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"Whoever is famous at the moment is who I'm compared to," says Ani DiFranco, clearing her throat early one morning after spending most of the previous night driving from Toronto to New York City. "I'd like to compile these articles where they say I have a style like Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Liz Phair.... It's great that the palate is growing, that more voices are being heard, but if I see Courtney Love on the cover of one more magazine..."
DiFranco herself creates a punk-infused folk music dominated by her smart lyrics and deft vocals, in the process fashioning her own singer-songwriter niche. Despite a substantial output -- six albums to date, a seventh in the works -- and a cult following, she remains somewhat obscure, thanks to her intentional avoidance of the music industry and its trappings. Instead of seeking a label deal, she started her own imprint, which she continues to run, as well as her own publishing company. She produces her own albums and plays about 130 live dates per year.
The 24-year-old DiFranco grew up in Buffalo and began playing live (Beatles covers) at age nine. By fifteen she had left home and was writing her own songs, playing a regular gig at a local pub and graduating from a performing arts high school soon thereafter. A couple of years later, she scraped together some cash and put out an eponymous debut album. The LPs have flowed since that time -- Not So Soft, Imperfectly, Puddle Dive, Like I Said, and the latest, Out of Range.
In between CD releases, she has toured North America in her 1969 VW Bug. If she emerged from a music scene in Buffalo, she's unaware of it. "I always led a solitary, musical existence, driving around in my little fucking car playing music. I'm not from a community."
Out of Range covers as much ground as DiFranco's tours. The opener, "Buildings and Bridges," lays out her panhumanistic philosophy, which boils down to this: If you don't listen to everyone, you can't really understand anyone. She sings "What doesn't bend breaks" in such a way that it loses its cliche factor, and she neatly sums up life with lyrics such as "We are made to fight/And fuck and talk and fight again."
The powerful title track ("Just the thought of our bed/Makes me crumble like the plaster/Where you punched the wall/Beside my head") is included in both an acoustic and electric version, and the gentle "Hell Yeah" is contrasted by the rocking cut that follows, "How Have You Been," which includes a horn section.
You guys might like -- no, you need to hear -- "Letter to a John," which, much like Greg Brown's classic "Fooled Me Once," describes the life of one of those dead-eyed girls who try to lap-dance their way out of a battered life. The line "I was eleven years old/He was as old as my dad/And he took something from me/I didn't even know I had" jerks tears, but the hooky soul-style chorus suggests some measure of revenge ("I'm going to take the money I make/And I'm gonna go away"). DiFranco makes no hard-and-fast (superficial) judgment about her character's fate: "Don't ask me why I'm crying/I'm not gonna tell you what's wrong/I'm just gonna sit on your lap/For five dollars a song."
It didn't take Out of Range to attract the attention of the major (and indie) labels. DiFranco has been offered record deals more than once and she's declined each one. Why not sign? "Every morning right around now, it's tempting, but then I have my first cup of coffee and think, 'No, I can do this.' It's about my political convictions, really. I don't think it's useful to be rich and famous. It would be kinda fun, but I'm sorta more interested in setting an example for other musicians, to show there are alternatives. Not, quote, alternative, but alternatives."
Hers is the traditional DIY approach, but more independent than even the punks could have imagined. Independence requires responsibility; rejecting the status quo proves nothing. To achieve artistic success while rejecting the status quo proves everything. DiFranco is proof.
"Yeah, sometimes I feel like a martyr," she confesses. "I watch my friends get their deals, and it's like trudging down this road where slick cars pull up and slow down, somebody zooms past me, and the next thing I know I'm watching them on TV. Meanwhile I'm still walking around. But really, it's very empowering. I'm completely independent. I have complete control over my career, and I can go to sleep at night knowing I'm not perpetuating a system that homogenizes and commercializes music. This whole multinational corporate music scene is a drag. I see so many people become stupid so they can [sign label deals]. They say, 'Oh, these [label execs] are real nice guys.' Oh, Jesus."
DiFranco's own label, Righteous Babe, has sold some 100,000 units of her albums. She's drawn a fanatical following (a 9000-member mailing list and even an Internet discussion group) that consists mostly of people who feel that moshing and folk music are not mutually exclusive. Her manager, Scot Fisher, who used to be her boss when he ran a construction company and she was a day laborer, says that most of DiFranco's fans are women, but that many males follow her tours "to see how she picks." It is something to see: DiFranco glues on heavy-duty fake fingernails, then double secures them with electrical tape. She tears up guitars the way a bad dog tears up furniture.
When she appears at the Stephen Talkhouse this Sunday, DiFranco will be joined by her drummer, Andy Stochansky. In some shows, a long drum solo allows DiFranco to crowd-surf, stage dive, and mosh. And I swear it's folk music. And like the best folk, DiFranco tackles big issues in an un-preachy way. In "Out of Range," for example, she sings, "I was shocked/To see the mistakes of each generation/Will just fade like a radio station/If you drive out of range."
For her part, DiFranco runs from nothing. The day after Bill Clinton's recent State of the Union blab, she tells me what America needs in the way of leadership: "We need a queen, absolutely." When she finishes chuckling, she continues, "What I'd do, the way I see it, is that it's all based on storytelling. It's important to hear other sides of this big story we're all living. Many stories aren't told on TV or in the president's State of the Union or history books or on the radio. So I think anyone who feels they can't hear themselves, can't see themselves, well, you have to insert yourself, shove yourself in. It's a political act just to make noise. That's a good first step. The vocabulary of stories is expanded by that. And you may even influence people when it's time to make laws or legislation. You never know."
She makes these thoughts musical on Out of Range's "Face Up and Sing": "It's nice that you listen/It'd be nicer if you joined in/As long as you play their game, girl/You're never going to win." Hers isn't so much a do something attitude as it is say something.
Not that DiFranco herself doesn't do plenty as well. But despite all that extensive touring, this is her first visit to South Florida, her first look at trendy, superficial South Beach. I inform her that, who knows, maybe Madonna will show up at the Talkhouse. Laughing, she says, "I'll try not to throw up."
Ani DiFranco performs at 9:00 p.m. Sunday at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs ten dollars.