By Jim Morrison
Ani DiFranco turns 47 a week before her Sept. 30 show at The NorVa.
She has a couple of kids, ages four and 10. They’ve radically changed her work life, though not in the ways you’d expect. She’s working on a memoir, chipping away at telling her past rather than writing anthems for the present. And she’s headed back out on the road after a summer with family at home in New Orleans.
Out there on the road, she still has plenty to say. “Binary,” her new album, is uncompromising (natch), powerful, and catchy. It’s among the best of her career. The song titles make clear what’s been on her mind: “Binary,” “Pacifist’s Lament,” “Deferred Gratification,” “Alrighty.” She wrote it before the election, but it could be a reaction to Nov. 8.
During a wide-ranging interview from her home in New Orleans, still suffering flooding from the summer rains, she talked about politics, of course, as well as her changing perspective on her work. As always, words, her words, often spoken in a thoughtful torrent of ideas, form center stage.
First up, “Binary,” her latest creation that surprised her with the discovery she could still write a line that made even her pause.
She sat down to write “Play God,” a demand for reproductive civil rights with the idea of doing something different, she says during a long, captivating interview. “It started out…This is going to sound weird, because nobody could ever imagine what’s in my head, but I was listening to Missy Elliott tracks. And Muddy Waters. I just watched some documentary. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could write a thudding, bragging song not typical for me, more typical in the hip hop world,” she says. “So that’s where I started. I was on my own at 16. Fuck you all…”
I was done at 16
Using my momma’s key
It was all on me
It was all on me
Weren’t no free rides
Weren’t no IOU’s
I pulled my weight, yeah
I paid my dues
And I showed up to enlist
On the first day of recruits
But then she was in a hotel room writing on tour and those things — the things that have weighed on her and made her a beacon for 25 years — began percolating. “And the song mutated as I was writing into a reproductive freedom anthem,” she says. “I sort of leapt from taking care of myself since I was 16 so I’m not a dependent and should not be treated as such. I’m a full contributing member. I deserve all my civil rights. As a woman, my civil rights include reproductive freedom.”
Just leave this one thing to me
‘Cause I’m my brother’s keeper
Every chance I can
I pay my taxes
Like any workin man
And I feel I’ve earned
My right to choose
You don’t get to play God, man, I do
“I remember when I wrote the line ‘You don’t get to play god. I do.’ I stopped and I had one of those moments that I hadn’t had in years. Oh shit. Can I say this?” she says. “What’s going to happen to me? It kind of pleased me that I was having one of those moments again. I felt like that was a good sign.”
There are good signs throughout “Binary,” her 20th album and the first since 2014’s “Allergic to Water.”
DiFranco’s lyrics and statements get most of the attention, but she’s a songwriter without bounds. As usual on the new disc, she is a sonic shapeshifter, slipping from deep grooves to chamber folk to indie rock. She says it’s hard not to think about how the songs will sound on stage when she’s composing.
“So when I’m writing a poem like “Binary” the second thought in my head is how can I make this danceable so I can pull it out on stage so people will not be like this is five minutes of waiting for the next song,” she says. “Put a little groove behind it and you can get away with sending poems to the world and hopefully nobody will notice.”
Is she influenced by music she hears? What is she listening to these days?
“I guess I would say I’m not listening to a lot of stuff these days, once again the arrow pointing back to the kids,” she says. “I get to listen to whatever she’s listening to – my ten year old. Growing up with two musicians, luckily she knows some shit. Lately she has been absolutely obsessed with the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I have been too, I think it’s an amazing piece of work.”
She writes “from my spleen” and then takes the tunes in to her band. She’s more collaborative these days. “I never approached music with I want to make a track that emulates something I’ve heard. I tend to come from a more primary, primeval place,” she adds, laughing.
Primeval with the deep dive inspired by science. Listen to her talk about the title cut, “Binary.”
