Charles Waldorf/Righteous Babe Records
Politically minded folk singer-guitarist Ani DiFranco embarked on a Vote Dammit tour way back in 2000. With a presidential election looming on the horizon, she’s now about to set out on another such tour. She plays the Kent Stage on April 1.
“I feel strongly about voting even in the non-presidential election years — all of those smaller elections are equally important, if only on the criminal justice level,” she says via phone from her New Orleans home. “They make concrete differences in people’s lives. If everyone would could vote did vote in every election, we would have such a better country. It kills me how much we squander our right to vote. I went to Burma once and people are fighting and dying to achieve a democracy and overthrow the dictatorship. You come home to America, and people can’t be bothered to vote.”
It’s not surprising that the left-leaning DiFranco doesn’t support Republican candidate Donald Trump.
“My fundamental optimism is that the majority of Americans see through that fascist rhetoric,” she says of Trump. “To me, it’s fascinating to get a window to see how fascism happens. You can’t imagine how that happens. Now, you see how it’s familiar and charming and something that disguises itself as the ultimate evil that it is. There’s a minority of people buying into Donald Trump, but they’re given so much airtime, the media is participating in the act. It’s like, ‘Why are you listening to a maniac?’”
She doesn’t say she’s endorsing a particular Democratic candidate, but she likes both options.
“I’ve seen so much divisiveness on the left,” she says. “Whoever the nominee is, let’s be grateful. Compared to where we’ve been, these are pretty awesome options. Bernie Sanders is by far my favorite candidate in a long time. He’s been a crusader against corporate control of government forever. It’s inspiring to see him take his truth telling and public servitude this far. Hillary [Clinton] as the first female president would be awesome. Unlocking that invisible door affects the future of America so deeply and subliminally in a positive way, that alone thrills me Goodness will walk through that door so that’s awesome. She’s more centrist than I want, but they’re both candidates I will be excited by for different reasons.”
An independent artist who cut her musical teeth on the coffeehouse circuit before graduating to theaters and small clubs, DiFranco started her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and never acquiesced when the major labels knocked on her door in the '90s. Her audience broadened exponentially when she hit the folk festival circuit in the early '90s. From the start, she formed Righteous Babe Records as a way to not only release her own music but also that of like-minded artists.
“We have had a bit of a slow spell for economic reasons,” she says of the label. “I think we are being reborn as a label, and we still have a future of trying to provide support for other independent musicians in their touring and working musician careers. I think that’s what Righteous Babe does well. It’s a cool team of independent people that we can employ in the service of people who are out there doing it. We’re still kicking.”
About the time she released 1995's Not a Pretty Girl
, DiFranco was on the cover of every major music magazine. She was heralded not only for becoming successful without pandering to commercial radio or MTV but also for running her own label and keeping a large share of the profits for herself — all of which suggested that, if only every label were like her Righteous Babe and every artist like DiFranco, the recording industry would be a kinder, gentler place.
“It was a blessing and a curse as you can imagine,” she says. “It’s funny to be the subject or object of the media. You have a window into things like how slapdash and inaccurate things can be. When it’s facts about you, you realize it’s all just somebody else’s perception. That can be very claustrophobic if you let it. One thing I learned to do was to tune it out. I had to stop reading what I was supposedly doing. It was melting my brain. It’s like the rock star who can only write lonely road songs. I could only write reactions to the reactions to me songs. It’s like, ‘Fuck all of that.’ It’s funny in retrospect to see how people have an assumption that what you do, you do for the public. I was so bad at persona or being aware of anything on that level. I was dressing to impress a specific person, and people thought I was changing my image. I was never well-equipped to be in that position. I’ve found my more natural place with a smaller but more meaningful relationship with my audience.”
All the while, she's been revered as an artist whose fierce DIY approach and independent attitude have made her a singular entity in the music world. She likes to brag that she built up her reputation and that of the label prior to the Internet. Righteous Babe didn’t even get a website until 2000. By “hoofing it around the country” and playing “every backwoods bar,” DiFranco built a career that’s still reaping dividends.
“I got to know the country,” she says when asked about her approach to playing every nook and cranny in the country. “It was in that weird sixth sense kind of way. You go back and back to a place. You play for the people there and over the course of time you begin to understand the distinctions between people, who are mostly all the same, everywhere, no matter what country they're from. But it’s so cool to become aware of the differences. I have fucking loved my life of travel. Over the course of that audience building, I’ve built a skill I can rely on. It’s like a relationship with my instruments that heals me. To have sort of become one with my guitar has become a great blessing. It only happens after all that time. It’s made me stronger and happier. It’s a form of service. It gives my life meaning to be out there trying to uplift people through my music.”
About ten years ago, she moved to New Orleans to be with her husband, producer Mike Napolitano. They started a family, and DiFranco took a break from her relentless pace of releasing an album a year and touring extensively in support of it. She says she likes the “greasy, easy pace” of living in the Big Easy.
Two years ago, she recorded her latest effort, Allergic to Water
, in two four-day sessions in her New Orleans home.
“That’s the way I do it now,” she says. “You record new songs live as a band, so you get some sense of music happening on the record instead of piecing it together as everything is done now. You do that a couple of times so you have options of what better represents the song. Beyond that, there’s years of having it sit around in the background.”
The album starts with the decidedly funky "Dithering" and then delivers a set of satisfying songs that allude to the ways in which the once outspoken DiFranco has chilled out and settled into a good groove. A song about how the thing we need can sometimes be the most difficult thing to obtain and sustain, the title track stemmed from a casual conversation she had with some friends. She says the track started as “a conversation with friends” about pollution and allergies. She was shocked to realize that you could be allergic to water.
The album also sounds like an album by a band rather than an individual, and DiFranco speaks highly of her backing band, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins.
“The three of us started playing together three years ago,” she says. “It’s been really cool. We’re syncing into having a band and having our own voice. Recording has become extra fun. We pound the songs out on stage at night and we drop into the studio to lay them down.”
DiFranco says she’s now at the point where she just needs to tweak the tracks for her next album.
“In between touring and parenting I go back to the [forthcoming] record and say, ‘What are you and what do you need from me?’” she says. “It’s a cool process. I hope it’s a cool process because it’s what I got now. We record the bed tracks and then step away and hope you come out with something organic in the end and is true to the songs, which is not always the case in my recorded history when I would work really quickly. I think I released recordings that didn’t do the songs justice all the time.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that the new album is “super-political.”
“It’s a sign of the times,” she says. “You can’t get away from it. I’m coming out with stuff that’s been swirling in my mind, and I recently had this sensation, ‘Can I say this?’ I haven’t had that feeling in a few years. Hopefully, that’s a good sign.”
Ani DiFranco, 8 p.m. Friday, April 1, the Kent Stage, 175 East Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $37.50-$65.50, thekentstage.com.