Videos by American Songwriter

From the start, she was different. Bald, for one thing. As legend has it, she began her career in the music business at age eight, performing Beatles songs in a Buffalo bar. By 15, she’d run away from home to begin life as a touring musician, performing her ever-expanding catalog of original songs in folk clubs across the state and, later, the country. By the time she was 21, she’d launched her own record label, Righteous Babe, to support her first album, Ani DiFranco.

From the start, she was different. Bald, for one thing. As legend has it, she began her career in the music business at age eight, performing Beatles songs in a Buffalo bar. By 15, she’d run away from home to begin life as a touring musician, performing her ever-expanding catalog of original songs in folk clubs across the state and, later, the country. By the time she was 21, she’d launched her own record label, Righteous Babe, to support her first album, Ani DiFranco. It was the start of an incredible career, during which she has proven to be as mercurial as Bob Dylan-ever changing, never compromising and much revered.

On the phone, DiFranco laughs as easily and often as she does in concert.  Calling to discuss her new career retrospective, Canon, the self-described “little folksinger” dishes on her songwriting style, her days on the road with Dylan and her newfound role as a mother.

How do you usually write songs?

Well, the short answer is, it’s different every time.  These days, I keep a journal, so I’m constantly sketching down my thoughts, or lines that come to me…ideas for songs. And then when I have a moment to myself, I’ll sit down with my guitar and open my journal, and start kind of massaging things together, and see if a song takes shape. Or sometimes, I’ll just be hanging out with my guitar and come up with a chord progression or a lick, and that’ll sort of sit around for awhile waiting to marry itself to some words. So it’s sort of haphazard and it’s like…junk culture. I go around finding shiny objects and I glue them together [laughs].

Do you need privacy to write?
I used to. I’ll tell ya, I used to be way more precious about my privacy and with my work, but I long since haven’t been able to afford that [laughs]. I tour pretty incessantly, and you’re constantly surrounded by people, so I learned over the years to kind of go off in my head and write, even on a tour bus when people are cranking up the music or chatting all around me. 

You’re lyrics seem so perfect.  Do you ever reject songs you’re writing because you can’t get the lyrics to come out the way you want them to?

I do that more now than I used to. I was way too impatient when I was young, so if a song was giving me trouble, I’d just try to force it, and get it out there so I could use it on stage and have something new to sing about.  These days, I find I’m applying a little more patience to my process. If I look back on my work, I can see those songs I bailed on that could have been better, that had those great two verses and then I kind of coasted from there. These days, if a song is giving me trouble, I put it aside and pick it up later, and keep doing that, for a year if I have to, until it takes shape.

You just put out your own book of poetry, Verses. Does that make you particularly proud?

Yeah, actually! It’s my first book, and it was pretty exciting to hold it in my hands that first time. It’s an idea that was a long time coming, and when I finally got around to making it, it was challenging, because my writing just kind of exists out there in the air-it’s all sort of intended as spoken, or sung, word. So to commit them to the page…that way was kind of intimidating to me, yet intriguing, to try to reflect the rhythms and connotations and emotions that you can deliver, speaking-wise, on a page.

What was your reason for putting together Canon?

The reason was, I’ve got this huge pile of records, I don’t know, like 19 or something, it’s hard to know how to count them, and for somebody just wanting to explore my work for the first time, you know, where do you start?  I wouldn’t know what record to recommend, or say, “Oh, here’s the definitive one.” So we thought it would be expedient to make a little compilation for the uninitiated.

The process of making it was kind of excruciating for me; it was a drag [laughs].  I really don’t like listening to my records if they’re older than a year, or two maybe.

Is that a musical thing, or an emotional thing, or a lyrical thing?

I guess I have a problem with the way a lot of my songs were being documented. And that being said, I was in control of that the whole time [laughs], but I think my judgment about how to make records, and what was the right performance of the song, or what is the right direction to take a song in the studio, or what is my aesthetic, in terms of tones, or arrangements-all of this took a long time to develop. Meanwhile, I was spitting out records furiously, you know? So it’s hard for me to listen back to songs I love, or gave birth to, my little creative children, and see these unfortunate snapshots of them that will live on in posterity. If I had it to do again, I would do most stuff differently in terms of record making…probably equally as bad [laughs]! So it’s hard for me to listen to that learning process, and accept the fact that it’s out there for everyone to hear.

