Out living the myth

Since I conducted this interview as one working musician talking to another, I don't consider myself bound by the shackles of journalistic objectivity. So I can say this: I love Ani DiFranco. But what's that mean? Maybe I only love the idea of Ani, or her burgeoning myth.

Her myth says she's a mirror of her audience: pierced, tattooed, tough, sexual, sexually ambiguous, man-eating, demanding, noisy. I found her to be an antidote to the "jack-booted, butchy, GoGirl Folkstress" stereotype (her words).

One thing is certain, though: I love what I've always loved, the songs. In them I find sweetness and power, fear and being feared, real gender understanding. Her songs are vibrant stars in the firmament that is a fully engaged life. She spoke to me of what it is to be human and mortal and happy.

Ani started Righteous Babe Records in 1990, out of -- like most impatient, creative and able bodies -- necessity and convenience. She's now regarded as the ultimate music business cottage industry. She's spurned countless major label offers, eventually moving her total catalog sales to more than a million records with vigorous touring, effective distribution and, frankly, unprecedented word of mouth.

Ani simply does what a musician should. She gives voice to all of our collective and unspoken emotions: feelings of impermanence, the yearning to maintain faith, the need to have some fucking fun and cut somebody some slack -- or nail 'em if they need it. There's a utilitarian sensibility to Ani's work; she's as vital to her hometown (initially Buffalo, but increasingly the world) as any other person doing any other job in the chaotic patchwork that is a modern American town.

If you're just becoming familiar with Ani's work, it's no slam to say she's improved -- her latest work is her best. Living In Clip is a two-disc live collection with an attendant 36-page booklet that encapsulates much of her purpose. Live performance is crucial to understanding Ani's mission. She's often compared to the post-Jersey, pre-muscles Springsteen, in that her live shows are mythical statements of faith, a communal kiss between audience and performer. And like Bruce at that time, she admits that her record-making abilities have yet to reach her unmatched skill as a performer. We talked over the rust belt line, she in Buffalo, me in Detroit.

Metro Times: Living In Clip seems to be a summing up for you. Was it important for it to be a live record?

Ani DiFranco: I'm really just a working musician, a live musician. The recording studio has always been an awkward place for me. I have a long history of walking into a studio with halfway decent songs and slaughtering them year after year. It's much more comfortable to just record them as they are, how they happen live.

MT: What's life like now for you? You're a poster girl for doin' things yourself.

DiFranco: It's gotten a lot easier and, in small ways, a little harder. Last night I was talking to a friend and reminiscing about the old days when I had to do everything. It's a lot of new problems: being in the public eye, dealing with the media, dealing with a bigger audience. It sucks to be on TV, to be written about in magazines. I'm overwhelmed with this awareness of me. There's something unnatural and claustrophobic about it. I never wanted to be Ani Dee, the rock star. There's an inherent embarrassment to it. There was something I liked about the time before I was implicated in the whole stupidity of rock 'n' roll. People see you onstage and run with it. They throw your image up in the air and swing at it.

MT: Well, I think I know what you mean. I'm nowhere near your level of notoriety, but I'll say to myself, "God, I'm sick of this me thing."

DiFranco: That's a rare appreciation, sensing the whole self-absorption thing and its ickiness. I don't know how you write songs, but it makes it hard for me to write. You can't divorce yourself from your knowledge of yourself as a public persona. It's tough to be innocent again and just write a song.

MT: Because of newfound audience expectations?

DiFranco: You begin to know too much of how people are going to react to this or that. You start second-guessing yourself before the song even comes out. I can't afford to do that. So I don't do anything! It's a whole new dynamic between me and the world.

MT: Why don't more musicians take things into their own hands and empower themselves, make their own records, get 'em out there themselves?

DiFranco: Probably because it sucks! Probably because it's really fucking hard! (Laughs) They'd prefer to just tend to their art and not deal with that aspect of the world. But I think it feels much more real to me this way. You have to be involved in your own life. Ninety-nine percent of us don't have the luxury of doing what it is we love to do and never dealing with the bullshit that surrounds it. Most people deal regularly with a lack of inspiration in their jobs, then they come home and pay bills. I think to be this cloistered artist is a fantasy to a lot of people, even to people that don't necessarily make art. They're just rock star dreams.

MT: A lot of musicians around here still cling to this notion of "getting signed." You know -- a showcase for an A&R guy, blah blah blah. What's your take on the whole major label-artist relationship, now that you've not only said you don't need them, you proved it?

DiFranco: People equate a record deal with the glamour of rock 'n' roll. Except for the 10 percent of those that get signed, those that do see the right buttons pushed, it's far from glamorous.

The labels don't call me anymore; that dance is over. I'm kind of known as the girl that wouldn't sign. It's a real luxury to no longer care about all that. So many kids care so much and they want so much. It's a very delicate position to really want something. Record companies exploit that very easily. I just never gave a shit. It always gave me so much power. "Sure I'd love it if you'd take me to lunch; I'm hungry."

I'm now seen as wildly successful, but for 10 years I was playing bars. It made me happy. I was notorious for forgetting to get paid at the end of my gigs -- "Oh shit, my 50 bucks."

MT: You've taken everything in your life and either shined a light on it or blown it all to hell. A song like "In or Out" -- it's very honest.

DiFranco: I'm missing that self-censorship gene. It was never hard for me to be honest. A few years ago there was nothing sacred anymore. I just find it harder and harder to stay innocent, to be genuine, to write with total disregard. I used to feel very alone in my songwriting and it was a good thing. Now I sit down with my guitar and a thousand fucking people are looming over me.

MT: Your guitar-playing is terrific, and I have no idea what you're doing, tuning wise. Any influences?

DiFranco: I had a sort of strange relationship with music growing up. I never really listened to recorded music; we didn't have a stereo. But I knew a lot of people that happened to play music and write songs. So I started playing in bars with them. People in Buffalo's bar scene were just sawing wood. There wasn't anyone playing acoustic guitar in a unique way. My playing got aggressive because I was always in bars trying to get people to shut up! So I learned in a bit of a vacuum. Recently people are always saying, "You should check out Michael Hedges or whoever." So I just started listening to players that make the guitar sound like an orchestra.

MT: How have you sold a million records without any radio play to speak of? Pretty amazing.

DiFranco: Oh, the good people at Righteous Babe are always trying real hard to get things on the radio. Well, not real hard. But they do make a couple phone calls. Whenever I hear one of my songs on the radio, it's very traumatic. I just don't make radio-friendly records. I always hear one of mine between two grunge-pop masterpieces. It sounds so pathetic. It's not that important to me. All that matters is the live audience and touring. Do you get played on the radio?

MT: Yeah, but it's never enough. I'm just walking into stations myself, like Loretta and Mooney Lynn: "Nice to see y'all."

DiFranco: People always seem surprised and refreshed that somebody's just walking in, just a person leaving all the hoopla behind. I guess that's my story. Stewart Francke is a Detroit-based free-lance writer and musician. He recently released the CD House of Lights on his Blue Boundary label. E-mail [email protected]

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