Exclusive Interview with Ani DiFranco, the Ultimate Righteous Babe
Presented by The Cedar, Ani DiFranco, the savvy and sassy independent musician, will be in Minneapolis on September 23 at First Avenue. Lavender Magazine recently chatted with Ani about politics, activism, dancing to the beat of one’s own drum, and the anti-marriage amendment that Minnesotan voters will take on in November. For more information about Ani, visit www.righteousbabe.com. Tickets are available through First Avenue at www.first-avenue.com.
Kathleen Watson: Throughout the years, you’ve refused to sign record deals and instead created your own record company, Righteous Babe. What was it like to start your own record company and be your own boss?
Ani DiFranco: Geez, can I remember that far back? It was like probably 25 years ago now, which is crazy to say. I guess one word that comes to mind is unremarkable, you know? When I started the label, I wasn’t starting much. It was not like I opened a big office in downtown L.A. and had a staff of hundreds and a big blinking sign. It was just really more…I made a little recording, a very humble recording, direct to tape—very cheap—to sell at my gigs in bars, and I just wrote on it “Righteous Babe Records,” which was more of a statement of “Fuck the corporate music industry.” And then, that was probably true for a few years and a few records. Eventually I hired my best friend, and then I hired my housemate and my other good friend, and that’s how the staff of Righteous Babe was born: when the phone calls started coming in so much that I needed help. It was a very long, slow process like the rest of becoming an independent musician was.
KW: This as well might even be a “non-issue.” Though you’re currently married, you have been very vocal about being bisexual. The song “In or Out” is a rallying cry about not putting yourself into a set box with sexuality. What’s it like being bi in the music industry? Does the issue even come up?
AD: It comes up in interviews a lot only because if you put yourself out there—if you make a statement which is taboo according to society—if you talk about things you aren’t supposed to talk about…if you say things like “Fuck sexual labels,” then people want to talk about it. Which, I guess is a large part of why I do it, why I make myself do it. I (long ago) realized that A. There’s nothing private or personal about my life. It’s universal and common—every last bit of it. To not talk about it, while it’s easier, isn’t nearly as effective in social change. So I started using myself and my own experience. The activist side in me had the will to put that shit out there, throw some stuff against the wall of society and see what happened. So…a lot of talking in interviews. I think I was in my early twenties when I was having relationships with women. I’m in my early forties now. I’ve done a lot more talking about it, funnily enough, than doing it—which is fine. Somebody’s gotta talk about it. It’s funny to still travel around and see “Bisexual Singer blah blah blah” because, once again, as soon as you do or say something against the grain…(I think for a lot of people in the queer community, this is a big issue)…if you put yourself out there, then you become reduced to it. And…it can consume your whole life, your whole dialogue with your society. But, again, I feel that to be important work so I’m willing to do it.
KW: Even though that’s not all you are.
AD: Right, or what I necessarily feel like talking about in any given day.
KW: Speaking of talking about the taboo, you’re pretty vocal about everything and what’s on your mind. Is there anything you feel like you can’t say? Are there any limits that you have to what you think you can say?
AD: Well, sure. I think there are limits to my own ability to perceive my life and what’s important. Sometimes I look back on my written canon and think, “Why was I wallowing in this subject for years and ignoring all this other interesting stuff that I could have been writing about and didn’t?” Sometimes, for personal reasons, you’re transfixed with some issue that you’re struggling with. I guess I’ve always just been true to that: What struggles are in my heart? That’s what I’m focusing on, whether or not they’re necessarily what the world needs or what I need or anything.
Also, the people in my immediate personal sphere. You can say “you,” and “he,” and “she,” and sort of get away with a lot. Only people who know you very well know who or what you’re talking about. But when you start using words like “mother,” “father,” “brother,” then you’re putting somebody else on stage that didn’t choose to be. I think that’s one subject—my family—there’s a lot of material there, but I haven’t written and haven’t done so for their sake.
KW: Do you have a particular political or social issue that you think is one of the bigger issues that needs to be fixed in our country right now?
AD: Oh, boy. Where do you start? I just, I don’t know. I guess (bleeech) it’s hard to say in a few words. But going back to the beginning of our conversation, part of my political life and journey has been against the corporate overthrow of every aspect of our lives in this country and in this time. As I get older and the world changes around me, that struggle just seems to get bigger and bigger and more important in my mind. I think money is in control of government and in control of media and in control of the ways we think. I think there are fundamental problems with the American mindset because we’ve been taught very calculatedly over the last few decades to prioritize money, to accept a certain baseline of greed as almost admirable, to think that exponential growth and consumption is healthy in an economy whereas I think that’s one of our fundamental diseases. It manifests in so many ways in our society. We could start there, but I could talk til the sun goes down about what I would like to see change in America.