“I’m really interested in neuroscience, quantum physics, all the stuff that’s really beyond my ability to understand,” she says. “I take intuitively away from these things what I can and I have been really intrigued lately by approaching feminism from a scientific perspective. I find it really refreshing to talk about patriarchy, for instance, in terms of brain science. We have this masculine side of our nature, each of us. We have a feminine side, each of us. In balance, I think our species realizes its potential. Out of balance, we have eternally what we see around us, these kind of nagging social diseases. ”
For DiFranco, having children has changed the balance of her work life, though, of course, not in the ways you might expect. For one thing, she’s been home for the summer “the proverbial kids out of school family break shit.”
“I do think my children had a pretty powerful effect, but it’s not really that sort of sort of archetypical perspective change that parents talk about like suddenly I’m worried about the future. That was always on my mind. I’ve been pretty politicized and worried about all of that,” she says. “My kids had an almost opposite effect of wrenching me away from everything. The worry, the fun, my work. I’m fortunate enough that I live my work. Until I had kids I never had a reason to stop. I was just sort of on my hamster wheel of creating songs and driving around and playing them for people.”
“I think my kids forcing me off of my little treadmill gave me a measure of perspective of what I was doing or not doing,” she adds. “It forced me to infuse my process with a lot of patience and a lot more time. I think that improved and certainly informed my songwriting. I think it also affected my performance. I’m definitely in an era when I’m more grateful to be on stage. ”
“There’s nothing like being a parent to make your love your job all over again.”
She says she probably would have eventually awakened. “I think I sort of squeezed my towel very dry on stage for many years and I made much too much of myself available to the public,” she says. “I needed to step back a lot more than I did and fill the well like you say. I think the records I’m making these days are better in general.”
“I’m able to step back from a three day (recording) session for six months and realize what I did,” she adds. “Those six months never happened before kids for me.”
She’s learned to stop being that teenager who operated on her own, who did everything herself. Tchad Blake, who has worked with The Pretenders and Andrew Bird, produced the new album. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver lends a hand as well. “Now that I have a team of people who can do things better than me, I’ll never go back,” she says.
The focus of her work offstage these days is something only she can do. She’s been working on a memoir. “It’s a little bit of a strange moment for me,” she says.
After the election, she started getting calls for an anthem for the times. It felt odd not to respond, but the book comes first.
“You can only create so much at any given time and also keep children alive and all that,” she says. “So I have not not been writing a lot of songs because I’m trying to make a book. Oddly it’s a book about the past. In the moment there’s a lot going on politically in the present to speak to, but I’m writing about the past. My hope is if i can finish this book somehow it will serve some purpose in this moment.”
What’s the difference between writing songs and writing a book?
“Kind of night and day,” she says. “Songwriting is like an event. You have to sort of position yourself with the sun and the moon and the moment and something comes through if you’re lucky. Writing (a book) so far I’m a novice, but it’s just like whittling. It’s almost like manual labor compared to a song. It’s just a daily chipping away at this slab of stone or hunk of wood and trying to retain the vision long enough to sculpt something.”
Stepping back has caused a reconsideration of her back catalog. She sat down recently to learn an old song, “Willing to Fight,” that seems right for her fall tour. What’s it like going back to those early tunes?
“It’s really, really painful,” she says. “I have so much regret about my recordings. I feel like a lot of decent songs got kind of fucked over in the recording studio by me and my choices…I had my own very tweaked-out destructive emotional self at the helm. So it’s really hard for me to listen back to recordings that sound kind of hysterical or shrill or haphazard. Every mistake that can be made in terms of sonic quality or performance or production, I’ve made them. It’s tough for me to go mining into my own history.”
DiFranco started writing songs when she was 14 and became emancipated at 15. She started Righteous Babe Records while still a teen.
She seems born with something to say. What tugged and pulled and cajoled her into music instead or prose or poetry or some other form of art?
“From this vantage point I see music as the universal language of the right brain, the intuitive emotional part of our consciousness,” she says. “Words can take you only so far. The music can take you the rest of the way. The music can tell you what the words can’t.”
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