Chances are pretty good that if you are a queer/feminist person who came of age in the 90s or early 00s, you’ve heard the name Ani DiFranco. Maybe you heard someone do a warbly cover of one of her songs at an open mic night somewhere and looked her up. Maybe her name makes you think, “eh, I think my ex was into her, not sure.” Or maybe you know all her lyrics by heart.
Ani DiFranco has been putting out albums since before I started middle school, and I’m 34 years old. At 18, she started Righteous Babe Records, which went on to release work by Ani herself as well as Andrew Bird, Sekou Sundiata, Utah Phillips and Nona Hendryx, among others. While a lot has changed since the days when she was making her way from cult underground darling to ballyhooed indie enigma, she was a bisexual icon when it wasn’t cool to be one; outspoken about eschewing labels, and writing killer songs about love and heartbreak that could (then and now) rip your heart right out of your chest and feed it back to you. I personally figured out that I was queer because some of her early music gave me the language and tools to articulate and admit it to myself.
Over the years, she has used her music and poetry to talk about reproductive rights, gun control, capital punishment and the criminal justice system, racism, labor rights, immigration, war, capitalism, feminism, and on and on. Her music has played a role in elevating the political consciousness of a whole swath of people whose privilege and socioeconomic status otherwise sheltered them from having to engage with or even be aware of such things.
In 2010, we launched the Ani DiFranco Appreciation Club, a series of posts about our beloved icon and her intense influence on our lives, but then took a break from it that we never un-broke. Still, life is a never-ending educational process and it was always a goal of the Club to one day interview Ani herself, so when Ani’s camp reached out to us last week, offering the opportunity to chat with Ani about activism, politics, and what she’s up to now in the wake of her TWENTIETH studio release, Binary — we had to say yes. The occasion for this interview is that this weekend she’ll be performing at Babefest in Provincetown alongside Andrea Gibson, Rae Sanni, and Gracie and Rachel, which looks like a great lineup for a good time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Autostraddle: I’ve thought to myself more than once since the election, “I wonder how Ani DiFranco is feeling right now.” I don’t even know how to even begin talking to you about our current situation! Though you’ve mentioned that you wrote your new album Binary before the election, this is your first album in a while that you’re really kind of digging back into political stuff. So I guess my first question is “What did you do on November 9th?”
Ani DiFranco: [laughs] Well I mean, I rode the same roller coaster as the rest of us for a good long while. I got nauseous, I threw up, I fell to my knees. But I’ve got to say, I think you called the right person today because I feel very hopeful. And I don’t mean to sound candy-assed when I say that, like I don’t understand how much is at stake here. But as someone who’s been politically outspoken for many decades, I feel less alone than I have ever felt… I came up in the 80s [when] not only were folk music and political music uncool, but just politics in general, progressive ideas. And it’s like we’re still reeling from that sort of conservative mindmeld, the corporate overthrow of our politics, of our country. But now, everywhere I turn, people are getting up off of whatever they’ve been sitting on and putting their asses on the line, in one way or another. It’s amazing to see. In the arena of football, one of the things that people pay the most attention to of anything, people are taking sides, people are getting on board to express political dissent. I think that [with] this last election and the incredibly swift slide into political and social regression, this tipping point that we’re on now where our democracy could end up as a dictatorship if we’re not careful, I feel like fascism has come to call, it’s our turn, and this is pushing people in a way that, in my lifetime—I just turned 47—I ain’t never seen before. I feel that there is a great, great possibility in that, a great hope in that. I was doing a benefit the other night for refugees and this hip-hop artist who was singing, she was like “You know, these times are crazy, things are hard, but I just want you to know, I will go with you. I want everybody to turn to the people around them and look them in the eye and say, I will go with you.” And we all did that and it was just like, yes. I have chills right now just thinking of looking in strangers’ eyes and going “We will get through this together. I will go with you. I’ll stand behind you, you stand behind me, and we’re gonna show them what this country really is.” I think that that’s what’s really happening. I truly believe that the real and more lasting effect of this terrible time is that we will be a better country.