KW: That just made me think of your piece, “Coming Up.” Anyway…In Minnesota, one of the big things that we have this November is that we have an amendment on the ballot that would permanently deny marriage equality to GLBT folks. How do you feel about marriage equality?
AD: It’s been a long time coming, and the victories have been amazing and thrilling. I imagine that every last state is going to follow suit and that we will have marriage equality in our lifetime. But, of course there’s the backlash and it’s huge. Some places are feeling it harder than others. Of course I feel like everyone who wants to get married should be able to get married and have equal rights. In fact, on my last record, that comes up on a song.
KW: You call it like you see it when it comes to your music. Do you have a particular person or memory that has influenced your strong will and your ability to speak out, or did you find your voice more gradually and just went with it and stuck with it?
AD: Well, I guess it was gradual. I think it’s a process for most of us to find our voice. Maybe some of us spring full-grown from our father’s brow…But especially for chicks, finding your voice can be even more of an uphill route. In one sense, my mother was a very strong and independent character and role model for me. In another sense, she was the one who taught me to smile and shut up. I think I was blessed with a strong will and a belief that I could do whatever the hell I wanted. Then it was just teaching myself how because I wasn’t given the tools, necessarily, to manifest that.
KW: What I love about your lyrics and your poetry is the multiplicity of meanings that you can find in your lyrics. For example, one of my friends had an argument with someone about what “Swan Dive” was really about; one person saying that it was about suicide and one saying it was about never giving up even though the odds are stacked against you. How do you feel about the different meanings people get from your songs? Is there ever a time where you’re just like “you totally missed my point?”
AD: I think that’s great! I think that’s what art should do, you know? Say something different to each person because everyone has different ears and will always hear things differently. I find it really interesting—different people take whatever I think I’m talking about and sometimes I’m not the authority. I write from a very self-conscious place, like I think a lot of writers do. I may or may not know why at any given time. It’s interesting for me to have these songs that exist in the world, and maybe even I will hear one of them years later and go, “Oh!,” and hear it in a new way and understand it in a different way. That’s totally cool that such arguments should exist and be forever unresolved.
KW: How do you define your feminism and what is the current need for people actively being feminists and speaking out in this time?
AD: That’s another thing that only increases in size inside of me as I spend more time on the planet. I think feminism, being our tool to address and combat patriarchy, is more and more important as every moment goes by on this planet because I think patriarchy is at the root of all other social diseases. I’ve come, in my old age, to understand peace as a product of balance. You don’t have to achieve perfection in your body, in your environment, in your international relations, in your family, but you have to achieve balance if you want peace. You can’t start with a fundamentally huge imbalance such as patriarchy and create a world. It’s just impossible. It’s against the laws of nature. I think that the pursuit of feminism—what I’d like to see—is that it becomes the work of all people, especially in Western society where it was born, not just women. It’s the 21st century. I’d like to think that we all understand this now, that it’s the mechanism by which we can liberate all of humanity, not just women. Because patriarchy hurts men too. War is no good for anybody. Racism is no good for anybody, the destruction of the environment. All of this comes out of…whatever. It’s right there in our fundamental, patriarchal texts. The Old Testament says it right there: “Man shall rule over the earth and all of nature will do his bidding,” and there it is. There’s the patriarchal treatise which is the basis of our society. So I think we need to go back to the beginning and use feminism to recreate and restructure our society and our way of thinking. As counterintuitive as it seems in this time of diplomatic crises to talk about feminism—lots of people look at me with a weird look, like “what are you, from the 70s?”—but i feel like it’s absolutely no less important today. It’s much more complex to go to the root of problems than to put band-aids on them.
KW: Finally, what’s it like to be a mother?
AD: Hilarious and exhausting and sometimes boring and wonderful on a deep soul level. Now I know a lot of parents, and it’s a weird social era. It’s funny; a lot of us who are parents now were not parented very well. I think (not to seem negative) I see that all around me. We don’t necessarily have a lot of skills in that area. It was the older, more traditional “keep your back straight, say please and thank you” era of parenting that crumbled. What has replaced it is not fully formed yet. There’s a bit of floundering, I think. Anyway, for me, it’s just what the doctor ordered because I’m a workaholic. I’ve dedicated my life to my work, and to be forced to put that down and to exist on another plane is very healthy and had a balancing effect in my life.