At 31, Ani DiFranco has already released more than a dozen studio albums, been courted by a music industry she despises, become a star without corporate support, experienced backlash even within her intensely devoted fan base, and become synonymous with a do-it-yourself approach to making and distributing music. As outspoken and confessional in interviews as she is in her songs, DiFranco continues to evolve as both a public figure and a musician, speaking out on political issues even as her recordings have become less ideologically direct and more musically adventurous. Her label, Righteous Babe, has released an increasingly diverse assortment of music that sounds nothing like hers, including albums by the self-explanatorily named Drums & Tuba and 76-year-old folk radical Utah Phillips. On DiFranco's newest album, 2001's double-length Revelling/Reckoning, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist explores all sides of her multifaceted persona. While on what seems like an eternal tour, she spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about business, earnestness, protest music, and what her fans should listen to besides Ani DiFranco records.
The Onion: What are you working on right now?
Ani DiFranco: Right now, I'm working on trying to learn some new old songs. You know, there are so many tunes, but you tend to whittle yourself and your memories down as life goes by. You know how you kind of become the same five stories in the end? I've done that already, and I'm fuckin' 31 years old.
O: How do you think Sept. 11 affected the state of protest music?
AD: It's too early to tell. I mean, I haven't turned on the radio and heard a lot of political diatribes about our current situation just yet. Maybe that's coming up, but I doubt it. It's not really the rage these days. It seems as though all of youth culture took a shit when fuckin' Reagan got elected. Basically, this country has been under a hyper-conservative regime since 1980, and it has affected us culturally so deeply. The amount of commercialism and consumerism that's assumed and accepted by young people now… I don't think it was quite this way before that dark cloud came and pissed on us all. Now, all the "hip" artists have their music in commercials, and everybody's in this major-label marketing game. It's just kind of assumed, as opposed to real radical music that actually puts pressure on the system. There isn't as much of a general will toward that.
O: It seems like the cloud that came on with the '80s was compounded when Clinton was elected, because then you had complacency on top of it.
AD: Yeah, exactly. It's just the proof that there is no alternative. A Democrat is a Republican is a big businessman, and we're all consumers instead of citizens. It just manifests in the culture, in the music, in the art. I feel a little panicky about it.
O: Do you think outspokenly progressive people are held to a standard that's not expected of others? Like, if you eat Cheerios, you're supporting corporate cereal, and you're either a hypocrite or a sellout. I would imagine you deal with that more than most.
AD: Yeah. My booking agent and dear friend said to me recently, "You realize that everybody is looking for a chink in your armor." You set yourself up for that. I was reading this interview with Eve Ensler [creator of The Vagina Monologues], and it was this maddening profile. I got halfway through the article, and I was like, "Oh my God, they sent a man to profile her." I flip back, and it was a woman. At one point, she said she was sitting in this meeting talking about progressive politics, and Eve just stood up and said, "Okay, listen: I'm not a liberal. I'm a radical." And the writer's reflection in the article was, "Well, hearing this woman stand up and say 'I'm a radical' while she's in a fancy hotel with a room-service tray in front of her was a little hard to stomach." And I'm thinking, "What is the idea there? That if you're radical, you must be starving and squatting and dressed in rags and smelling on the streets?" What is that idea in our society? We are all allowed to want our own comfort and take care of ourselves—and, in fact, be utterly, absolutely selfish and less progressive. You have to string yourself on a cross or something? That's so wrongheaded. I mean, here's a woman who is traveling constantly. She should stay in cheap motels where she can't receive a fax? She should starve at night after the 7-Eleven closes because she's a radical? I don't think that reporter was criticizing any of the other businesspeople who were staying at that hotel. It's a double standard.
O: On a similar note, you have a lot of loyal but demanding fans—people who like one thing you do but not another, or who get mad if you do something in your personal life that isn't consistent with their vision of you. Obviously, your fans are your livelihood, but isn't that frustrating?
AD: Yeah, I've tried to grow thicker skin over the years, because it has really affected me a lot along the way. There have been all of these judgments and criticisms, and each reaction is different. I do this thing and somebody says, "That's the worst thing ever, quit it," and then somebody else says, "Yes, that speaks to me, finally." Even if I tried to please everyone, I couldn't. Besides which, that's just not why I'm here. It boggles me that people get mad at me for not being them. It's part of the job, I guess, and I feel so lucky for my job. I try not to complain too much about that kind of projection dynamic.
O: What should your fans listen to besides you? I've met people who listen to nothing but Ani DiFranco.