AS: Looking at everything happening in the world right now, it can be so easy to turn to despair. How do you dig deep and find that place of positivity and hopefulness? Where does it come from?
AD: It comes from leaving my house and going and talking to people. I’ve been having all of these conversations lately about how [to] affect change, and online activism, and this and that. And for me it’s all about going and making a new relationship. It’s about going out and finding somebody doing something, and helping them, and making a new friend. Then, over the course of your life you become more and more connected, you become stronger through the people that you know, through the people that you have helped who have helped you back. Every time I leave my house and I go on tour the first thing that happens is I get in a taxi and the person driving becomes my new best friend. And each of us treats each other kindly, with respect, we talk about what’s important to us, and I have positive experiences and I feel like this is what’s happening, this is the real us. It’s a lie, it’s a big lie that they foist upon us through this incredible bully-pulpit of the media: that we are each other’s enemy, that we’re a threat to each other. None of that is true, and I think the more that you leave your house and you go and associate with people and I swear you will become more hopeful.
AS: Your new album is called Binary and initially I assumed, “Oh, she’s going to be referring to how we’re divided left and right, and this political moment we’re having.” But a lot of the themes on the record seem to be more around what you’re talking about: collaboration, communication, being connected to each other. How does this concept of binary fit into what you’re saying about being connected and why you chose that particular track to represent this album?
AD: I think as I get older I look at everything as a relationship, like it’s only in relationship to something else that we exist. I think it’s that point at which ancient spirituality and modern physics are aligning where there’s an infinite field of possibilities until there is an observer, and the observer doesn’t just observe, it’s an interaction. The minute one thing is observed by another thing that first thing is affected. So it’s like, we exist because of each other, really. And then I look inside this supposed singularity of a human being and you have the interplay of masculine and feminine; at our very cellular makeup, at our atomic structure, you have positive and negative in relationship, dancing with each other. I just see that exponentially everywhere I look now, and I think it’s related to my feminism. I think that feminism prioritizes relationship and sort of calls bullshit on the idea of a hierarchy of individuals.
AS: Speaking of feminism, there’s a song on the record called “Play God” about reproductive rights; I remember the first song of yours that really blew my head open about this topic was the song “Hello Birmingham” on To The Teeth, that I think was in 2001 maybe? [Ed: It was 1999!] And I was listening to “Play God,” and I thought, “Does she ever think to herself ‘I can’t believe I still have to write about this shit?’“
AD: Yeah. Yes I do. [laughs] And these current events occur and I’m like, “Oh, I have a song from 20 years ago that works quite well in this moment” and it’s the most sickening feeling. I mean that’s another thing: when I started writing “Play God” it wasn’t about reproductive freedom and then something in my spleen just steered me there and I felt like, “Gee whiz, I can’t waste any more time!” This issue—reproductive freedom—is now, to my mind, central to peace on earth. Because if you don’t have reproductive freedom you don’t have free women, and if you don’t have free women you cannot ever balance the power of the genders which I think will create the resonant balance that will allow our species to fulfill its potential. I mean that’s why racism, that’s why the destruction of the environment, that’s why perpetual wars: it stems from patriarchy. So we have to go all the way back to the source of the river of these modern social diseases and we have to look at patriarchy together and we have to create a balance. I look at nature and I have become aware that peace is a product of balance, it’s almost synonymous with balance. You don’t have to have perfection in an ecosystem, or a body, or a political system, but you have to at least have balance and then you can have peace.
AS: On a lot of your recent albums you talk about your kids, and there are a lot of moments on the new record that motion to realities and realizations that come with raising kids: compromise, a lack of autonomy, the idea of existing in relationship to something else. I’m also helping raise kids, and lately it feels like every single day there’s something very dark, and heavy, and complicated happening in the news and in the world to try and explain to them and help them navigate. How do you approach parenting as an activist and a feminist? How do you approach parenting as Ani DiFranco?
