Look up the word “paradox” in the dictionary, and you will see a woman who is beautiful in an entirely natural way, whose green eyes and knowing smirk reveal intelligence, wit and a healthy amount of je ne sais quoi.
She is equal parts folk singer and punk, gay and straight, darling and rebel, larger-than-life icon and little-known name. She is a musician whose very political songs are as relevant now as they were in 1990, when, with the release of her eponymous debut album Ani DiFranco, she drizzled the music industry in gasoline and took a book of matches out of the back pocket of her jeans.
Like the Mona Lisa, it is hard to know exactly what lurks behind Ani DiFranco’s smile. Luckily, her mouth isn’t painted shut. Over the past 18 years, the singer has written and recorded 19 albums, all of which were released on her own independent record label, the aptly named Righteous Babe Records. DiFranco founded the company in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., when she was just 18, and has resisted the temptation to sign to a major label despite her cult fame and large fan base, valuing artistic freedom over financial success.
The decision to stay independent hasn’t hurt her. DiFranco has eight Grammy nominations under her belt, has sold more than 4.5 million albums and is the poster girl for Generations X and Y feminism – strong-willed, opinionated and fiercely confident, sexy but definitely not a sex object. Though her music isn’t widely heard, it’s critically acclaimed, and among certain circles, almost worshipped.
“I’m just pleased that it all worked out according to my very idealistic vision,” DiFranco said during a recent phone interview, her voice raspy but soothing, her words plucked with care. “It makes me proud to be an inspiration for whatever reason, being independent or making a career in music or making an outspoken statement with art.”
DiFranco’s latest album Canon is her first career retrospective, a two-disc look back at some of her most powerful and influential songs, including “Shy,” “32 Flavors,” “Napoleon,” “Hello Birmingham,” “Hypnotized” and “Both Hands.”
The album does a good job of capturing the essence of DiFranco’s sound – acoustic rock that is sometimes gentle and sometimes punchy, vocals that are raw with emotion but also very controlled. In her lyrics, she speaks out against racism, sexism, homophobia, war and other social and political issues, using her songs as vessels to encourage change.
Canon hit music store shelves on Sept. 11, 2007, the same day Verses, a collection of DiFranco’s poetry and paintings (and the singer’s first book), was released. These career milestones rounded out a particularly momentous year for DiFranco – her first child, daughter Petah Lucia (whose father is DiFranco’s boyfriend Mike Napolitano), was born in January 2007.
Motherhood hasn’t dulled DiFranco; she’s just as spunky as ever. But it has affected her writing. “I feel a little artistically constipated,” she said, laughing wryly. “I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to writing especially. That’s the kind of work that takes, of course, a lot of mental space as well as actual time … It makes me relate to all that early feminist philosophy that I read. All those second-wave feminists started writing poetry because, as a mother, you don’t get time for novels.”
If it isn’t evident enough in her song lyrics and poems, it is striking in conversation: DiFranco is a very smart woman – and not just book smart, either. Unlike many of her music industry contemporaries, she doesn’t court fame, and she refuses to live her life according to expectations.
“What helps me to be a mentally healthy person is to pretend that public pressure doesn’t exist,” DiFranco said. “I do my work and I focus on the people in my life, the people I care about, not others.”
Perhaps because her songs are often full of daggers (many pointed at the government), DiFranco has been portrayed as an “angry, angry girl,” the singer said. “I think I’ve persevered longer than that stereotype, though. It’s not so surprising to people [that I’m nice] anymore.”
It is here that DiFranco’s punk and folk sensibilities collide. Sometimes her politics are brazen and in-your-face, sometimes they’re subtle, filtered through metaphor and simile. There’s anger in her words, but her voice is sweet.
In her song “Fuel,” one of the many included on Canon, she asks, “I wonder who’s gonna be the next president – Tweedle Dumb or Tweedle Dumber?” Which begs the question: What does she think will happen in the November presidential election? Who will America elect?
“I’m feeling very hopeful. I think we can pull together and swing Tweedle Dumb,” she said, her voice once again sticky with laughter. “It’s kind of creepy and ridiculous how politics has turned into another Survivor episode. They just make it into this Celebrity Deathmatch of candidates and really gut the [election] process of its meaning. But because it’s become such a reality TV show spectacle, people are getting involved as though it were American Idol. We saw record numbers of people come out in Iowa and New Hampshire. I think that’s a very positive sign, at least.”
Currently on tour to promote Canon, DiFranco and her band will make a stop at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on Jan. 26.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at email@example.com.