With a career spanning from the early 90’s to the release this month of her 21st studio album, Ani DiFranco has carved out a career that defies music industry conventions. Having made the decision early on in her career to reject numerous offers from major record labels in favour of releasing her music via her own self made record label, DiFranco has enabled herself to have complete creative control and a freedom to express political activism though her music that is rarely afforded to artists in music today. Her songs deal with such diverse topics as racism, sexism, homophobia, abortion, poverty, war and capital punishment. Her most recent album Which Side Are You On sees Ani exploring ever deeper waters both personally and politically. We recently met with the folksinger to discuss the new album, gay rights, politics, love, marriage, touring and the state of the music industry today.
So you just played two sold out nights at the Union Chapel. How was it for you and what did you make of the venue/audience?
Loved the venue, very evocative space you know. Having played every kind of space there is it’s just so nice to be in a room that feeds you rather than having to make something out of nothing in some sterile soulless environment, so that was great and the audience, I actually thought Wednesday was a little livelier than Tuesday. They had a little more something, something [laughs]. But I had, really a lot of fun there.
You brought a member of the audience on stage to perform with you at one stage, was that completely spontaneous?
Yeah, I’ve done that in the past. It’s been a long time since I dragged a mystery person up on stage to do, we don’t know what. But yeah I think there was just something about him saying “well, I’ll play it for you”. I was like “alright” [laughs]. “You come try to do that” [laughs]. So anyway I love to have fun with it. To me the fun of performance is being in the moment and you know not being afraid to go down a blind alley.
Your new album Which Side Are You On has a lot of political themes running through it. With a U.S presidential election looming later this year how much has that influenced the work?
Oh well, I mean all these songs have been written for years actually, it took me three years to get this record out into the world because I’m on mummy time now you know, I’ve got a four year old. I think, my politics go much deeper than presidential elections. Activism has been a big part of my purpose since I found it a as a young person, starting from my teenage years. Even before I was a musician as a job I was involved in a lot of different things along the way. My mum was involved in the community starting a co-op, she was an architect so she also was part of a group called “women for downtown” trying to not just preserve old buildings but preserve the concept of a city as privileged people flee the city out of racist fear. And meanwhile it is cities that are the centre of cultural evolution and we must respect that voice, and respect the countryside, you know natures right to exist. There are many awareness that I inherited from my mother and then others that I found myself.
Promiscuity is one of the songs from your new album. It's a loaded word. The gay community, particularly gay men, often comes under fire for being promiscuous. Why do you think that right wing politics often seizes upon that aspect of gay men in particular?
Because right wing politics is unmediated patriarchy at work. Like I was talking about in that church [Union Chapel] the other night I think the template for patriarchy was laid in the fundaments of organised religion and within it is a fundamental arrogance about human, and by large the masculine ability, to control nature. There it is in the creation story you know, God created man and out of man the woman [Ani shakes head in disagreement]. Hmmm, OK….and then he created all of nature to do mans bidding. Hmmm, OK. So this is the pre supposed framework of which our societies have been structured. Whereas to my mind natural laws supersede human laws and nature says that, you know the sexual drive of the young is an imperative, it works especially through the male and that’s a beautiful, natural state and an individual cannot stop that or supersede that for themselves. I think we need to shift in our relationship with nature to one of respect and deference and learn how to obey her laws and not, this idea that we’re above them, is a fallacy that goes back a long way. So yeah it comes out in the modern world in all sorts of ways. It is the shaming of sexuality that is unnatural. I think if we understood and respected forces bigger than ourselves and had more humility with it we could have a more constructive way of understanding and dealing with it. I think our fundamental relationship with nature has been distorted.
Do you think if an artist sings openly gay love songs that they automatically for-fit any chance of commercial success?
No, no that’s bullshit!
Why do you think there aren’t more doing it?