AD: As an outraged citizen of a crumbling democracy? I think that’s a great question because every parent is facing this right now, every parent with a conscience, who cares. And the only thing I’ve got is that you talk to your kids from your heart, but you don’t just tell them, “Oh it’s all fucked up, look at how crazy the adult world is.” You don’t passively show them, you show them what it is to be active. Not just reactive, but active. I’ve brought my daughter to vote with me since before she knew what we were doing, I bring my daughter to demonstrations. And yes, they’re chanting things and she’s looking at me like, “What does that mean?” and it’s like, “Okay, here we go…” But you not only show the problem to your kids, you show them the solution to the problem. You show them that when you vote you get to decide who’s in control of your government! And if more people did it then boy, we’d have a better government! And when you sit out on the streets and you say “No!” and you take a stand, it’s incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by people who give a fuck, and you become aware that you’re not alone and you’re surrounded by love, and I think those are important ways to show kids the world. Not only show them the problems but show them the solutions right along with it, or what you know to be the solution, and they can springboard from there into much better solutions.
AS: What have you learned from raising kids about how you want to show up in the world? Have they impacted you in how you are showing up as a person?
AD: Yeah, definitely. I guess one of the first things that comes to my mind is related to what we were just talking about: it’s not enough to just say the truth: it’s very important where you’re standing when you say it. One of the things I realized with my kids right away is it doesn’t matter what I say, it’s how I feel, it’s who I am that I’m teaching. I can say “Do as I say!” all day long, but they’re gonna do as I do. They’re gonna feel what I feel. So in that sense, the words are on the surface but it’s really the energy. I think when I’m writing these days I’m more conscious than I was as a young person as to what is the spirit that I want to come through these words. Not just what is the truth that I want to say, or the point to this song, but how much love and compassion and mutual respect can I say this truth with. Because I think that’s the only thing. Even when I was writing this song “Play God” I was thinking, “How can I write this song in a way that my Catholic, anti-choice family members can listen to it? Is there a way that I could sing this song that they could listen to it all the way to the end?” Not that I’m gonna change them, or fix and change and win or any of that stuff, but can I come with a clean enough heart and a compassionate enough spirit that you can just hear me.
AS: You have a lot of amazing musicians on this album, including your long-time collaborator Todd Sickafoose on bass, who you’ve been playing with for what seems like decades at this point.
AD: I think it’s been sixteen years now.
AS: And you’ve got some new folks as well, including Justin Vernon. How did you link up with him for the track “Zizzing”?
AD: I produced a record called Hades Town for the artist Anaïs Mitchell, it’s this folk opera that Anaïs wrote. I played one of the parts on the recorded version of it, and Justin played another role, and during the making of that project I met Justin pen pal-style. We still haven’t met face to face! My last record was sort of solitary and inward-looking and I’ve been deep in the weeds with the difficult infant and not out talking to other adults for years, so I think with this latest record I just wanted to get back out in the world, and part of that was [calling] my brilliant friends to see if they’ll join me. I don’t want to be alone anymore! I’ve been in my house wiping ass for years and I want to get out there and mix it up! It’s unusual for me to step out of my zone and go, “Hey Justin, hey Maceo, come play with me.” And it worked out really well [with] this political moment that’s ensued around us, because you know, you can’t do it alone. I will go with you.
AS: So you’re gonna be at BabeFest in Provincetown in early October, with Andrea Gibson who’s also going on tour with you. Can you talk about why you decided to be a part of BabeFest and what you hope people will take away from it?
