Vp Issue 7: “The Little Folk Singer that Could (and Did): Ani DiFranco”

[Originally published in Vp issue 7 by Kelly McCartney (2004)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 7 by Kelly McCartney (2004)]

One-woman powerhouse Ani DiFranco recently released Educated Guess, her 17th CD (not counting doubles) in not quite that many years. She wrote, played, sang, recorded, and mixed every single note on this one. (Even had a few hands in the exquisite artwork.) By any measure, that’s no small feat, though simply another notch on Ani’s belt of major accomplishments. From the prolific recordings and near non-stop touring to the guiding of Righteous Babe Records and outspoken political activism, Ani is a heroine on many fronts to many people. What she creates through unflinchingly honest explorations of both her inner and outer worlds is no less than stunning again and again as she molds minute, seemingly mundane, slivers of life into sublime poetry. Bold as it may be to say, Ani at her best is on par with the masters of the form. To pay a tiny bit of homage, Velvetpark asked some other musicians to share their thoughts on the most righteous of all babes. 

Rachael Sage: The first time I heard Ani, I was 18 and she was playing in my dorm at Stanford University. Her fingers were all taped up and she had this adorable laugh and kept cracking jokes about her “big fat butt” — she was a riveting, beautiful woman. A walking contradiction of primal intelligence and joyous disillusionment, she was one hell of a guitarist. I remember thinking at the time, “My God! It’s open season for her – she’s the only songwriter out there shamelessly exploring real issues: the slimy people in the music business, sexual assault, some woman she’s checking out who’s like John Wayne…” But her unique sense of humor kept it from just being a tedious lecture because her lyrics let you in on her own screw-ups and exposed her humanness. She proved how singing about self-determination could be the most inspiring kind of catharsis — rather than presenting your most polished, “best side” to an audience. I guess in a way her music introduced me to the concept of the live-concert-as-community versus pop spectacle. I remember the words generous and brave creeping into my head, and I’ve always thought of her art in those terms. In 1998 Ani graciously invited me to tour with her as an opening act. Every night of that unforgettable adventure, I was privileged to perform for her incredibly supportive audiences. Ani has remained an artist who not only changes lives with her empowering point of view but who also grants lesser-known musicians exposure through her work. Those are all qualities that have influenced my desire to expand MPress Records and support music that we believe in passionately. Singer/Songwriter/Record Exec www.rachaelsage.com

Pamela Means: I’ve just clambered off-stage, high from the phenomenal buzz of the artist-audience connection that happens when it’s really good, when it’s better than sex: You sound just like Ani. In those moments, I’ve accepted the compliment in the manner I hope it was intended. After all, it’s flattering and humbling to be situated in Ms. DiFranco’s company. In a broader sense, successive generations of every genre seem to compare their newborns to the established. How many women with an acoustic guitar and a satchel of songs were compared to Joni Mitchell or Rickie Lee Jones in the 1970s, Suzanne Vega or Tracy Chapman in the ‘80s, Shawn Colvin in the ‘90s, or today, Ani DiFranco. Of course, there is but one Ani D. Inimitable genius. She has inspired many women to pick up an ‘axe’ and speak their truth(s). As she, indeed, was inspired by the women before her. The entire collaborative feminist movement has challenged and empowered all of us to use our voices and our instruments for positive change in the world. Music creates a mood. And if you allow yourself to sit in mine for awhile, it will take you somewhere only my road-worn guitar in a spectrum of tunings, and my voice in a myriad colors, can. As a listener, Ani’s music takes me somewhere. Her blunt lyrics catch me off guard one moment, leave me vulnerable, spinning toward dreamsof the day, while crying over past heartbreak another, and raging to smash the status quo the next. Good art does that. It transports you. It can change your life. Especially when it’s honest. The music of Ani DiFranco has this power. How fortunate we are to witness this phenomenon. Singer/Songwriter/Conscientious Objector www.pamelameans.com

