Twenty Years of Independence with Ani DiFranco
On March 20, Ani DiFranco begins the second leg of her tour in San Diego in support of ¿Which Side Are You On?, her first new studio album in three years. The dozen track record is an exquisitely varied and colorful work, intimate and direct, while not only encapsulating the noted DiFranco creed, but also expanding on her storied treatise in a most modern and sophisticated way. The artist’s new album also features Ivan and Cyril Neville, Anaïs Mitchell, Adam Levy, Mike Dillon, Skerik, and folk icon Pete Seeger, along with a diverse range of subject matter that helps magnify its sublime framework.
Jambands.com caught up with the singer/songwriter at home in Louisiana, while discussing a wide range of topics from her creative process, the importance of live performances, Bob Dylan, motherhood, and the sound of a spaceship landing in a studio.
RR: It has been over three years since your last studio album. How long has it taken to get these songs together? I know some of these songs have been out there for a while, and some have been played live, but how did you decide upon song selection and sequencing, and when did you feel you had reached the endpoint on the work?
AD: I’m one who is always playing songs live before they end up on a record because I’m just always out there working. The stage is part of my writing workshop, bouncing things off an audience is very illuminating. I started working on this record on the heels of the last record, which was three years ago, and I haven’t been working on it steadily for three years, for sure, but in little fits and spurts. I would come back to it, largely because I’m a parent now, so most of my time and energy when I’m not on the road is dedicated to my kid. There’s just this album lurking in the background of my life for a few years, so far down my priority list, now that I’m a mom. Every now and then, I would look over my shoulder, and think, “Oh, shit, that thing —it hasn’t finished itself yet?”
I think that this record, had it come out a few years ago, would be a much different record, and not as cool, so I sort of have my kid to thank for all the interruptions because over the years, as you can imagine, some songs fell off the playlist, and other songs jumped on, and the record mutated in its scope. By the time I had arrived at the group of songs, the material that I wanted to share this time out, it’s funny that you should bring up sequencing because that was the hardest sequencing effort I have ever had. (laughs) I had this group of songs that I just, yeah, it was just not an obvious flow at all. I’m not sure how I came up with this final order, but it’s not an obvious order, starting with a song like “Lifeboat”—a very mysterious little dirge; it’s a weird way to start. I feel cool about the flow that I finally came up with; it’s just an intuitive thing.
RR: I want an album to tell me a story, which prompts me to go back to it. There is something about this particular record. Which Side Are You On? contains a lot of information, but it does flow in a logical way, and doesn’t appear overly planned out, which is why I was impressed with the sequencing right away.
AD: That’s cool. Well, good. I labored over it. (laughter) You know everybody…the conventional wisdom was “You should start with “Which Side” because that’s the obvious album opener,” and etc. etc., and I just thought, “Hmmm…I don’t know; I’m not feeling that.” I like the circuitous journey through all of the stories.
RR: Your version of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” isn’t in your face, but it’s a very strong work with the lyrical directness, and you sort of ease into that song on the album, also illustrating that life does not have a lot of easy answers. That prompts me to think that a lot of what happened when you became a mother colors these lyrics. I know my own parental situation leads me to dedicate less time to my writing, so I was wondering about your process. How did your new motherhood impact your art, and what was the specific impact on the album?
AD: Like I was talking about a minute ago, it’s the Grand Interrupter (laughter)—a child. My kid recently turned five, so five years ago I was resistant like any new parent, and in a panic, truth be told. “Oh, shit, my life is over, and everything that I loved to do…” For those of us that love their work, it’s an excruciating transition because you have so much less time, as you say, and energy to dedicate towards it.
But, I quickly realized that resistance is futile (laughter), as with anything in life, and total acceptance is the key. As soon as I brought myself there, it was just a huge blessing. In years past, if I’ve been guilty of anything, it is throwing work into the world too quickly— not taking a lot of time with records because I’m sort of the anti-perfectionist in my nature, so making records was a bit of a haphazard process. Sometimes, I was in the right place at the right time, and sometimes, I wasn’t. But I never had the will to belabor any of that. My art lives on stage. I’m a live performer at heart. That’s where I think…last night, my fella and I, was watching that Scorsese documentary of Dylan…
RR: No Direction Home.