AD: Inspiration, that anybody can individualize, personalize for themselves. We’re gonna have the president of Emily’s List coming and talking to people. Certainly voting – I’m a big proponent of voting and participating in order to make the democracy real and come alive again. But beyond that, if you’re tired of not having a candidate who represents you, be it. Emily’s List is this incredible organization that will back and train and hold the hand of a pro-choice candidate who wants to run for office and they’ve had incredible success! Every single woman of color in Congress right now had Emily’s List by their side during their campaign, and I think that’s really powerful. So I hope that people who come to BabeFest will not only go, “Yes, I can interface with my government, I can be active and involved and influence the actions of my representatives,” but “Maybe I could even be one.” I really want to turn the tide away from disillusionment and reignite a belief in democracy. I think young people have stupidly legitimate disillusionment. If you’re young enough, you were born into a world where politicians are liars, where it’s all about the bottom line, where [despite] everything that’s said on the surface it’s the same shit going on underneath. But I’ve gotta believe that voting matters and we’ve gotta do it in order to make it matter. We’ve gotta believe that the government can be ours and run for office in order to make it ours. I live in New Orleans and I look around at the black folks in my community and I think how many years, how many decades, can you continue to participate and have faith in a system that doesn’t recognize your humanity? There are so many groups for who this disillusionment is well-founded.
AS: You’ve been an activist for a long time and have been outspoken on many issues throughout your career. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that you think could be the most beneficial to people who are trying to engage now and create change?
AD: I guess I just go back to showing up in person. I’ve had many great teachers. One of them, Pete Seeger, comes to mind, and when he wanted me to do something—which he often did because I was an ally and I was always ready to be at his service—he would call me himself, or he would write to me with a pen in his hand and he would send me a letter and ask me to do something personally. It’s a much different experience than telling somebody to call somebody, or clicking something online. I was involved in a webinar last week with this group Care2 [that] helps people develop petitions, and there was a 12-year-old girl scout who had a teeny little place at the state fair and they couldn’t set up their exhibit, and the boy scouts had five times as much space, and it was like “Damn, we made this thing and now we can’t even put it out at the fair!” And she made a petition, and she got tons of signatures, but then she took the petition in her hand and she went and talked to her local councilpeople and handed them the petition and spoke to their faces. I think that the key is not just to make a petition or sign a petition online, but to go and make a relationship with a person holding that petition in your hand. I think it’s that one-on-one interaction that is what changes the world. And I was saying to that young girl, “You just did that, and now you know your councilpeople and you made a change in your community. And the more you [have] these experiences in your life where you go out and meet people and you change somebody’s mind by talking to them, the stronger you become. You will be grown up someday and you’re gonna know all kinds of people, and the other girl you did that project with, now she runs blah blah blah …”
AS: Now she’s in the White House.
AD: Fuckin’ amen. So I guess for me it’s about, you do it personally, you do it with your body. You bring your body with you.
AS: Circling back to what you’ve been saying about binary and connection: when, as an activist, do you think it’s important to listen instead of speaking?
AD: From the beginning. From the beginning. I think a lot of our political discourse is mired in a lack of listening, so of course it goes nowhere. I think that another great effect of really getting women to the table is that women—to hypergeneralize of course, it’s not true in every moment—are good listeners. I think that girls are raised that way, and I think that we can model what that means in a political arena. Of course anybody can embody the kind of humility that it takes, and I think we need to recapture a sort of patience with the process. Maybe it’s just a fact of living in the modern world where instant gratification is supposed to be the way of everything. Like Barack Obama’s always saying, democracy is slow, and it’s hard, and you have to stick to it. I remember when I first started becoming an activist, having these long and arduous debates and arguments and differing opinions on strategy or policy or goals or this or that, [with] all of these other passionate people. But what I remember is that we knew that you can go to the mat with somebody about an issue and then when the meeting or the class is over, you shake hands, you hug, you laugh. You think, “Thank goodness somebody else cares.” We disagree; nobody’s gonna “win” in every moment, but we have to keep engaging each other, we have to have patience with the process. That’s really all it is, [it’s] about the listening. If we can just hear each other out in all our wrongness, that in itself is the first step to a change.
AS: Do you have an example of a time that has been true for you, that you needed to be the one listening, or that you heard something you hadn’t been hearing before, or is that just an ongoing process for you in everything that you’re doing?
