Ani DiFranco is a singer, a songwriter, and a producer, but you'd hardly know it from most of the articles that are written about her. "Music?" she squeals in mock terror in response to a question about her primary vocation. "What's that? Nobody ever asks me about music."
Part of the fault for this strange state of affairs should be assigned to DiFranco. When she emerged from Buffalo, New York, at decade's dawn, she differentiated herself from other young artists with guitars and things to say via her financial acumen. She founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and unlike the owners of most other startups, she ran hers with a savvy that would have served her well on Wall Street. She also cast her battle to survive in the music industry in David vs. Goliath terms (Righteous Babe's phone number is 1-800-ON-HER-OWN), thereby making fans feel that by supporting her, they were also attacking the evils of corporate America. Her campaign worked all too well: The profiles of her that appeared in Time and other major publications as the years rolled on portrayed her as more Bill Gates than Woody Guthrie, and when the brain trust at Ms. designated her one of "21 feminists for the 21st century," they based their decision on her skill with a dollar instead of her ability to turn a phrase.
DiFranco, who's in her late twenties, certainly wasn't offended by the feminist tag: "I think it's a crime that people buy into the pejorative connotation of feminism," she says. "There's one word in the English language that defines a person, male or female, who believes in the right of women to become themselves, and if you make that one word a dirty word, what are you saying about the gender dynamics of the society?" But she wrote a letter to the editor of Ms. anyway, merely to remind readers that she's a folksinger first and a businesswoman second.
"So much of the discussion of me in the media never actually gets to what I do," she laments. "What I actually do seems to be an insignificant element when it comes to some people's perceptions." Hence a considerable slice of the public is just discovering that DiFranco, who has cranked out a dozen major recordings in only eight years, is not just an interesting story but also a major talent -- arguably the most intriguing folk-based artist on the scene today. She may not be able to buy her way on to most commercial radio stations (her best-known song, "32 Flavors," was popularized earlier this year by another singer, Alana Davis), but that hasn't stopped her. And it probably never will.
Even in her earliest songs DiFranco was able to communicate her opinions about a plethora of subjects, ranging from the personal to the global, with straightforward zeal. In comparison, her music consisted of simple strumming that would have seemed relatively colorless were it not for her impassioned vocals. But DiFranco worked as hard at her tunesmithing and producing as she did at maintaining her bottom line, and the results are inspiring. Lend an ear to her most recent platter, Little Plastic Castle, and you'll discover artistic growth in every note. Her acoustic songs such as "Gravel" and "As Is" are more varied and more imaginatively structured than her nascent efforts, and their unassuming hooks sink deeper with each listen. Just as important, DiFranco has become a skillful manipulator of a broader musical palette than she once employed. The disc's title cut begins with deliberate picking, but it soon erupts into a delightful mash of blaring horns and skittering rhythms; "Deep Dish" sashays like a zoot-suiter on the way to the hippest joint in town; "Swan Dive" whips up a swirl of heavenly background vocals caressed by the evocative wheeze of a pump organ; and "Pulse" is a fourteen-minute-plus soundscape accented by DiFranco's concertina and the gorgeous trumpeting of Jon Hassell.
In discussing the musical leaps she's taken over the years, DiFranco is rather tentative. Part of her seems to fear that by doing so, she'll appear to be rejecting a recent past that still means a great deal to her loyal followers. But after first implying that anyone who sees big changes in her work is imagining things ("I've read in a couple of places that this is my most accessible album, and I'm not sure where that comes from," DiFranco says), she eventually acknowledges that she too can tell the difference between then and now.
"Maybe I'm a little better at recording than I was a couple of years ago. I guess the naivete is waning a little bit," she says. "And musically, with each passing album, I have a different relationship with the recording studio. It's starting to seem more comfortable, and I'm starting to see more possibilities. But spontaneity is still very important to me. I know that the albums I like to listen to are the ones where people are just going for it. I'm so uninterested in polished pop perfection. I turn on the radio, and it's not like there's a single formula for songs; there are various formulas that emerge to make these same slick songs, and I find them so dull. Production like Lee Perry's -- visceral, instinctual production that's just sort of 'out there' -- is much more appealing to me than this sort of commercial sound. Besides, I don't think I'm capable of slick even if I tried." She laughs -- a frequent occurrence during a conversation with DiFranco -- before conceding, "I'm probably safe there."
