I was 14 years old when I first heard Ani DiFranco. Her album Puddle Dive snagged me with its bright yellow cover (complete with Ani's smiling face) and songs like "Pick Yer Nose," "Blood In the Boardroom," and "Egos Like Hairdos," it was like she was singing right at me—and right for me. When I memorized "My IQ" after only a few listens, I knew I was hooked.
Something about the cutting rhythm, gritty guitar and raw, unapologetic words that wove themselves through Ani's songs seemed to tug at me. A teenager struggling to make sense of all the new thoughts and ideas floating around in my head, I didn't feel as alone. There was something remarkably freeing about my friend and I driving around, singing along to "32 Flavors" playing from a backseat boombox.
I am a poster girl with no poster, I am thirty-two flavors and then some.
It's no coincidence that I listened to more of Ani's music as my own feminism began to grow. Her lyrics are infused with feminist ideology, constantly urging listeners to question what they thought was true or right. As I grew up and went on to college, Ani's music came with me. When my life started taking a turn for the traditional (marriage, kids), I wondered if I would continue finding truth and relevance in Ani's lyrics.
And then something funny happened. It started when my husband and I caught a show of Ani's in Central Park. I had been doing my best to enjoy the music, despite frequent bouts of pregnancy-induced nausea. At one point in the show, Ani mentioned that she was pregnant as well, and that connection I had felt to her music since 9th grade only strengthened. Even though our external circumstances may change, our internal passion and ideals don't necessarily need to follow suit.
The next few years provided a few more examples of how, despite life-changing events, I could still be that idealistic 14-year-old girl who got lost in the words and music of somebody else who got it. Only now, I am a 30-something woman with a husband and kid, but that doesn't mean that I don't rock it out any less.
The same holds true for Ani. With 20 studio albums under her belt, and another coming out in the new year, she is still as bad-ass as ever. While her new songs may not hold the same personal angst as earlier ones, they are still infused with a strong point of view, activist spirit, and feminist ideology. I recently had the chance to talk with Ani about her music, her (ever-changing) feminism, motherhood, and everything else in between. It seemed like nothing was off the table and we veered off course more than once, discussing abortion, the Occupy movement, and New Orleans. After speaking for more than an hour, I left feeling like the woman who had strongly informed and influenced my youth (and who continued to speak to me via her music as an adult) is still going strong, pouring her heart, mind, and soul into her music for both new fans, and old.
Photo credit: Patti Perret
Avital Norman Nathman: For me, in high school and college, you were my pop culture. Your music informed me, but it also acted like a soundtrack to my life. It just fit. It was so radical, and different, and unapologetic. Where do you see yourself in the sphere of pop culture?
Ani DiFranco: Well, I've heard that from a lot of people along the way, you know... "You were the soundtrack to my growing up and you accompanied me through high school or through my twenties." The really cool thing is that now I hear from people, "It's been amazing to grow up with you too, because now I'm a mom too, and as your life changed, my life changed, and I've continued to see myself reflected in these songs and stuff." With some of my listeners, it's been a really long road, which is comforting and accompanying to me as well to the other person.
ANN: I remember being at the Langerado Music Festival back in 2008, with my then-14-month-old son. And you sang, "Present/Infant," and you prefaced it by talking about your daughter, and it made me feel like "Hell yeah! Someone gets it and is singing my song." And you did, you got it. And I felt like I went on that journey with you into motherhood.
AD: Yeah, yeah, cool. I mean, I've always written about my life, as you know. And I like that word, unapologetic. Not mincing words, not looking for the sexy, cool, rock'n'roll themes, but just the real stuff of it, the reality. Writing about kids and family or whatever the stuff of my life is now, it's really cool to connect with real people in the real world about the real stuff that we experience every day. It's so much more gratifying to me than being more of a pop culture symbol or something...to just be very human in my songs and being able to connect with other humans that way. I guess that's always been my goal.
ANN: I definitely feel that way, from a fan's perspective. You're up on stage, but your music hits with words and everything. You take it in and absorb it and it gives you something to think about, to chew on. It's not just a catchy tune.
AD: Yeah. I was thinking about, you know, how from the outside it's kind of "uncool" to write about your kids, unless you're making some kind of kids album—which everyone asks me, "When are you going to write yours?"
I do a lot of interviews where people ask, "Now that you're all happy and content are you going to lose your edge?" Like there's nothing edgy about being a mom. Which means that as we all become parents, songs are not written for us anymore, and we have to relive our youth to get off on music or something. Where is the music of where you get older? To be content and secure in your personal life doesn't make you lose your edge so much. For me it almost gives me more fuel to be radical, to be political, to be fighting the good fight because you have something to stand on. When you're all wrapped up in your personal foibles it's hard to have any energy for changing the world or whatever. But now I feel more energized because I have that support system behind me.
