Call Ani DiFranco the ultimate overachiever. As an artist, entrepreneur, activist, and insurgent, she's evolved over the years as a torchbearer for both feminist affirmation and DIY empowerment. For the better part of the past two decades, she's helped recast the stance of the modern folk troubadour. Fans around the world have images of her singing songs about her experiences as a bisexual woman and freewheeling social advocate while also inspiring and encouraging those who have been ostracized, alienated, and ignored.
Along the way, DiFranco, now 37, has also grown up a lot. She's taken a mellower turn away from her early irascibility, thanks to the calming influences of a steady mate and a new baby, Petah Lucia, born in January 2007. While she's released 20 albums on her own aptly titled Righteous Babe record label — the latest being a career-spanning double-disc set called Canon — and, recently, a collection of poetry called Verses, DiFranco has a lot more on her mind these days than just speaking out for the masses. Indeed, when she talked to New Times from her home in New Orleans recently, the affable, engaging person at the opposite end of the phone appeared noticeably at odds with that renegade reputation.
New Times: You have a lot going on these days. How are you balancing all these newfound responsibilities?
DiFranco: Well, I don't know. We've been hammering out my schedule for whatever, the next six months of my life, and the panic just began setting in. It's been pretty smooth sailing, and now it's occurred to me that I'm supposed to tour and make records and be a parent. I don't know what just happened, but it's pretty cool, you know... The baby comes on tour with me, and it ups the ante for sure, because you have your occasional sleepless night, and that makes it more sporting to put on shows. But it's also really fun. She's a breath of fresh air in the whole scenario.
But you've always seemed to have your hands full. You started your own record label, putting you at the forefront of the whole DIY movement, and yet you've also maintained your artistic output.
Yeah, well, you know, 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, whatever, 18 years well beyond me. So there's a big competent staff of people over there doing I have no idea what (laughs). I don't want to know.
Your lyrics bear more than a hint of defiance. One verse goes, "We were made to fight, to fuck, to fight again." Do people sometimes find you a bit intimidating?
Um, I think as you're saying, more so in the early days. You know, for a lot of reasons. For one, yeah, 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, you know, feminist statements... for raucous, righteous, loud-mouth women (laughs) and especially, whatever, singing about bisexual experiences with a nice healthy crew of dykes in the audience. I think that your general male music critic was intimidated.
We're always intimidated.
(laughs) You get your comeuppance.
Yeah, we do.
But I think that after years of just being out there, and I think the real me has outlived the stereotype and I'm known as, you know, not being an intimidating person now... just the, whatever...
They say one mellows with age.
I guess in one sense, but then in the other sense, I feel like the reality of the 20-year-old me was that I was much more of a pushover — you know, despite the stereotype or the perception that some might have through some of the songs, I was 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, to stand up for myself or to express what I need much better. So it's almost like the opposite is also true.
How have your lesbian fans reacted to the fact that you have a male partner and a new baby?
Well, really supportively, in my experience. Years ago, I got married and then divorced with somebody else and then 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 had 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 actually my experience was not that. My experience was people at shows shouting out "Congratulations!" and gifts coming into the office and "We're just happy you're happy." So that continued on today for sure. I sort of have a friend-type of energy with my listeners.
Why did you decide to do the anthology now? And what was it like to go back and go through your earlier archives?
Well, the "why now" can be summed up in "the baby" (laughs) and taking time off touring to have the baby and, um, it's a rare thing for me to be off the road at all, so it seemed like now or never. And the process was excruciating. It was awful for me.
Listening back to my old records is akin to having my toenails pulled out one by one. It wasn't fun, but it needed to be done. (laughs) I mean, I have a pile of — whatever — 20 records — so for someone just coming upon my records, I mean... where do you start? I was aware we needed a little distillation for the uninitiated.
You had two honors bestowed on you recently, including being named one of CMJ's 25 most influential artists of the past 25 years and being accorded NOW's first Women of Courage Award. That must be very gratifying.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, 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 kinds of affirmations, and they're very gratifying and, um, so I feel like, whatever, those are some of the gifts of age. (laughs)