Lyrically, the new album finds DiFranco looking at herself from a variety of viewpoints. Sometimes she's on the outside of the fish bowl, trying to get a handle on her persona: In "Little Plastic Castles" she sings, "People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of a declining mind/Like what I happen to be wearing/The day that someone takes a picture/Is my new statement for all of womankind." On other occasions she celebrates lust: "Independence Day" includes the lines "I got a big cherry bomb/And I wanna slip it through the mail slot/Of your front door." But she's also capable of incisive character portraits such as "Two Little Girls," in which she watches a junkie racing headlong toward oblivion. The conclusion is particularly cinematic and wrenchingly effective: "I guess I'll just stand here with my back against the wall/While you distill your whole life down to a 911 call."
This rhyme, like all the choicest DiFranco couplets, is poetic but not pretentious, and so too is the woman who wrote them. As soon as she thinks she's sounding even slightly pompous, she zings herself before anyone else gets the chance. She grants that "I've always written very naturally. I've always written the way that I talk -- and hopefully I'm getting better at it." But rather than expand on this point, she says simply, "Here's hoping. Otherwise, take me out behind the barn and shoot me." Likewise, she undercuts a discussion about her studio technique: "I've made some crazy-sounding records, many of which I'm mortally embarrassed about." When asked to name some names, she replies, "How about the first ten?"
In fact, the only thing wrong with DiFranco's initial albums is that they're less singular than her subsequent efforts. Ani DiFranco, from 1990, has plenty of thematically daring material -- "Lost Woman Song," for instance, is a smart narrative about a young girl getting an abortion -- but its music only occasionally rises to the level of her ideas. On Imperfectly, which arrived two years later, she begins the process of mythologizing herself on several cuts: "In or Out" finds her teasing listeners about her sexual preferences (she's been in relationships with men and women), and "Make Them Apologize" stands up to male peers with the declaration "I'm not on the rag/But I'm not on the run/I am matching the big boys one for one/And I must admit I am having myself some fun."
Boisterous sentiments like this one pop up again and again in DiFranco's work from this period, but most critics somehow missed them. Instead, she was defined by her appearance -- short-cropped hair, nose ring, tattoos -- and her willingness to lose her temper in song when the subject required it. "Angry -- that word used to be the adjective that I'd hear over and over," she recalls. "And to anybody who knows me, it's always been unbelievably ridiculous. I just think the fact that I've always had a real political bent to my life and to my music translates in the press as anger. And the pierced-and-tattooed thing is just as silly. I have a hole in each ear and one in my nose, but I'm probably less pierced than most urban people under the age of 30, and I'm hardly the tattooed woman in the circus. It's all part of the stereotype. Talking about that stuff is another way of getting around what I'm actually about."
Not a Pretty Girl, from 1995, did a better job of revealing DiFranco's character than any of her previous discs; it proved that she could make an album as fascinating as she is from start to finish. But it took 1996's Dilate, a pitiless dissection of love lost that's still her finest moment on disc; Living in Clip, a sprawling double-live package; and Little Plastic Castles to finally underscore her potential. So clear has it become that DiFranco is built to last that Work, a subsidiary of the Sony juggernaut, took the unusual step of asking her to produce Fifty Eggs, an album by one of its signees, singer/songwriter Dan Bern. For DiFranco, who's spent her career railing against the evils of big labels, climbing into the jaws of the beast was unnerving.
"We've had a lot of offers to get involved with majors, but I'm not interested in supporting or perpetuating the corporate world," she says. "But I'm also not interested in letting corporations prevent art from happening or letting them prevent me from working with somebody whose work I'm interested in and who I respect. And since I think Dan is a great songwriter, I wasn't about to let that happen. So I just concentrated on what it was about for me, which was working with Dan."