And so you re-recorded a few of your songs for Canon.

Right! And that was delicious, to get another crack at a few of them.

The re-recorded version of “Napoleon” is amazing. When I heard it I was reminded of what a catchy song it was, and I immediately thought, “Damn, this could be a hit single.”

Yeah, except for the little “f***” in the chorus, the little repeating bit! I remember when that song first came out on Dilate, and everybody’s two favorite songs on the record had the word “f***” in the chorus.  My manager was like, “Dude! [laughs] Can’t you work with me here?” It was, you know, just that kind of time.

The song “Dilate,” there’s so much pain in the lyrics and the vocal, and you have to recreate that live every night. I was wondering what that’s like. Do you go back to the original relationship when you sing that song?
Hmmm. It definitely feels emotionally strenuous to recreate those moments, but at the end of the day, it also feels really healing…because I’ve sung that song so many times, and I’ve moved through so many relationships with it. So I feel that kind of catharsis of not just expressing it, but repeating it, beating that horse until it’s well and truly dead, is a way of moving past it.  So that song is old enough now that I can sing it and not get lost back in the place that it came from. I noticed with older songs that I still perform that I’m coming from a different place with them now, which is kind of cool-it mutates the vibe and even the meaning of the same words when you have a different spirit, if the person singing is different. I like that, to be able to sing an emotionally wrought song from a more centered place, or to sing an eager, youthful song from a more experienced place. It kind of colors the songs differently, and it keeps them fresh.

On your DVD, Trust, there’s an emotional scene where you ask your fans to not sing along so loudly with you in concert. How did that ultimately work out?
It’s funny you should ask; it kind of has worked itself out. Part of it is the audience is somewhat less…crazy boisterous; it used to be I couldn’t really get into my thing, because there’d be so many people caterwauling back into my face, and I think, not only would it disturb me, but people would disturb people around them…and it would become a bit of a conflict. But these days, I think we’re all a little older and calmer [laughs], and now, when it does happen, it’s fun for me. I think there’s much more of a balance that I’ve struck with my audience now, and when people sing along, it’s cool. I like the feeling of the collective voice now and it’s not overwhelming my focus.

You opened for Bob Dylan on two tours in the ‘90s.  Did you interact much?
A little bit. I think Bob caught the vibe that I’m not a rabid fan, and that I don’t want his bodily fluids or anything. I mean, I appreciate his songwriting, for sure, and respect all of his influences on the American songwriting culture, some of which I’m sure is visited on me vicariously, although I don’t have a pile of Dylan records on my shelves. I think he felt comfortable enough with me and we chatted a little bit, but he keeps very much to himself. He’s not really the type to be hanging out in catering or anything.

Coming up, did you feel like you were always appreciated, musically and lyrically?
I guess I would say that I always felt appreciated, even in the beginning. It might have been only two people on any given night. For many years I played in Buffalo, and when I started touring, quote on quote, it was very low-key stuff; I’d have arrangements to play at some café in Minneapolis for tips, so I’d drive 500 miles to get there, and somebody’s trying to eat, and they’d tell me to turn it down! But it feels like there was always somebody there to connect with, and really that’s all it takes. I don’t actually distinguish between connecting with three people or 50 people or a 1,000 people. The feeling is the same when you make that connection. I always found it gratifying, even in the long era of obscurity.

Now that you have a daughter, are you writing any children’s songs?
No children’s songs, per se, but I have written about her already; I have a pile of new songs that I’m starting to record, and one of them, “Landing Gear,” actually takes place in labor, which is kind of unique in my body of work. It’s given me a lot of stuff to think about, so of course it’s factoring in.

Do you imagine she might grow up to be a songwriter one day?
I have no idea.  She’s certainly going to have a unique upbringing. I mean, she’s been on the road since she was in utero, really, so I think it’s really cool. She will have witnessed people playing music as a job and gathering together and bringing joy to each other…and people expressing themselves. So, at least it will be a very known option to her!

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