Diva From The Dives
Ani Di Franco Does It Her Way
By Brendan Doherty
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: ANI DI FRANCO, the twentysomething go-girl folkstress of feminism, is finally realizing her promise on a grand scale. Sold-out shows are the norm for this eclectic musician who bares her soul in an indefatigable amalgam of folk, jazz, and spoken word. Everyone wants to define this free spirit of music, and at every turn the 26-year-old DiFranco rebuffs. She is the reluctant star, insisting on doing it her way, and she's struck a chord with music fans across the spectrum, captivating them with her charm, her feisty spirit, and her exceptional guitar work.
They call her "the Goddess."
"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 DiFranco. "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."
With that, the DiFranco phenomenon began, spreading from coffee houses to folk festivals, then to bars and small theaters. Her first tape of powerfully frank songwriting and muscular acoustic strumming on a second-hand guitar has fueled a record label and a first-rate career.
"I had to get out of the house when I was 10 or 11," DiFranco 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 skills are widening her fan base. She was the subject of cover stories in recent issues of Ms. and Spin magazines, and her records have won press accolades for nearly a decade. A great deal of the attention is attributable to DiFranco's self-made success. Her label, the aptly titled Righteous Babe Records, was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article marveling her unique achievement. (She receives about twice the royalty of most artists.) In this respect her success resembles that of independent artists like Fugazi, who've managed to release their own records on an enormous scale; and Pearl Jam, who kept their concert tickets out of Ticketmaster outlets. Where both of those bands ultimately made compromises, DiFranco, as yet, has not had to kowtow to "the industry." She counts nine albums on her label, comprising a catalog that has sold more than 750,000 records. Almost constant touring earned her a regular chair on Billboard's Top-50 Grossing Acts list.
"It's my own little sickness," she says of her tireless touring and self-run record label. "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."
DiFranco's new work, the double CD, Living in Clip, debuted at No. 59 on the Billboard charts. This, her ninth effort, is a live record that readily captures the intensity and power of her performances. Clip, recorded off the sound board from 20 shows on her North American tour last year, is DiFranco at her best.
Collecting pieces of her musical puzzle, she arranges them in a new way--a tribal version of "Amazing Grace" is backed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (leading the song to sound more like a dance mix than a church hymnal); "The Slant/The Diner" approaches hip-hop with sassy style; and "Joyful Girl" sounds Brazilian with its exotic, fiery delivery.
"It's amazing how long it took me to clue in to the live record," DiFranco says. "I mean, I'm a performer--duh! Most of my studio albums just suck the big one. They're so naive, and sterile. This is the way I sound."
She is at her best on stage, spokesperson for the disenfranchised and broken-hearted. Unwilling to bow down before anyone, she's a singer who speaks out loudly for the oppressed; one who isn't afraid to address issues like rape, abortion and bisexuality.
"When I was 18 and putting out my first album," she says, "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."
Fans strongly identify with the singer. Perhaps too strongly, even for her. "I know I'm not the only/whatever I am in the room," DiFranco sings in the tune "Face Up and Sing." Hardly a groundbreaking statement, it's nonetheless a testament to her uniqueness, and also to the sheer diversity and size of her audience. Her audience is a cross-section of American youth culture circa 1997, and she is their outspoken, chameleon-like, folk-singing queen.
"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," DiFranco 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. Like the fact that I'm in love with a man now means incredible violation and betrayal for so many people...it's really scary."
But despite all the strange letters, the attempts by women to seduce her during concerts, and the feelings of betrayal by her audience for singing love songs about a man, it still boils down to DiFranco and her guitar. For DiFranco, 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 on stage in some dive, singing over the chatter."
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