She's a singer-songwriter, a poet and poster girl for the indie set. Armed with an acoustic guitar and intense opinions, she's a political activist and a crusader in the grrrl power movement, unapologetically penning songs that address hot-button issues like abortion, homophobia, sexism, and war. She's self-sufficient, a free spirit. A folk musician with a punk's sensibility. An artist's artist. A wife and mother.
From the very start of her musical career over 2 decades ago, Ani DiFranco's aim was to continually evolve, experiment, and push the limits of what can be said and sung. The feisty DiFranco made a name for herself with her politically charged, feminist lyrics and unique blend of simple, poetic folk and in-your-face punk. "Goofy songs about my goofy little life," she calls them. DiFranco's also known for her deep desire to maintain her independence and artistic control at the cost of fame and fortune. She's released her entire body of work on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which she started while still in her teens to make tapes of her music to sell at shows.
DiFranco staunchly stands by her beliefs and puts them to song at a breakneck pace of an album—and in some cases two—a year. To date, she has released 17 studio albums, various greatest hits and live collections, and 3 EPs. She has appeared on numerous collaborations with artists that run the gamut from Prince to folk legend Utah Phillips, and won a Grammy in 2004 for her album, Evolve
. Her acoustic shows are part mosh pit, part hootenanny, with rapid-fire fingerpicking and her signature staccato, bang-strum style of guitar playing, which requires the use of press-on nails reinforced with electrical tape. And her fans are every bit as diverse as their heroine—from teenaged girls to the middle-aged, from folkies to alt rockers to punk enthusiasts. Though long a critical darling, Ani DiFranco has yet to become a commercial one. And she's good with that. DiFranco is genuinely grateful just to be making an honest living doing what she loves.
Angela Marie DiFranco was born in Buffalo, New York, in September 1970, and began playing music at age 9 when her parents bought her an acoustic guitar and a Beatles songbook. Within a couple years she was sufficiently accomplished that her guitar teacher helped her land her first gig in an area coffeehouse where Ani sang "Yesterday" with the guidance of local folk singer, Mike Meldrum. The two began playing together and hanging out with other singer-songwriters who would come up from New York City to play. "One of the basic things that I learned was that music is an activity," she says. "It's a social act, not a commodity. That made an impression on my psyche. My parents didn't have a stereo, so I didn't buy records until I was in college. Growing up, music was something that you did, in a room in time and space."
When her parents divorced in 1985, rather than choose with whom to live, the independent and spirited Ani moved into an apartment of her own at age 15. She started turning the poems she had been writing for years into lyrics, with the intent of pursuing a music career. DiFranco moved to New York City when she was 19 to attend poetry classes and to live and play among all the other folk singers in the Village. By this time she had over 100 original songs under her belt.
Ani began touring the country in a Volkswagen Bug, performing at college campuses, coffeehouses, bars and music festivals. She credits her percussive acoustic technique to 12 years of playing bars "where people are there to pick up somebody and drink themselves into a stupor, not to listen to the chick in the corner with the acoustic." DiFranco learned to get her music heard over the chatter by taping plastic fingernails to her fingers, which allowed her to play her acoustic much louder. "I also learned basic folk singer chops," she says. "Folk singers on stage are just themselves. You talk about whatever is on your mind and you include political perspectives and your community newspaper, as opposed to other forms of music where there's more theatre or more pomp and circumstance in the performance. Folk singers are pretty straight up on stage, and that made an impression on me. Just stand there, play guitar and sing at people."
Without the backing of a record company, DiFranco has grown an audience slowly and steadily, through word of mouth via relentless touring. She often finds herself caught between fans who want her to remain accessible and an untapped fan base who can only be reached through more exposure. Maintaining the delicate balance of her ever-increasing mainstream recognition with her zealous refusal to compromise her values for money, DiFranco keeps her distance from major labels, so much so that she is rarely even approached about signing now. "I believe in…not just making revolutionary music but making it in a way that challenges the system… The possibility of emancipation and control and independence is so much greater now."
Ani DiFranco released her 17th studio album in January. ¿Which Side Are You On?
, as it is titled, is a collection of 11 new songs that are brimming with exquisitely written lyrics, idiosyncratic melodies and some downright first-rate playing. Backing DiFranco is a diverse line-up of stellar musicians including members of her own touring band as well as a host of special guests like folk icon Pete Seeger, Ivan and Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, avant-saxophonist Skerik (Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt), acclaimed singer-songwriter (and Righteous Babe recording artist) Anais Mitchell, guitarist Adam Levy (Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Amos Lee), and a host of New Orleans-based horn players. Critics are calling the album "fresh" and "relevant."
Three long years in the making, DiFranco had motherhood to contend with while writing and recording ¿Which Side Are You On?
. Ani gave birth to a daughter, Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano, at her Buffalo home in January 2007. She married the baby's father, Mike Napolitano, who is her producer, two years later and moved her family to New Orleans. Being a mother is now her first priority. Being an artist, second. "At first, it was a little hard for me to make the transition, of course, like anybody who becomes a parent and suddenly their time is not their own anymore," she says. "But very quickly I realized my job was to just give over to it, to accept this new role and it really, at the end of the day, has been the best thing that’s ever happened to my relationship with my work. ‘Cause it’s made me step away from myself for incredibly long periods and forget all about what I wanted to do and what was so important to me and then when I come back to it, I’m refreshed. I’m renewed."
Music has been good to Ani DiFranco. It has taken her all over the world and has brought her incredible friends and adventures. She's been at it for so long now that playing the guitar and singing is second nature to her. "And that's something I'm so grateful for—the fact that I’ve gotten so deep with one instrument that it’s an extension of my body. And that means that I’m less lonely when I’m lonely, I’m less sad when I’m sad, because I have this tool to release all of that from my body. My relationship with my guitar—and also with my voice—is really sacred to me. I feel like it has an infinite depth to it. Like, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I feel like I’ve only begun to learn how to play and sing. More recently, especially after becoming a parent and having lots of shifts go on in my personal life—getting older, getting humbler—I feel like I’m evolving in my playing and singing because of that. I feel like there’s a depth that I’m able to achieve onstage these days that I wasn’t able to achieve even three or five years ago. And I sort of feel like that will probably never end. So, really, I just want to keep going down these roads and see how deep I can go."
If you're new to Ani DiFranco, check her out on "32 Flavors"
from her 1995 album, Not a Pretty Girl
, and "Shameless"
from her 1996 album, Dilate
. And for a taste from DiFranco's latest, give "Promiscuity"