Ani DiFranco is many things. So many, in fact, that it's sometimes difficult to get a handle on them all. Best known as an artist, entrepreneur, parent, and activist for a variety of feminist and political causes, she's even befuddled her fans at times, particularly when it comes to matters of sexuality. Still, that hasn't stopped her from creating one of the great musical legacies of the past couple of decades, both as a performer and savvy businesswoman at the helm of her own indie label, the appropriately named Righteous Babe. In the process, she's set a new standard in terms of empowerment and encouragement for those who sometimes feel like they're on the fringes of society.
DiFranco turns 41 today and remains as active as ever. Yet, even with nearly 20 albums to her credit, worldwide recognition, and the gratitude of her fiercely devoted following, it's clear there's more to her multifaceted personality. A couple of years ago, New Times had the opportunity to speak with her from New Orleans, where she resides, and to talk to her about her far-flung career. So being that it's her birthday, what's better than to let DiFranco define herself in her own words?
On parenthood: "I'm supposed to tour and make records and be a parent. The baby comes on tour with me, and it ups the ante for sure. You have your occasional sleepless night, and that makes it more challenging to put on shows. But it's also really fun. She's a breath of fresh air in the whole scenario."
On running a record company: "It's been a long time since I was really managing anything over at Righteous Babe. Happily, the record company has grown in the last 20 years well beyond me. There's a big, competent staff of people over there doing I have no idea what [laughs]. I don't want to know. It's a necessary ingredient to what I do. My manager and oldest friend, Scott Fisher, runs Righteous Babe and really does all the nuts and bolts on a daily basis based upon my vision and our endless conversations. He's the evil genius behind it. The records that we put out are artists that I intersect with out there in my life in music, so I'll show up with an artist or a record and say 'Let's put this out' and everybody's eyes will cross, like it will be some crazy music and things like that. Big-picture stuff is my involvement."
On her prolific output: "I'm known as being prolific, and that has its upsides and its down. I keep moving forward, and there's a lot of change and a lot of experimentation. I suppose that's more interesting than sort of just stagnating for an audience, but I think my albums in particular would have been well-served by a little more time and a little more painstaking work prior to the release date. I figure everything out after release date usually anyway."
On her tenacious reputation: "I had that rebellious, youthful energy just oozing from me. There's certainly plenty to rebel against, and I think there was even less room in society for feminist statements, for raucous, righteous, loud-mouth women [laughs] and especially those singing about bisexual experiences, with a nice healthy crew of dykes in the audience. I think that your general male whatever music critic or something was intimidated. But I think that after years of just being out there, I think the real me has outlived the stereotype and I'm known as not being an intimidating person now... I feel like the reality of the 20-year-old me was that I was much more of a pushover, despite the stereotype or the perception that some might have through some of the songs. I was very smiley, very easy to walk on, very sort of passive in my day-to-day interactions. So over the course of time, I think that I've learned through this process of writing myself into existence, I've learned to stand up for myself or to express what I need in the day to day much better. So now it's almost like the opposite is also true."
On her influence on others: "Um, geez, I can't think of specific artists -- well, I guess I can -- but I guess there are people, whether they're musicians or not, over the years I've gotten a lot of letters and correspondence saying I've inspired them in whatever their work is. 'I'm a social worker now because dah dah dah dah dah, and your album changed my life,' which is a great feeling just to inspire people to become themselves. I think that's the message that keeps coming through my writing... just exactly that. You know, like here's an example of somebody who decided to be themselves -- and got away with it [laughs], and in that sense, I can be inspiration for all kinds of other people in all kinds of other pursuits."
On her lesbian following: "They've been really supportive in my experience. After I got married and then divorced years ago, I read this story that got written and then rewritten and rewritten -- you know how that works, media sort of feeding on media. The story was that my lesbian fan base felt betrayed by my marriage and they were angry and abandoned me. I think at the time, I actually believed it because I read it so much, but looking back, I realize in retrospect that my experience was not that -- my experience was random people at shows shouting out 'Congratulations!' and gifts coming into the office and messages that said 'We're just happy you're happy.' I sort of have a friend type of energy with my listeners. I thank my stars every day for that kind of mutual respect -- it makes all my interactions on the street much more on the rewarding side of things than on the oppressive side."
On her fame and acclaim: "I guess there are exchanges that you make in life along the way, and I've definitely lost some of my youthful eagerness and sense of wonder with my life and my job. But in exchange, I get these kind of affirmations and awards, and they're very gratifying. I feel like those are some of the gifts of age."
Here's Ani blowing out candles and singing "Two Little Girls":