I think it’s just the same thing as saying there are not enough brave people singing, there are not enough brave people being waitresses, there are not enough brave people working in banks. We need to stop letting the small minded forces in society dictate to us our own sense of self worth and confidence. If I’m an example of anything it’s that if you stand up and are totally open with your experience and you yourself are at home with it that’s the key. If you’ve internalised so much shame that you can’t embody a belief in yourself then you’re defenceless in this world and on that topic. But if you can believe in yourself that’s contagious too and what I’ve found is that there are so many more people who are gonna stand up and support you and say thank you and embrace you than there are gonna try to fight you. It’s all about embodying the energy yourself. You know, I’m as legitimate a human being as anyone and my love is as well.
Do you think it‘s that the record labels don’t want to support it or do you think they will just go with whatever sells anyway?
Yeah I do, I really do. It’s the same thing as being a woman in music industry, “how has that been hard?”. Queerness and art, they have gone hand in hand since the dawn of human culture because to be queer is to have a difference and to be slightly outside of the conventional circle of society and that gives you perspective and it also brings you pain, and these things are fuel for art. It’s a gift you know, it’s gift. I recently had occasion to put together a brief synopsis of my career so I tried to think of the important developments along the way in the work that I’ve done. When I looked at it, it was like, wow as lot of very diverse political work. A lot of energy put into fighting capital punishment or preserving architecture, buildings and cities in the U.S, fighting the forces of racism, economic oppression, all sorts from when I was 18 and living in New York and doing central American solidarity work. But what has the media written about over the years? My bisexuality again and again and again, because I’ve sung about my relationships with women as well in this whole plethora of things that I’ve thought about, worked for, expressed and just looking at that and realising it I sort of tapped in with the eternal frustration of queer people, or anyone who dabbles even, where if you are open with this side of yourself you can be very easily reduced to it. You might have a lot of work to do, you might have a lot of things to say about a lot of subjects but you risk being reduced to your sexual identity. Because society is so unready for it. It’s work you know, and it’s frustrating and you just have to not sweat it. For me one of the things that has really helped was to not listen to the babble about me and other people defining me and to just try to stay focused on what the hell I think I’m doing and why.
In terms of marriage equality in the U.S, it seems that some parts of the country are moving backwards when others are moving forwards. What do you think the future is for marriage equality in America/the world?
I think more and more acceptance. It’s interesting the sort of social experiment that is California. They’re often the first to gain certain rights and then there’s a backlash. So while other states sort of slowly and steadily transform themselves California are doing these wild swings. But you see people evolving. I thought it was so awesome that Hilary Clinton gave that big speech before the U.N where she talked about queer rights as a fundamental human right that we need to address globally, that we need to address financially, with our humanitarian aid. So that was a huge step, a huge step. This is at the U.N, this is not in Berkley. So you see things changing and remarkably fast as they do when a hundred monkeys wake up together.
At the start of your career, you had described yourself as an atheist. After Red Letter in 2009 and a poignant song titled Atom, are your views on religion experiencing an evolution of sorts?
I think it was a word that I used once because it was the only one I had to say that I’m not religious but I’m not sure that it’s the most accurate. Again I think I see through organised religion. Of course there are wonderful uses for it like community and I think it’s very valuable to have a context specifically designed for people to gather together and think about right and wrong and good and bad and how we should help each other and hopefully most churches are providing this for people. The reality of it is not always so. I thankfully was not raised in a religious environment, my family did not drag me to church so I don’t have any anger towards it because it wasn’t forced down my throat, but I have no attraction to what I think is a veiled institutionalised patriarchy which again I see as very damaging to male and female. It’s just an imbalance that means social disease that hurts all of us. My stance towards organised religion is one of let’s step back and first start talking about did the woman really come from the man? How many yay’s and how many nay’s [laughs]. It’s twenty first century and lets go back, you know this poem that I was trying to write, lets go back to the source of our river, the source of our human culture and right that fundamental imbalance and therefore find new paths through all of these contemporary crises.
Was that the poem you performed at your London shows this week?
The new one, yeah I did it both nights actually. But thankfully on Wednesday night I didn’t cry, god damn it [laughs]. There’s nothing worse than fighting back tears on stage. I try to keep it under wraps but it’s interesting for me, I was not like this as a young person, I’m very ready to cry now. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t mean to go to that height of emotion on stage or in casual conversation, I would prefer to be able to control it but I can’t.
