It’s so unfortunate that marginalised communities are in competition for the tiny allotment of space society gives them,” she says, empathising with the reasoning of her critics. “You have to be queer enough to qualify; people judge each other about who can claim an identity. Here we are listing our labels in order of importance and lining up in the hierarchy of whatever. We lose each other as people. I’m sorry if I’m not what you need me to be in a moment. I can only be me.”
In 2013, DiFranco apologised after it was revealed that she would be hosting a three-day workshop at a former Louisiana slave plantation. She cancelled it, but many (including this paper) didn’t detect remorse. DiFranco issued a further apology days later. “I needed a wake-up call and you gave it to me,” she wrote on her website. She is still afraid that a mention of the incident will shake a dormant hornets’ nest.
“Boy, there’s so much to talk about around then,” she sighs. “I felt my chest sink under the weight of it all.” She regrets attempts at self-defence now. “I should have found the ultimate humility to put down my own hurt, and all of the misconceptions or mis-truths out there. You have to make yourself accountable. There’s a greater pain that’s bigger than me, and it’s more important.”
DiFranco despairs for upcoming voices in the post-social media age. “It’s not getting any easier to be willing to make mistakes in public, which anybody has to do to stay alive,” she says. The internet, she believes, has spawned a culture of “gotcha!”. “One mistake and you’re done! It’s counterproductive. The idea that we can write each other off and kick somebody off the planet? That’s not how we’re gonna get to where we need to be. We have to go together.”
She doubts her own story would be the same if it were being written now. “I don’t know that I would have felt as free or unfettered,” she says. “Mine was a world where every momentary choice didn’t have to be one you were making in an endless eternity of scrutiny. Good luck to the artists today who are trying to break ground. God bless them.”
DiFranco grew up with “super progressive” immigrant parents (her mother was Canadian, her father Italian). “There’s a strong independent streak on both sides of my bloodline,” she says. Family life wasn’t dependable, hence the need for a teenage DiFranco to steer her exit. Her mother became an example of fearlessness after she split up with DiFranco’s father, and gave the young singer the confidence to break rules. “I saw her leave one life behind and go start another. Everything about her was going against the grain. She was the lady in the pink hat with the purple feather.”
Songwriting came early on, spurred by familial drama and domestic silence. “I had pain that I had to get out of my body,” DiFranco explains. “Art transforms struggle into something useful, something beautiful.” Through picking up a guitar, she found the safety of connection. She built a fan base the old-fashioned way, playing venues door-to-door across the US, becoming a regular at women’s music festivals, including Lilith Fair. “I went out further into the world, searching for my family,” she says.
In the beginning, she slept in bus stations. She once rented a room in a former sex club. She drove herself up and down the land with her self-released albums on her back. “The songs came so unedited that they connected me with other beings like myself, even when there were only a few people in the room,” she recalls. “I did it human-to-human. Those moments were so healing that I’ve stayed in search of them ever since.”
A desire to connect has made her a consistent ally. “I talk to every person like they’re my friend,” she says, but she admits to situations where kindness has been taken for weakness. “If you stand on every stage and talk like you’d talk to your best friend, you might step on toes. That way of interfacing is not always appropriate or successful, but that is my way, and that’s how I’ll do it even when it bites me in the ass.”
Her refusal to sign a label deal necessitated the creation of her own at the age of 20. She runs it to this day, offering a home also to Andrew Bird and Anaïs Mitchell, among others. “If only white men are the delivery system, the translators, the sellers, the definers of the expressions of these diverse human experiences, then something is lost,” she reasons.
She runs the label with a mostly female staff. “It’s not enough to write your own songs,” she says. “What if you’re in control of the way they go into the world? I harnessed a lot of authenticity along the way. Not a lot of perfection. But freaking real as real could be.”
Nevertheless, she has had a plethora of male mentors, including poet Sekou Sundiata and Pete Seeger, reasoning that men remain the gatekeepers for women’s careers. “It’s ironic, since I’m known as feminist queen of the universe,” she says, self-mocking. “When it comes to inspiring and encouraging people, it doesn’t matter what make and model you are.”
She cites her mother, and feminist writers such as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton as her female educators, women who helped her know herself better.
Now married to her producer and the father of her children (a daughter aged 12 and a six-year-old son), the singer believes her best work is ahead of her – it was such a juggernaut for so long that she didn’t have chance to self-criticise. “My kids got in the way of my music, very intentionally. That was a hard adjustment.” Patience has been the upshot: it is changing the way she writes. “I see a little clearer. There’s lots of time to question myself. Youth is so confident. Now I do a lot of dancing with myself.”
• No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco is published by Viking (£20 rrp)
Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/17/ani-difranco-im-sorry-if-im-not-what-you-need-me-to-be