Catie Curtis To witness Ani DiFranco doing her thing is to be inspired by her. There’s no other good choice of words. Spawning a nation of what one could crudely and rudely call “econo-Anis” – young women who sound like Ani but still play for $100 – she has single-handedly changed the way a generation approaches the guitar and the writing of a song. A person used to pick up a guitar and strum all six strings, singing as sweetly as possible. Not any more. For me, as an artist, I have been less influenced by her nontraditional guitar arrangements and stylized singing than I have been inspired by her lyrics, her intensity, and her work ethic. At an Ani show, I watch her take a crafted and pointed phrase and deliver it to the audience while demanding a shared reverence for that moment, that word, that note. Her use of language, combined with her intensely present performance style can bring everyone in the hall in to a moment of complete focus. I am again reminded of the power of one voice and one guitar. Ani has toured so rigorously over the years, I always leave her shows feeling inspired by the miles she’s traveled and the devotion she has poured in to her music. Singer/Songwriter/Mom www.catiecurtis.com

Sharon Kleinman & Colleen Sexton: Ani’s an inspiration for much more than her genre-bending artistic contributions as a gifted and prolific singer-songwriter, poet, and multi-instrumentalist. She encourages people by example to bravely and righteously follow their own creative, ideological, and yes, economic path. At a time when five major record labels hegemonic-ally promote a few select artists, Ani’s become an indie music icon. She has famously shunned major record label deals to go it indie in a highly competitive industry. She’s living proof that a talented and hardworking artist can remain true to her convictions, create and sustain a viable business, attract dedicated employees, foster a loyal and growing fan base, and inspire the respect of her musician peers. Veteran musician and Grammy award winner Janis Ian put it this way, “The music industry has forever said that women can’t sell as many records as men, women can’t sell as many tickets as men, and women can’t run companies like men. It’s nice that Ani stepped up to the plate, and disproved a lot of those assumptions.” Ani’s impact on the music industry has been more than symbolic, she’s been an empowering role model whose tenacious individualism has inspired a generation of indie singer-songwriters as well as a generation of music fans. With her talent, work ethic, and commitment to excellence, she has set the standard for the indie industry. Writer/Professor & Singer/Songwriter www.colleensexton.com

Bitch: I’m driving through a Texas sunset with this piece on my mind How to talk about Ani. How she’s moved me How her words came into my brain and never left “I got pulled over in West Texas so they could look inside my car he said are you an American citizen I said yes sir so far” I got my first Ani tape in the mail a dubbed over dubbed copy of her first self-titled album It was 1990 and I was a senior in high school For years she was this magnetic secret This tape with my sister’s handwriting no face attached that I would refer to as a great literate and spiritual source the way I carried around Toni Morrison or Adrienne Rich When years later I finally saw her perform intensity increased Seeing a woman not much older than me spewing such wisdom had an incredibly empowering effect This effect being the root of all great protest artists How they inspire others to act When her words came out of her mouth they had this weight that held them there made us want to go into that sunny still jar of these defiantly spoken truths that formed this whole community around them Hordes of us Whores, freaks, smart radical women and men would come time after time to be moved by this poet She-Ra gnarly and tattered by the world as much as we were and still standing to sing it for years It’s hard to live on the road let alone a girl alone (refer to so many poems especially Ferron’s “girl on a road”) Now that I’ve joined that still very small crowd of us that swim through strip mall hotels drink gas on the well live out of a bag (I go from Linda Carter to Bitch in 30 seconds flat) In countless bars, offices, bathrooms across this crazy and fucked up world we have 40 mailing addresses hardly a home to bring this art to you Ani inspires me the most for her insistence on her songs You know how many offers you have to say no to to say yes to belief in your art let alone how to get around this system that wants us in one place and working like a race You know how many women aren’t even allowed to speak And the fact that amongst all these seas of buy-me-up spit-me-out greed she has had the eggs to keep moving her teeth When there’s such a powerful force working to kill us her words and ways come to fill us with an image outside of TV of a woman so righteous who made this whole new sound for us who burns up a guitar like she’s channeling a star One of my heroine friends Ani reminds us all to be who we are Fight for it Make room for it This makes change It affects all our brains So take your power And manifest it. I’m driving through a hot Baltimore sunset with this piece on my mind “I’m trying to see through the glare and your music is faint in my ears” Multi-Instrumentalist/Poet/Radical Goddess www.bitchmusic.com.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 7 (Summer 2004).