Predictably, DiFranco set firm ground rules about interference before she and Bern set foot in front of a soundboard. "They pretty much had to leave me alone," she says. "That was the agreement, and since I think they had a vested interest in having me on the project, they said okay, sure. But politically, it was not the most entertaining thing. It's not what I want to do -- to work with, let alone for, major labels."
For the most part, Work representatives were too cowed to break their pact with DiFranco. But in the process of completing Fifty Eggs, she remembered one of the reasons she likes to go it alone. "I've always dreamed of working with other people on their music, like on the Utah Phillips project that I did," she says, referring to The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, a Phillips/DiFranco collaboration from 1996. "That was really great for me, because there's so much less baggage when it's not my music. I'm much freer to enjoy it and get excited. But what I forget about working in other people's music is that it means working with other people -- and that sometimes can be difficult. So it was a real learning experience for me all the way around in terms of working with various musicians, with the artist, with the label. There was a lot of negotiating, to say the least."
Apparently DiFranco won most of these sessions, because Fifty Eggs is as raw and unadorned as anything put out by a major in ages. Unfortunately, it's also erratic. Bern is a humorous, biting observer of humanity, and his unwillingness to capitulate to the polite side of the folk genre is obvious from the very first song, "Tiger Woods," in which he declares, "I got big balls/Big old balls/And on my really good days/They swell to the size of small dogs." But a steady diet of similarly wild, stream-of-consciousness sentiments ultimately becomes wearying and makes him seem less substantive than he actually is.
Still, DiFranco fanciers will be interested in at least one Bern composition, "Chick Singers." Throughout the tune Bern vacillates between paying tribute to current artists such as PJ Harvey, Bjsrk, Courtney Love, and DiFranco herself and questioning the way in which these women are marketed. As he puts it, "Sometimes these days, don't it seem like it's enough for/Girls to love a girl or use the f word prominently/Masturbate in public or learn guitar tied up to a post?"
"That's all true," DiFranco says. "There's all this sort of music-industry hype and cultural hype over 'chick singers,' you know. And the industry's figured out how to sell them based on those things -- but that hasn't stopped certain people from exceeding expectations. And I'd hate for the work of actual people making actual music to be demeaned by some kind of 'girl power' fad."
If that sounds like a Spice Girls slam, it shouldn't. Not entirely, anyway. "To somebody like me, the Spice Girls appear as the specter of the antichrist," she confesses. "But I try to look at it and think, how damaging could it be for five-year-old girls to giggle and yell 'Girl power'? I'm impressed by the fact that young women and girls are even hearing those kinds of messages. And as empty and hollow as they may seem to us, maybe they'll give young girls a beginning of a consciousness about themselves. And maybe by the time they start growing some pubic hair, they'll become more interested in actual feminism and real politics, and not that sort of vapid, bumper-sticker sloganeering.
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"I don't think my songs have ever really made good bumper stickers. We've actually tried. The people at the merchandise tables have been asking for stickers for years, and we've tried to look through the songs and find little sound-bitey things, but it just doesn't work." She chuckles. "Which I've tried to look at as a positive thing."
She takes much the same view of Lilith Fair, an all-female tour embraced by audiences seemingly startled to discover that a lot of women are making music these days. "Lilith Fair is not the festival that I would put together if I were coming up with a chicks-making-noise festival," DiFranco remarks. "I think I would have a somewhat more diverse group of women musicians." But at the same time, she says, "there's something really interesting about listening to a cast of women musicians over the course of a day and coming away with a sort of resounding voice in your mind that's just slightly higher-voiced than the one you usually hear. The roar of the crowd is different when it's a majority of women making up the crowd. It's a cool sound to hear."
Of course, the days when DiFranco could count on unisex audiences are long past. As she puts it, "I'm getting all the different makes and models any more." Clearly, a sizable number of concertgoers have figured out something that still seems to elude a great many journalists.
"Friends of mine have asked me, 'Doesn't it really fucking drive you crazy that you're a songwriter but people don't ever mention your songs?'" she says. "But the media are just not why I make music, and their understanding of what I do doesn't really matter that much. It's not why people come, and it's not what they react to. I think they come to hear the songs because they have an intense relationship with them. And I come to play them. That's basically what I'm about.