In 1989, Ani DiFranco released her self-titled debut album. Her photo showed a shaved head with brows and eyes arched like question marks on a young face, seeking an answer to youth's eternal question: Who will I become? There was heat from the friction of taped fingers rubbing off their urgency on guitar strings -- from the friction of being 19 years old and enormously talented, rubbing against the abrasive edges of New York City with enough velocity to set a fire.
Thirteen full-length LPs have followed, each released through her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Her hair is now a natty cascade of dreadlocks that drip like wax from a candle burning at both ends. The cover of her latest album, Evolve, depicts a single, yellow moth. "As you can maybe hear on the last few records, I've been going through a lot of struggle personally, and a lot of struggling in my relationships. Not just with my partner, but with all sorts of people," DiFranco says, treading lightly.
Evolve is possibly her most vulnerable album; it's a war against despair replete with an 11-minute poetic hemorrhage ("Serpentine") that caused DiFranco to break down after its recording. "The early days of expressing my experience were not easy," she confesses. "Having relationships with men or women, or abortion -- whatever my experiences, I've challenged myself to write about it the most direct way that I can. I've used my music to empower myself at times when I felt powerless, which was most of my life. I think that something I've done a lot in my work in the past was help myself to be the heroine of my own songs. But now I'm writing from a different place: 'What if I have to show myself being an asshole or being fucked-up, just kind of sitting there, dazed?'"
DiFranco headlines Hollywood's Calliope Fest this weekend. Now in its second year, the two-day event will showcase over a dozen predominantly female acts. "That's how it evolved," explains creator and coordinator Jeff Freeman. "It just seemed that the majority of people who came around as we formed, who wanted to play, were women." The festival gets its name from the eldest muse in Greek mythology, the muse of epic poetry.
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DiFranco is leading this year's show not because of her estrogen level, but because of her ability to buck the system, according to Freeman: "When she started out, she basically told the major labels, 'Drop dead. I don't need your indentured servitude contracts or the 20 or 30 cents you'd pay me for every CD. I'll do it myself.'"
Though she's made it on her own, DiFranco is quick to point out that she's had some excellent help. "Well, I mean, after 15 years of painstakingly building my own little world around me, I'm pretty much living in it. My record company is very politically conscious and aware. My touring company, the people I travel with now, are wonderful and talented, and there's an atmosphere of mutual respect and common purpose." Respect is the gold in DiFranco's diadem. This month, the folksinger finds herself on the cover of Women Who Rock magazine, and her new album has a sidebar in the "Recommends" section of the mainstream glossy Marie Claire. "You know, the cool thing about being independent is that people don't have to write about me, so there must be some chick at Marie Claire who listens and gets off on the music, which is wonderful." On hearing DiFranco live for the first time, the aforementioned assistant editor from Marie Claire, Holly Taylor, says she was "totally spellbound. I sat down in the aisles of the theater and wrote out my own Ani-style poem, too afraid that I would lose the mood if I waited until I got back to my room to write it down."
For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. After listening to DiFranco long enough, many find themselves, like Taylor, with pens in hand. "All I have to do is have [Ani's] songs playing on a low volume, and I start getting song ideas," says Stephanie Callahan of Tampa-based Halcyon. (The acoustic duo, rounded out by Deb Hunseder, performs Sunday evening.) "It's not that I'm copying [Ani's music], it just feeds my brain."
"Ani's been like a bottomless silo of music and inspiration for a lot of folks," adds South Floridian Diane Ward, whose third CD, The Great Impossible, is on the verge of national release. MTV has also licensed some of its tracks for the weekly reality show, Sorority Life. Ward performs Saturday, just before DiFranco. "[Ani has] been instrumental in creating a road map for all of us to do what we do: writing and producing our own material, doing our own promotional thing. She's a forerunner."
In the decade when "Lesbian Chic" was a magazine cover, DiFranco was honest about her relationships with women (and men), so she also became a torchbearer for bisexual and gay youth. An Ani DiFranco mixed tape was the lesbian equivalent of a heart-shaped box of chocolates. So when DiFranco married a man in 1998, it made big news. "The sort of hype of me getting married or whatever is largely just that: hype," DiFranco reflects. "People weren't flooding me with letters of 'How dare you.' My actual experience was one of cards of congratulations, 'We're glad you're happy,' and people at shows calling out that kind of sentiment."
Now, in 2003, it might be safe to say that the explosive power of DiFranco's work ethic -- which has earned her four Grammy nominations -- has outstripped her bisexuality as the subject of folk lore. "I hear that Ani plays and goes back to her bus and writes all night," informs singer Melissa Ferrick, who closes the festival on Sunday night. Like DiFranco, Ferrick has formed her own label: Right On Records.
"You know what I respect most about Ani? Her business savvy. So many female artists get led around by their noses," scoffs singer Genny Slag of South Florida's Pank Shovel. (The hip-hop and punk-fusion act kicks off the festival early Saturday before relocating to New York City next month.) "For an artist to build herself up the way she has sets a really good example."
DiFranco may be tired. She may be "fucked-up," sighing, reluctant to go eye-to-eye with the camera, or kicking into the wind to change its direction. But, after 15 years, she is still an inspiration to her fans. "I think I'm discovering loneliness and forms of despair that are more profound than any other and hence, with me, my job has become that much more beautiful and important," she says. "Just feeling [my fans'] love and support and being able to go into the music with them and to have a place for the life affirming -- I feel like I've never appreciated my audience so much."
When Ani DiFranco takes the stage Saturday, the other performers will be fans, the fans will be watching, and the answer to that early question will be clear: When the 19-year-old immolated in the dark room of capitalist rock, she became a light and a catalyst.
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