Musician Ani DiFranco doesn’t just fly in the face of conventional wisdom. She flies circles around it. The spunky singer-songwriter from Buffalo, New York, has amassed a loyal horde of fans and consistently sells more than 200,000 copies of her albums–all without signing with a major label or kowtowing to the music machine in any of the usual ways.
She’s done it through sheer force of talent and will, producing 12 albums and releasing them on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, where she wears the pants of both CEO and flagship act. DiFranco’s do-it-yourself ethos has been an inspiration for countless fledgling artists, and her music–which began as a grrlish offshoot of folk but has mushroomed into an unclassifiable
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collage touching on soul, funk, and even jazz–has won admirers with its fierce honesty and rhythmic drive.
DiFranco has recorded with pop-funkster Prince, sung union songs with folkie raconteur Utah Phillips, and performed at Carnegie Hall with singer-songwriter Greg Brown. Her new two-CD album, Revelling/Reckoning, reflects her increasingly expansive musical and lyrical vocabulary.
Righteous Babe Records has put DiFranco’s progressive ideals into practice by locating its offices in struggling downtown Buffalo and supporting local citizens groups through the Righteous Babe Foundation. The label, which releases albums by an eclectic bunch of musicians, is also getting into publishing with plans for a how-to book on running an independent record label.
DiFranco recently took time out from a tour to speak by phone about her media consumption habits, Righteous Babe’s idealistic mission, and the importance of saying no to corporate culture.
Where do you get the bulk of your news?
The Nation is mostly where I get what I think of as accurate information and reasonable opinions.
How about daily news on current events?
I’m on the road constantly. Every now and then we get a newspaper outside our hotel door–but usually it’s USA Today. Most of our news we get by word-of-mouth as we go venue to venue.
What do you like aboutThe Nation?
It’s so glaringly obvious that there’s this monopolization of information, where you have many newspapers and radio stations and other sources of media owned by a few corporate interests. And of course those interests have a large influence on the news that gets pulled, and the angle it gets pulled from.
In order to find real information, it’s necessary to turn off your TV, put down the local daily newspaper, and seek out alternative sources of information. It’s frightening that you really have to work to find opinions outside the mainstream. But that’s necessary in order to jump off the propaganda wheel.
You refer to television on your new album as ‘the modern-day Roman Coliseum–human devastation as mass entertainment’ (in the song ‘Tamburitza Lingua’). So am I correct to infer you don’t watch a lot of TV?
Yeah, that would be correct (laughs). It’s scary to me, actually. I’m careening toward old ladydom at age 30–I feel so out of touch with TV culture and youth culture.
Have you seen any movies lately?
Oh, yeah–I love movies. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–that’s got to be one of my all-time favorite films now. It’s gorgeous to look at, and beautifully acted and cast, and it’s infested with this righteous warrior babeage, which is right up my alley.
I just watched Topsy-Turvey for the third time on video. It’s the latest Mike Leigh film. He did Secrets & Lies and Naked–he’s probably my favorite director. He’s just different, it seems, from 98 percent of movie makers. Topsy-Turvey is a period piece set in the late 1800s, and it tells the story of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Do you spend much time on the Internet?
Not a minute. That’s another technological curve I’m dangerously behind. I don’t have a computer. I mean, I know how to use a couple of computers that are recording equipment, but I never go on the Internet.
Have any books recently influenced you?
The Woody Guthrie autobiography by Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, is an incredible piece of work. It’s so extensively researched–and yet it’s really readable. Joe Klein was at my show last night in New York, and I got to see him again. I’m a huge fan of his. I also just got my hands on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which looks intriguing and terrifying.
You’ve toured overseas. Does it give you a different perspective on American culture when you step outside it for a while?
I feel pretty outside it most of the time (laughs). But when I first started leaving America, I definitely had that sensation. On the good side, it makes you realize what you love about your country–the beauty of it, and the culture and the people and the landscape and diversity and the breadth and the depth of it. And then of course it brings into focus the stark brutality and the infinite disappointments of America.
You’ve got harsh words for multinational corporations in the song ‘Your Next Bold Move.’
I’ve made a lot of decisions along the way for the whole purpose of not being involved in the corporate culture, of not participating in perpetuating what I see as a complete takeover–not only of culture and of media but of government, of politics. I mean, you have corporate advertisements in schools now for the youngest of age groups, and commercially operated TV being shown in classrooms as an ‘educational tool.’
I remember friends who are a few years older being outraged the first time a McDonald’s went up on their campus, or even an advertisement in the student union. And now it’s so pervasive. You know that old quandary of the separation of church and state in order to ensure the idea of the purely representative political system? Well, I think the hugest issue we now face is trying to separate the corporate and the political. And until we have a government that is not simply catering to corporate interests and run by the great white industrialists, we’ll never have any justice.
You’ve held out against signing onto a major label. Do they ever still dangle offers in front of you?
It’s been, oh, 10, 15 years, and there were plenty of lunch offers along the way, and ‘we can make you a star’ conversations. At this point, I’m beyond that, and it’s common knowledge in the industry. Righteous Babe records is an actual label now–it’s no longer just me cutting off my nose to spite my face. What on earth could a major label do for me at this point that could be any better than what I’ve got?
You write songs that might be called protest music, but they’re different from the way that, say, folksinger Utah Phillips writes protest music.
I’ve never felt a real resonance with the label ‘protest music.’ It presupposes that political protest is somehow separate from other things: A protest song is in this box, and a love song is over here in this box. I have a hard time drawing those lines. For me, it’s all political, and I write with that in mind. I see the dynamics between people even in intimate relationships as having political significance. And then, conversely, it’s all about love. So it’s one and the same for me.
But it’s true that my writing often is not of the traditional folk idiom–the union songs or ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ the sing-along folk style. I have to speak my politics through a more personal, specific lyrical landscape.
That’s certainly not to say that somebody like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger doesn’t speak specifically and eloquently. I just use forms different from the traditional folk forms for expressing some of the same kinds of ideas.
What’s your starting point for writing music?
The basis for just about every song is a connection of some kind. A sort of resonance occurs when I notice how one thing affects another thing, and how my life is connected to other people’s lives. That’s where songs come from for me–they’re all about bridges between one person and another, or one place and another, or one dynamic and another.
You’re really into supporting inner-city revitalization and other grassroots causes in Buffalo. Why is this so important to you?
‘Think globally, act locally’ means considering the little details of your life: Do I go to the Rite Aid [chain drug store] and get my prescription filled, or do I go to the local whatever, Hanson’s Drugs, that’s struggling across the street from the Rite Aid? All those little questions we need to ask ourselves, the decisions we need to make every day to fight corporate co-optation of our lives, are the really significant ones.
And Buffalo needs us. We considered going to New York years ago when I was living there, but New York doesn’t need another 15 people hangin’ around. In Buffalo, we can make a difference in the community. To set up shop in Buffalo, in what is basically almost a ghost town downtown–and to be a thriving office full of people trying to re-create the music industry is a good feeling.
Keith Goetzman is a contributing editor of Utne Reader.
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