Few musicians have had careers like Ani DiFranco's. Currently living in New Orleans, the formerly Buffalo, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter has been in complete creative control of her enterprise throughout her near 30-year musical journey. She founded Righteous Babe Records to release her self-titled debut album in 1990. Now the label is home to exceptional artists such as Andrew Bird, Peter Mulvey and Vermonter Anaïs Mitchell.
DiFranco is prolific. Seldom does she let a year go by without releasing a studio album, EP, compilation or collaboration, such as the two discs she made with late folk singer Utah Phillips. Her latest album is 2017's Binary, an experimental, genre-melding collection of tunes that touch on funk, chamber-pop and folk-rock.
The artist is also outspoken politically, particularly in support of women's and LGBTQ rights, and is staunchly opposed to war. DiFranco's ideals have aided her in cultivating a loyal fan base of fringe-dwelling, socially conscious followers. Those fans converge at DiFranco's annual music, community and activism festival Babefest, which offers training in political action. (This year's event, on September 21 in Brooklyn, is a benefit for Emily's List.)
DiFranco is currently working on a memoir, due out in the not-too-distant future. In 2007, she released Ani DiFranco: Verses, a book of poetry.
DiFranco joins Grace Potter, Jackson Browne, Mt. Joy and others at the Grand Point North music festival on Saturday, September 15, at Burlington's Waterfront Park.
Seven Days recently caught up with DiFranco via email.
SEVEN DAYS: Your latest album, Binary, is a rumination on duality, that things are simultaneously black and white. What would you say to an ardent absolutist who challenges that notion?
ANI DIFRANCO: Hmm, not sure what you mean by absolutist. I just sing and say what I perceive and what I feel. Other people may perceive and believe other things, contradictory things, even. My belief in relativity starts there. I recognize that there are many contradictory experiences and truths in this world.
SD: You've never been shy about making your politics known to the world. Does that same openness exist at home? How do you talk about big, systemic problems with your children?
AD: Talking to my kids about politics or society is not nearly as difficult as talking to my partner about the kids or any other deeply personal, important thing. I am not outspoken in the personal arena at all. I am quite quiet and much more passive than I wish I was. My inability to stand up for myself and proceed with confidence through my world is what drove me to begin writing songs. In my songs, I speak freely.
SD: What is the experience of being "blue" in a traditionally "red" state? That is, what has it been like to live in a state that consistently voted Republican in the last four presidential elections?
AD: New Orleans is a very diverse and culturally profound city that is highly creative, radical and rainbow colored. It is the opposite of a homogenous, politically regressive enclave.
SD: What's the latest on your impending memoir? Can you give us a general sense of its flow or the ground that it covers?
AD: My book is a 200-page haiku, a distillation of my experience and a free-flowing expression of my heart.
SD: With a back catalog as massive as yours, I bet there might be sizable chunks of your discography that you now feel disconnected from or don't plan to revisit. Would you say that's true?
AD: I have written hundreds of songs in my life. I'd written almost a hundred songs when I made my first recording. Obviously, I am not in the same place I was when I was 9, or 16, or 30 — emotionally or otherwise. But the core of who I am remains the same. I don't try to stay connected to any past expression of mine. Either I feel connected to it or I don't. If I am interested in an old song, I sing it.
SD: I imagine Babefest's nomadic nature is intentional. Why is it important to move the event from place to place each year?
AD: Babefest is not about a place, except for maybe the intersection of culture and society. It is a festival which tries to animate and empower political and creative presence and accountability. It is simply a place where people can gather to feel stronger and, hopefully, more inspired toward action.
SD: I can't help asking about the hot-button issue of the week: Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign. Brave, opportunistic or both?
AD: Any support for Kaepernick and his quest for peace, justice and freedom of speech is a good thing. The right thing. A multinational corporation sticking their neck out politically for what is right is a very rare occurrence. Thank goodness Nike stepped up to counterbalance the massive weight of the NFL in the court of public discourse.
SD: What's been blowing your mind recently? Could be a book, a film, an artwork, a record — anything, really.
AD: A book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and Tim Flannery. Peter is way, way ahead of his time in being able to recognize the consciousness and sentience of plants. Most people in the modern world can't even perceive the sentience of other species of animals.
SD: What's something you could never live without?
AD: My self-respect.