ANN: Totally. I feel the same way about my writing. It takes on a different focus, but it's still passionate, so I feel you on that. Let's talk music now. Especially women in music and how it's a double edged sword. The real popular pop stars feel so manufactured or feel so much like a brand,that you wonder how much of it is genuine. But at the same time, if they were genuine, how much mainstream play would they get? And I think it's interesting that you have such a strong fan base, and yet you didn't have to play into all that.
AD: Yeah. You know I feel lucky and I feel just really grateful that I stuck to my quirky, little off-the-beaten-track songs. Part of me looks back on my recorded canon and has some regrets. I could have employed the experts to make better-sounding records and get them across in a more polished, radio-friendly way. I look back at some of my recordings and I think, "Oh my god! I need to get out more!" It's like, "Wow, what is she doing?"
The part that I like about it and that I can still stand behind, is maybe what you're talking about—it's that it's just real. That it's somebody on their own trip, for their own weird reasons, and not really worrying about even how it's going to be received, let alone how to reach as many people as possible, and all of that stuff that's supposed to factor into our worldly ambitions. For me it was just about getting it out of me and heal! Heal thyself through music! It's a very primal act.
You know I notice in my kid, when she listens to music, I think she's a little bit like me. When we listen to basic music, like Pete Seeger playing his banjo and singing, she kind of relates to it. Or somebody really testifying in their own way, where you can really perceive how the music was made, and you can feel that person and their instrument standing right before you. And then, when music gets more glossy and pop-y, and produced, I see her glaze over like ,"What is that? Is that humans or machines? Is it happening in the real world or somebody's fantasy?" It doesn't connect as much. Maybe because she's four, or because she just has that real kind of human relationship with music as well.
ANN: Let's talk about motherhood for a second. I want to know, what aspects of being a mother do you bring to your work, and what aspects of your work to you bring to your role as a mother—a look at the interconnectedness of it all.
AD: Well, I'll tell you, the main thing that becoming a mom did to my work, or my relationship with my work, is interrupt it [Laughs]. I just can't produce as much as I used to, either on the songwriting level or the album-making level. I can't spend as much time with my guitar or doing my thing or going deep into something. At first I was resistant to that, but then I realized that it's the best thing that ever happened to my relationship and my work. To take me away. Calgon! Take me away! [Laughs] Now I find that my strategy in the last year or more is to tour as little as possible and still pay the bills. My kid is young, she still wants to hang out with me, so I'm going to try to hang out with her as much as possible. Now when I get on stage, I am more grateful then I've been in decades, to be there.
It's really kind of refreshed my love of what I do, to step back from it. Then you step back into it and you're like, "Fuck! This is a great fucking job!" And I'm going to be happy to be here, or else! In terms of the reverse, I guess for me, I'm the luckiest of parents in that my work happens in these spurts and then I go home and get to spend 24/7 with my kid. When I go back out on tour, these days, I leave her behind more often then not. But sometimes she still comes out and gets to have the ultimate kid experience of traveling and seeing people play music and make art for a living. And having that as her frame of reference—seeing behind the scenes of performance, I think all of that is some sort of delicious experience that not every kid gets. I feel very fortunate... It's a good back and forth between the two jobs.
ANN: I think motherhood is as good a segue as any to talk about feminism. I found that when I became a mother, more folks than usual found they had something to say about my own feminism. Either that they couldn't reconcile feminism and motherhood, and others that just got it. Did you find that when you became a mother that your feminism changed at all?
AD: Yeah. I think so. I think I understand more that feminism comes out of the experience of motherhood. That's what feminism is. Which is not to say that you have to give birth, or even be female to embody it. It just means that the experience of being of feminine mind and body, and ultimately giving birth and being a mother, is at the center of feminism. I very much want to see our understanding of feminism evolve on a societal level to understand it as way more than "equal pay for equal work," or that type of thing, which I think was the important initial hurdle for feminism to tackle, but move on to understand feminism as... a prerequisite to peace on earth. I think that, basically, patriarchy is the underlying imbalance I all of human society, globally...there it is. Patriarchy is the first rule of human society. As I get older, I understand peace as a product of balance. Whether it's in your own body, or in an ecosystem, or among governments, or in groups of people. You don't have to have perfection, you just have to have a sense of balance, and from that you can create peace.
*This is only an excerpt of my interview with Ani DiFranco. Check out my personal site to read more (on issues that went beyond the Mom & Pop Culture frame).