AD: I feel like that has been every step of the way, being changed and informed by other people. And respecting that process, honoring that process. I remember when Dennis Kucinich was making presidential bids, there were feminists out there going, “He used to be anti-choice!” And I’m going, “Exactly!” He grew up Catholic, he was taught to be anti-choice, and then he started listening to women and he changed his stance because he opened himself up to the perspectives of others. So I think that we have to get back to this place where every change of mind is not a “flip flop,” because that’s exactly what we want is to change minds. We want to help each other grow.
AS: You have this one line that I think about all the time, it’s off of What Side Are You On which you put out in 2012, and you say, “If you’re not getting happier as you get older you’re fucking up.” I think about that all the time. How do you … stay the course, I guess – how do you stay getting happier and what do you do when you feel like you’re getting off course and you’re fucking up: how do you correct?
AD: I mean… Get outside, get outside of my life. I think we can all get pretty weighted down by whatever our personal circumstance is, and if you’re not constantly checking in with the world outside of that you can get into a feedback loop of pessimism, or self-pity or self-flagellation. I work with a group in New Orleans called the Innocence Project that works to free innocent men from prison, many of whom have been there for decades, because of their skin color. And it’s like — whatever it is that’s bringing me down, I have not been in prison for most of my life for the mere fact that I was poor and black, and was innocent of any crime. I have a friend who I’ve been working [with] on this record for years now that’s going to come out soon, I hope. It’s called The Prison Music Project and it’s all songs written by men in prison, and I hope that it just contributes to the awareness that this mass incarceration is happening. We’re the most incarcerated nation on the planet, and that all those men and women in prison are people, they’re human beings, many of them have made mistakes but that doesn’t make them not human, it doesn’t mean they have no worth, and that their lives can be thrown away. A lot of the songs are written by prisoners but are sung by others, and it’s all men writers but a lot of the singers are women which I really like. It’s sort of this mind-fuck of having women give voice to the stories of these forgotten men.
AS: That’s interesting, it’s usually the other way around, it’s usually men telling women’s stories.
AD: Yeah, right, and I think that it’s that much more of a road into their humanity through the voices of these women. Anyway, the fella who wrote the song that I sing on the record has become my friend, and he’s been in prison for over 40 years. He was given a life without parole sentence when he was 19. We talk all the time, and write letters, and it’s really good for me to have him as a friend because it’s a constant reality check. Sometimes when I feel really kindred with him, when I feel connected to him, it’s like I can’t breathe, how could I even imagine what it feels like to live in a cage with no hope for redemption, seeing no means in the system for evolution? Being told by my government, by the judicial system, “You will never evolve, you will never be worth anything”? And it’s not true, and I think that for any of us, whatever it is that your little negative feedback loop is about it’s like, go outside. Go far enough from yourself that you can look at yourself and once again feel grateful for the life you have.
AS: So, a few years ago, the founder of Autostraddle and I found ourselves talking about your music all the time, so we did a series of posts on different themes in appreciation of your music and we called it the Ani DiFranco Appreciation Club. So I just wanted to tell you so that I could say, for the record, that Ani DiFranco knows about our club.
AD: Aw, that’s nice babe, thank you, that warms my heart.
AS: And I don’t want to be the interview-equivalent of that person yelling, like, “Play Napoleon!” from the back of the room, and I know you’ve written thousands of songs and you can say no, but I wondered if you might be willing to indulge me on one question about a song that we talked about in our club.
AD: I’ll try…
AS: It’s your song “Revelling,” on Revelling/Reckoning, and it starts out, “You were so in love, it was all you could talk about, and I think I felt a little left out.” Do you remember that song?
AD: Yeah, I haven’t played it in a lot of years, though.
AS: We disagreed about whether you were singing it to someone you were in a relationship with, or a friend who was distracted by a romantic partner. I wonder if you might be able to remember who the ‘you’ was that the singer was singing to in that song.
AD: In that song I was singing to my partner, yeah.
AS: Thank you for that, because that was what I thought and I WAS RIGHT!
And since you’re already in the mood to overthrow the government, here for your revolutionary pleasure is a playlist of some of our favorite political music of Ani’s over the years! Hang in there everybody!