Art, activism and a Righteous Babe

Posted by on 10 May 2004

Li’l Folksinger Ani DiFranco returns to her solo acoustic roots

It’s been 10 years since Ani DiFranco last played the Calgary Folk Music Festival – not that she’s counting. Just to put things in context, that was 15 albums ago, back in the days when the "Li’l Folksinger" was "just a lone chick with a guitar" and virtually unheard of in the mainstream music industry. Having started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19, DiFranco has remained more or less in charge of her own creative evolution from the beginning.

From the raw acoustic folk and searing lyricism of her early albums to the fierce and fiery guitar/bass/drums ensemble of the mid-1990s and the richly textured funk and jazz-infused five-piece band of recent years, DiFranco’s music embodies her constant desire to revise, re-examine and explore new directions. Her latest album, Evolve, is the musical culmination of those years with her band, and, as its title suggests, DiFranco is emerging into yet another stage of an already remarkable career.

When she plays at folk fest, the most righteous of babes will be playing solo once again. "I’m enjoying playing guitar a lot, now that I only have it to listen to," DiFranco explains on the phone during a rare stint at home in Buffalo, New York. "I think that I’m growing. And maybe I have a chance now to apply a lot of what I learned with the band in terms of arrangement, but applying it just to my instrument." DiFranco admits that while there is a lot she could do with a band, the reverse is also true. "I didn’t realize how much I missed that kind of intense, focused, primary connection between singer and listener, and just the song between us. And also, just being able to take a sudden left turn, tell a story in the middle of a song if I want to. It’s much more intimate."

DiFranco’s music is a constantly evolving blend of funk, blues, jazz, pop and hip-hop (to name just a few of the genres she keeps strapped to her boot), but remains firmly rooted in the folk tradition. She says folk music is essentially sub-corporate music. The emphasis is on touring, not product. It’s about making connections, having an awareness of one’s heritage, and giving voice to different communities and their struggles against authority.

"I think the general population, their awareness of roots music or folk music, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh yeah, that was, um, in the ’60s, right?’ You know, when non-corporate music went corporate or got popular and had its sort of heyday. And I find myself trying to tell people outside of this subculture that, before (the ’60s) and after (the ’60s), there’s still huge festivals – like Calgary, like these places you would never imagine – of roots music from all over the (world)…. I don’t think that it’s burgeoning or waning, it’s there – human beings searching for each other."

As a folksinger, art and activism go hand in hand, and DiFranco has managed to combine these passions throughout her career. Grassroots politics govern the homespun operations of Righteous Babe Records, which, above and beyond providing a platform for other politically minded musicians, pays the salary of an attorney at Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights. Racism, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, and other issues of social justice are championed in DiFranco’s lyrics and her life.

Being the mouthpiece for so many marginalized people has not always been easy, DiFranco admits, particularly since she began receiving attention in the mainstream media. "If you do sort of find yourself in the public eye year after year, you realize that people want… so many different things. Each person will criticize something different and want you to be something else, so even trying to please people would be… impossible. "I guess, in my more sort of back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead martyred moments, I really can feel my own kind of will towards self-sacrifice in my songs," she admits. "I’m just going to string myself up here for the sake of the truth, and whatever. Yeah, it’s not easy to be honest about yourself, … for any of us, so rather than having some kind of grand notion ofchanging the world, I just try to focus on, ‘Am I really being honest?’"

DiFranco’s tell-it-like-it-is honesty is a trait her fans have come to rely on, and in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and Bush’s determined march towards war in Iraq, DiFranco wasn’t about to shut up and sit down. Her song-poems "Self Evident" and "Serpentine," each running well over 10 minutes in length, are a fierce indictment of capitalist greed. She condemns the mainstream media for its complicity "in some prep school punk’s plan to perpetuate retribution" and urges "our government to pull its big dick out of the sand/ of someone else’s desert/ put it back in its pants/ and quit the hypocritical chants of/ freedom forever."

In general, DiFranco says that audiences have been supportive and appreciative. "I know from experience that this is not a country where you’re going to get shot or tortured for speaking out against the government. We are so lucky that way." Sure, I say, recalling the whole Dixie Chicks fiasco, but people might burn your CDs and create Web sites to encourage others not to buy your product. "I think that the amount that artistic and… informational expression is censored in this country is the exact amount that we allow it to be. And each person makes that choice every day, how much they’re going to allow themselves to be controlled…. "I really see this kind of overwhelming sickness in my society of, you know, the fact that we have been effectively mind-warped to have lost a sense of ourselves as citizens and we can only imagine ourselves as consumers now. I think it’s been very effective, the kind of cultural takeover of the Reagan and Bush regime. So you see all these people participating in systems of capitalist greed. Like, good people, normal people, singers and… and that’s the crazy thing, it’s self-censorship, it’s participation, it’s compliance, voluntarily." How does DiFranco remain positive, even joyful, in the face of so much socio-political angst? "It’s really hard, you know. I’m trying to get out of bed every day with some feeling other than shame and rage, to apply to my whole country, to my everyday job of trying to… fix… it."

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that sets her free. "It’s funny – it’s almost like I use it now as my out," she explains. "(Music) is my escape hatch back to reality, ’cause whatever is happening, I’m gonna write a song about it because that’s what I do now. And I don’t care what kind of tremors it’s going to send through what bedrock. I’ve created this context for myself for self-deliverance."