Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Her Way

By Brendan Doherty

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  "As soon as I started making music, young women would make copies of copies and send them to their sisters' friends, their girlfriends at other schools," says Ani Di Franco, the grassroots queen of in-your-face folk. "People would start writing in, saying 'Can you come and play here?' So I would get on the Greyhound. For a couple of hundred bucks, I started touring the Northeast."

And the phenomenon of Ani Di Franco began, spreading from coffeehouses to folk festivals to bars and small theaters. Her first tape of powerfully frank music, muscular acoustic strumming made on a second-hand guitar and first-rate talent, has fueled a record label and career.

"I had to get out of the house when I was 10 or 11," Di Franco says of her early days in Buffalo, N.Y. "I hung out and started playing guitar with this crew of degenerate, chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, alcoholic, singer-songwriter barfly types. There was a whole culture of acoustic songwriters who would sit around and talk about literature. I didn't start writing my own songs until I was 14 or 15. I would just be the non-embittered listener-person, and they would all get drunk."

Her relentless touring and razor-sharp musical effort are widening her fan base. Recently, she was the cover story for Ms. and Spin magazines, and her records have won press accolades for nearly a decade. A great deal of the attention is won by Di Franco's self-made success. Her label, the aptly titled Righteous Babe, was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article that noted her unique achievement (she receives about twice the royalty of most artists). She is like Fugazi, a band who released their own records on an enormous scale, and Pearl Jam, who kept their concert tickets out of Ticketmaster outlets. Both of those bands had compromises, and as yet, Di Franco has not had to make any musical ones for "the industry." She counts 10 albums on her label, a catalog that has sold over 1 million records. Almost constant touring earned her a regular chair on Billboard's Top 50 Grossing Acts list.

Fans call her "The Goddess."

"It's my own little sickness," she says. "I grew up around folk singers, people who sang in little bars. Music for me was always something that happened in rooms; it was never about TV or rock stardom. It's strange that it hasn't occurred to more people as a possibility. I know there are more people out there who are attracted to the notion, but it ends up being about what people think is possible. If you can't imagine doing something, you can't do it. This is what I have to do to get a job in music."

Di Franco's 10th CD, Little Plastic Castle, is a refined studio effort contrasting strongly with her previous release, the raw and spirited double CD Living in Clip. The new record shipped 250,000 copies in its first few weeks. In the title track, she addresses the phenomenon she's become when she sings, "People talk about my image/like I come in two dimensions/like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind/like what I happen to be wearing the day someone takes a picture/is my new statement for all womankind." The 12 tracks are slick, primed and ready for world takeover. Jazzy arrangements and skilled production may have rounded some of her musical corners, but the lyrics and the guitar playing are pure Di Franco. She remains unwilling to bend down before anyone; she is a singer who speaks out loudly for the oppressed and isn't afraid to address hot-button issues like rape, abortion, bisexuality and the mixed blessing of loyal fans.

"When I was 18 and putting out my first album, I would read in the paper 'Angry, militant, man-hating, puppy-eating, ugly, hairy, chick rock singer! Hide your children!' Men are taught to stand up for themselves, and women are taught to be understanding. Within every woman, there's someone who's mad at a certain level. I think we're all complex creatures."

Her views and outspokenness lead to a climate where fans strongly identify with the singer. Perhaps too strongly, even for her. "I learned a long time ago, being a performer, that I cease to be a person in my public life, which sometimes overwhelms the private one," Di Franco says. "I realize that I'm a symbol for a lot of people, for whatever it is they project onto me or need me to be. But the fact that I'm in love with a man now means incredible violation and betrayal for so many people, and it's really scary."

But to find an artist of integrity and strength in the music business is rare. For Di Franco, nothing beats playing and singing. "I can't stop," she says. "I'll keep making music until someone makes me stop. I love what I do, and if everything else that goes along with making music went away, I'd still be standing onstage in some dive, singing over the chatter."


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