AD: Yeah, and I was watching Dylan saying, “The seminal performances of his songs happened on stage, and very rarely on record,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah! That’s it!” That’s a folk singer, or a jazz musician, or, jambands, as I know you write for Jambands, so, yeah, people who are live performers—their records are documents at best, and, hopefully, accurate ones, and, hopefully, flattering, but not always the case for me along the way. Taking my time with this record and all of the perspective that that affords, I think, that’s a dawning of a new era for me in terms of making records.
RR: You spoke of your evolving creative process over the years. What do you do in the moment to stay true to yourself when you are touring as much as you do?
AD: Yeah. Yeah. To me, the stage is so obvious and so easy a place to be in the moment. I’m somebody that is really taken by other people—my attention, my focus—so that
when I am standing in a room full of people, I am gripped, I am gripped by their presence. I am reacting to every shift, or every noise, or every response, or every silly unexpected thing that happens—that is the joy for me of making art. The challenge for me is always just being present in my art, not getting it all right. So the stage is my indigenous zone, whereas in the recording studio, there is nobody there except for you and your fear, or, if you’re me, the heavy baggage of regret for all of the mistakes you’ve made on record in the past. Again, not well-thought out performances, or recordings, that are stuck there on CD for posterity. That can be really claustrophobic for me in the studio. I much prefer singing (laughs) in time and space for other people. I think that music in its essential form is a social act, and that’s what feels most natural to me.
But I have a good album-making partner now in my husband.
RR: Yes, your “fella”—Mike Napolitano. How important has Mike been in your collaborative process, specifically as a co-producer on this latest work?
AD: Huge, just huge. He’s much better at making records than I. And thank goodness because I’m a songwriter and a performer. So now that he’s my left hand man in the studio, I don’t have to wear as many hats. I don’t have to feign objectivity. In the past, it was always me at the helm, so I’m setting up microphones for all of the instruments, and getting everybody situated and worrying about a thousand things, and then: “O.K., what microphone is left? O.K., I’ll sing into that. O.K., GO,” and then you perform. You’re supposed to step right out of the song, and objectively decide whether that was the right performance or not. This kind of schizophrenic job of trying to produce your own records, I think, has been quite weighty for me for many years, and the fact that I now have somebody that I totally trust, and can defer to, is really luxurious development in my life. Because making recordings is not my passion, I will do something automatically. I take the guitar on stage, I plug it into the amp I use on stage, and say, “O.K., I’m ready.” Mike will hold up his hand and say, “I think we can get a better tone than this,” so the process begins of him applying his more sophisticated recording abilities to my process now. I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m making some of my best recordings now—somewhat because of my age, I’m experienced, but mostly because of him.
RR: You have quite a strong band playing with you, as well. I would like to also comment on some rather formidable guests on the record like Pete Seeger himself.
AD: He has been a great inspiration to me in so many ways. He is one of the forefathers of my job. He’s a direct link to Woody Guthrie who I feel is the inventor of my job. Pete, as well, is the old guard of political song, of peoples music, of folk song. He has so much to teach, and I think as a young pup, I gravitated towards this kind of music and this underground community. I just felt really welcome there. People like Pete, and Utah Phillips, and the list goes on and on, were very welcoming to me when I started showing up at folk festivals, and bringing a teenage audience into the mix. I think that Pete is very much on the tip of allowing the music to change, to evolve, for new performers to come
in, and affect it probably more than he was when Bob Dylan was going electric at Newport (laughs) as I was just watching on T.V., but now he’s just so so centered in the fact that “evolve or die.” He’s just been a great friend and a great mentor of sorts.
I learned “Which Side Are You On?” originally a few years ago to play at his 90th birthday party celebration. I started pulling it into my live set ever since then, and I decided to put it on my new record. So I called him up, and I said, “Pete, I’m recording my version of “Which Side.” Can you come play on my recording?” It was an immediate yes, and energetic “YES.” He said, “Hang on,” and he leaves the phone, and comes back with his banjo, and said, “The key is G, you say; now, we can do the modal version [DiFranco scats Guthrie playing that on the banjo], or we can do this version, [more Guthrie playing],” and by the time we rendezvoused to make what was essentially about a ten-minute long field recording session near his house, he had sent me various versions of the song, written paper, and he had sent me new material that he is writing, new protest songs that he thought I might want to get in on, or employ in my set. He’s just so eternally passionate and inspired and energetic that I can only hope (laughs) to follow in his footsteps, to be anything like him at age 90—at age 40, let alone 90.