AD: Jeez, that's not healthy. That just can't be healthy. I mean, if you're into songwriters, I've got a bunch of friends who are just incredible, like Greg Brown, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings. Dan Bern makes really great, political, unique songs—as does fucking Billy Bragg, if you want to reach back a little bit. There are so many, and I'm the type who's kind of a voracious music listener. I could just scroll through every known genre and start calling out names. I mean, there are so many different kinds of music that speak to me in different kinds of ways.
O: Well, you do try and get people into different stuff. I don't know how many 19-year-old Ani DiFranco fans are clamoring for Utah Phillips records, but you still put them out.
AD: Well, it's really gratifying to me to have a stage and some bright lights and a microphone. They're tools and opportunities, and to be able to just pull somebody up on stage with me and point at them is a great feeling. Now, when Utah does his gigs, young people are turning up, and he's got this whole new set of fans. That's invigorating to an artist of his age, to have that sense of renewal. People like Utah are so important, so being able to shed more light on their work is cool.
O: You're very prolific, and you were talking at the beginning about digging through your past and relearning old songs. As you go back, is there anything you would take back?
AD: Oh my God. All of it, if I could. [Laughs.] You don't understand. Yeah, I mean, that's why I haven't gone back and relearned old stuff earlier. It's so traumatic. I don't know if there are artists out there who love their own records. I haven't met any, and I'm kind of extreme in the other direction, but therein lies the impetus to keep working and keep making new songs and new records, because from moment to moment, I can't even look back a few minutes without thinking, "That was wrong. That was not good enough."
O: You started making records when you were 18 or 19, too.
AD: Not to mention the fact that I was just so alone through so much of it, especially the early years. I made a good seven or eight records with just me and an engineer. I didn't even have an aesthetic, like, "What do I want my guitar to sound like?" So I guess my records, to me, represent a lot of learning and embarrassing moments, but I guess the only thing that saves me from utter self-loathing sometimes is to know that they're sincere. I mean, they may be totally fucked-up and extreme, and I'm living in my own world for sure, but they're… I know I'm nauseatingly sincere at any given moment, and that's my one saving grace.
O: Have you mellowed?
AD: How do you mean?
O: Well, politically and personally are obviously two very different things…
AD: I think that I've mellowed personally a little bit. Like everybody does as they get older, I've been trying to learn things like patience: not taking everybody's baggage on and carrying it around, not taking things personally. Like, somebody else might be having a bad day for their own reason, and it might not be my fault. I could maybe just chill. I've been trying to learn how to not be so conflicted about things like my own anger. I've always had a place in my music for my anger as a way of compensating for not having a mechanism to express it in my everyday life. So I've been trying to be more true to myself, and that helps me to chill out a little bit. But politically, uh-uh. No. Sometimes, I've been criticized for putting out a record without enough overtly political material. But that's because I got my fucking heart broke. As human beings, we all go through different landscapes of what is compelling to us emotionally. I'm not going to sit down and calculatedly try to write a political song when all I can think of is, "Come back. Fuck you." I think it ebbs and flows, and it's the political voice in my music.
O: How seriously at any point in your career did you contemplate signing to a major label?
AD: I contemplated it constantly. I mean, I like to be an inspiration and an example of the idea that you can be independent, and it's no problem, and you can pay your rent, and it's empowering, and it's great. And that's true, but it also takes a really long time, and you have to have a lot of patience and a lot of conviction in why you want to remain independent. Truthfully, there was a decade in there in which I was really consumed with jealousy, and feeling like I was martyring myself to my own ideals. I'd be playing in a club and somebody would be opening my show, and then a year later, they'd have a video in constant rotation and they'd be on the cover of every magazine—and I'd be back in that club. It's happened again and again, because people who go the major-label route often have a very accelerated process of growth and audience expansion. If you're doing it organically, it's really… I wrestled with a lot of demons over the years, over the question of why. I've got to testify to those, because it's not like I'm some kind of saint. It's not like I just didn't care.
O: Does pop stardom interest you?
AD: No, see, that's the thing that was not… It's tough when you feel as though your music does have value, but you're not respected and you're not listened to over the years. But I knew that going for all of the major-label seduction—"You could have millions of people listening to your records and not hundreds, and we could make you a star"—just didn't feel true to me. It didn't feel like me. Pop stardom is not very compelling. I'm much more interested in a relationship between performer and audience that is of equals. I came up through folk music, and there's no pomp and circumstance to the performance. There's no, like, "I'll be the rock star, you be the adulating fan." It's like, "I'll just walk up here and be myself, and you be yourself, and let's talk. Let's communicate." That's just much more interesting.