When you’re performing emotional songs like Dilate do you still go back to that emotional place that you were in when you wrote the song?
Well, the best [way] is to revisit. It’s excruciating you know especially to have written about your pain and your mistakes and to revisit it over and over again but I guess it’s like my version of mantra or praying or of meditating. Over time the song remains the same but the singer evolves and therefore even the same words have different meaning over time. Although some songs I wouldn’t begin to try to express right now because I’m too far from it but others I keep a relationship with as I change.
The way music is made and distributed has changed so much over the last decade alone with the emergence of new media and the digitalisation of music. If you were a new artist making your way in the world today how different do you think your approach to making music and your career would have been?
Not much. I think while the internet is a very powerful tool and I love that you can go from your bedroom to the world now through this medium, for me that will never be a substitute for actually going yourself to the world, leaving your bedroom. I think that the amount of learning and growing and honing my craft that I did over years and years of travelling and performing was invaluable, and luckily for me I did many of them before anybody was aware of me. A lot of practice at least on stage. Also I just feel that music is a social act so to do it in a moment in a room with other people is, I think, the essential form of it and you have to continually tap into “why music”? For me that’s about travelling and performing. So I would recommend yeah sure, use the tool of the internet but still it’s going out into the world and interacting and trying to connect with people every night, that’s what a career in music is about for me.
Music has always been a vehicle for socio-political commentary and you are an astute modern day exponent of this. Which issues have been/are closest to your heart?
There are so many you know. I tend to almost not think of politics in terms of issues, politics for me is about good and bad, what helps and what hurts and being accountable to that in your society. Whatever your perspective is don’t sit idly by, try to live it, try to be accountable to it. So yeah I think a lot of what I’ve sung about in my songs again and again over the years is not so much like “I have the truth and the way follow me” but like, I have my way damn it and hopefully I can inspire you to find your way and not just find your own answers but find your own questions.
You’ve said that you’re at a happier place in your life at the moment than ever before. How has this influenced your song writing and your music?
Yeah, that’s right. Well a lot of music does come from having gaping holes in you that need filling and certainly a lot of the music I’ve made. It’s very much a challenge now that I’m whole to continue to find inspiration without the desperateness. I have love in my life, I have happiness. So now I have something new to bring. I’ve lost my youthful eagerness a little bit but I’ve gained a little bit of perspective along the way and I think you know, this is also a good voice to sing with, in fact I feel like it’s a better voice than the one I used to have. I think that happiness is great fuel especially for somebody like me who has the will to make the world better if I can you know, I have more energy for that if I’m not struggling for emotional survival. So yeah it’s funny to me that sort of knee jerk reaction that you get of oh now that you’re happy and content you’re gonna lose your edge, you’re gonna be irrelevant because that’s what happens. For me I think wow, no I’m gonna be more able, stronger and more willing to do the work I’m put here to do.
You say that you’re more whole now, what do you think it is that’s made you more whole?
My fella, Mike. You know, it’s all about him and I think I was under the impression that, I think I’ve always picked mates who challenged me you know. I thought maybe that the ideal mate for me was somebody who knew more than I knew and read more than I read and could challenge me to think broader more renegade political thoughts or new musical territories. But that’s not really what I needed, I sort of had that going on. What I needed and what I found in Mike was someone who knows how to love. How to be steady, how to be patient and forgiving. How to not create drama but keep a focus of gratitude. He teaches me how to be married, how to be happy how to be peaceful through his example and I’ve slowly been changing my behavioural patterns and my reactions to things. And everything about me changes with it, I’m healthier, I used to be very susceptible to getting sick. I had TMJ issues hardcore in my jaw, headaches all the time, even my tendonitis struggles it’s all about tension, it’s all about not being at peace. Now my immune system functions, I never get sick, I’m in less pain and I sing better. He’s been a miracle in my life and it’s all about unlocking my own potential and helping me to grow out of the bad example of family and love that I experienced as a kid, it’s a slow slow process.
Which Side Are You On is out now.
Words: Chris O’Gorman