Deckle edge

Ani DiFranco
by Chris Flisher © 1996 /
(first published April 1996 Worcester Phoenix)

Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco speaks with a looping New York slang that’s punctuated with lots of warm laughter, light sarcasm, and irreverent asides. She’s taking a break from the studio where she’s mixing the first non-DiFranco release for her fiercely independent label. And although you might expect a bit of attitude from a woman whose self-made record company bears the name Righteous Babe, it doesn’t quite follow that she’s so engaging, charming, and downright enjoyable. Given her affinity for lashing, venomous, and blatantly honest songs, it’s easy to expect a bigger chip on a broader set of shoulders. But Ani (pronounced Ah-nee) DiFranco quickly puts to rest the tough girl image and talks about her latest pet project, a collection of stories by veteran folkie, Utah Phillips, spoken over funky, hip-hop grooves. It’s such an unlikely combination of seemingly opposing views that, somehow, it all makes sense. Imagine a 60-plus year old, road-hardened minstrel and a mousey, urban street babe joining forces on a project that spans generations and lifestyles decades apart.

“Utah has his head totally around it,” laughs Ani. “I walked up to him at festival last summer and said ‘Hey Utah, this is what I want to do, whaddya think?’ He just laughed and thought it would be a great idea, so there you have it.”

Although, the project appears to be a mismatch, it follows considering DiFranco’s penchant for wild innovation. A genuine artistic contrarian in an industry of wannabe rebels, DiFranco has never played by the rules. Since forming her own record company in 1990 and launching a musical career (on her own terms, thank you very much), Ani has continually flown in the face of convention, marketing reason, and public opinion. Yet, Ani appears to have the last laugh. Avoiding corporate bigwigs and bankrolls, she has built a cottage industry that has sold over 250,000 albums. Not bad for a righteous babe from Buffalo.

DiFranco’s songs are largely self-confessional and often evolve out of her own experiences. “I have all this shit happening in my life,” she says. “And my songs reflect that. I can’t hold it in, if I did, I’d explode. Basically, it is just a self-affirming act that, this is what I do and this is what I think about and I can say it for all the others who are too hung up to say it. You know, ‘Ani can say it for me,’ and then they can go on being the sweet young things and I take the fall for it,” she laughs, continuing, “Which is fine. I can be honest because I’m just not a sweet, young thing.”

Three words that never enter your mind when listening to or watching Ani are sweet, young, thing. Her albums, stage presence, lyrics, and demeanor quickly replace any thought of innocence or amiability. Witness Dilate, DiFranco’s soon-to-be-released next album which continues along a track she first established with her debut. “It’s metaphoric, like little poet girls are prone to do, you know,” she laughs. “And there’s lots of hateful, tortured, I-got-stomped-on-this-year sort of songs that just reflect the state of mind I was in at the time. I was just opening up and purging, you know, dilating.”

Raw and acoustic, funky and acerbic, the new album spews venom at anything that pisses her off with a street jive that says shucks to no one. From the repressed anger of “Untouchable Face,” with it’s breathy refrain, venting, “Fuck you and your untouchable face,” to the urbanized rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Ani remains irrepressibly unique with such grace and grit that it tickles.

“Girls are supposed to be sweet and giggle and bat their eyes all the while they’re bubbling over deep inside. But what happens when a girl includes her anger in her vocabulary of emotions like—Exhibit A, little folk singer,” she chuckles. “I mean boys can stomp around and get angry. It seems pretty obvious to me, like this little pigeonhole idea of being angry.”

The word angry really does no justice to DiFranco and seems overused or trite. Ani has more raw truth in one song than many artists grab in a stage-lit lifetime. “Actually, I prefer the word honest,” admits Ani. “Sometimes you just gotta slap people in the face a couple of times to get their attention and get them off your bra strap.”

Think of it as a musical slapping. Often using nothing but an acoustic guitar and a microphone, DiFranco is keenly adept at getting attention. “My whole mission in life is that you can rock with an acoustic guitar. It’s more attitude than anything elese; a state of mind, if you use dynamics. Anybody can walk up to an amp and turn it up to 10 and not get anything out. But to be able to do that with an acoustic guitar is harder. And better.”

Harder and better are two words that do fit Ani. Her urban edge strips away any romantic verneer and harshly bares the naked truth. More of an honesty evangelist than an angry young girl, DiFranco uses her songs as vehicles for her own self discovery and sanity. “If I could tell things to people that I tell my guitar then I wouldn’t write so much. People are infinitely more interesting than my little piece of wood, but it is rare to find someone who I can talk to the way I can my guitar.”

DiFranco’s resolve to stay independent pervades all she does, says, and writes. There is no way this righteous babe will hit the airwaves all too soon, yet image-conscious Rolling Stone pegs her as the embodiment of the rebellious, rock’n’roll spirit. Ani’s fiesty attitude, genderless appearance, and complete lack of censure have brought her much attention, yet timid industry recording giants who try to court her are unsure of what to do with this wild upstart—which is fine with DiFranco. Ani has little respect for an industry that bends over backwards trying to develop artificial hipness. “I don’t really think of myself as having an image,” she says. “I was talking with this chick the other day from some newspaper and she kept asking me, ‘So is this angry young girl some sort of marketing ploy?’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s a weird concept!’ I don’t even think about shit like that. I don’t even know what’s going on out there. I am just what I am which is exactly why I don’t deal with the business the way I do. I am not radio-babe, obviously.”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge