By Eric Himan
Photo by Shervin Lainez
In the last 12 months, I’ve had the opportunity to cross many items off my bucket list: I’ve opening shows for several amazing artists whom I’ve long admired, released my proudest work to date (the album, Gracefully), and traveled to Italy, the most magical place I’ve ever seen. What remained on my list was to speak, one on one, with an artist that has inspired me as a songwriter, performer, business owner, and someone who helped influence me to come out as gay in my life. That artist is the poetic and the prolific Ani DiFranco.
In January 2014, we both performed at the 30A Songwriter’s Festival in Seaside, Fla., not far from Ft. Walton Beach where I discovered Ani’s music as a teenager. At the conclusion of her performance, she graciously agreed to speak with me. As nervous as I was, I found her kind eyes and infectious laugh relaxing as we discussed her thoughts on coming out, writing, and happy songs.
Himan: Was there ever a time that you felt like you came out? Because I feel like your songs seem to just be…
DiFranco: …out, way out [laughs].
…out [laughs]. Your songs are out and it just feels like the way David Sedaris has his partner in his writing. He kind of just mentions him and doesn’t make a big deal about it.
Yeah, it was not a big deal for me, I guess, being emancipated by the time I was a teenager. My parents split up when I was nine and then when I was 11, I moved in with my mom. And then when I was 15, she moved to Connecticut. I grew up in Buffalo. She was moving to rural Connecticut for a job and I already had a band and was playing at the Essex Street Pub every Saturday night. I had friends, I had my life, and I didn’t want to move to rural Connecticut so I started living on my own at 15. There was nobody to come out to. I wasn’t living any where near my parents when I started to become myself and explore relationships really so I think I was very much my own person.
Was there one particular person who inspired you to talk about these issues?
No, I mean, there were other artists out there who I found very inspiring in terms of honesty. In terms of a willingness to use yourself to do political and social work, to use yourself and your experience in your writing to make a point. I think a lot of those artists were comedians for me. The Lenny Bruces and the Richard Pryors, the people who are just totally brave.
Being gay, your song “Gratitude” is a huge song for me. It spoke to me because I am in a community now where I never thought that would be my truth. But there are times when someone is like, “My partner and I want you to come over to our house and hang out. And you can totally crash,” and I’m like, “Okay, this seems nice. They are together. This is fine.” And I get there and then one of them is like [gesturing someone putting their arm around me].
Right. All the strings attached you didn’t notice.
…and I hear your song and then I’m not alone in it.
Well, first of all I think it’s awesome that you connected to me through my songs and that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl, gay or straight. We have much more in common than differences. I don’t care who the fuck you are, you know, so I just wanted to point out that fact. Here is a boy listening to me all the way to the other gender and he’s saying, “me too!” I think females are kind of more versed in that, living in the more male dominated culture and music world. [We] have to go, “me too!” even though it’s a dude singing about his life. In that sense, for me, when a song is born I think it’s because your personal experiences has some resonance with something bigger. So even if it’s your experiences on the road or whatever, at least I hope that a mom at home will feel or be connected to it.
Did you ever feel nervous referencing gay relationships in your songs in the early days of performing?
There were so many experiences back in the day before I was "Ani DiFranco," when I was just that girl in the corner of the bar. And the 50 people that are just there to drink and play pool and you’re trying to connect with them and trying to win them over. Yes, in the early years it was a daily decision to do that. And yes, I guess feeling like you-are-on-a-mission-that’s-bigger-than-you really helps me. Even in those times when it doesn’t work out and you know I don’t have the best day because of what I’m doing. That fact just really helps me keep going. To know that I am part of a long continuum of political awakening, of social evolution. That I have a mission motivates me beyond worry.
Have you ever felt too vulnerable in a song? Do you feel like there’s one particular song where you think, I don’t know why I ever let that out?
Do I ever feel too vulnerable in a song? Yes. Every time. And you know my work, so you know what I’m saying. It’s where I live, in a place of vulnerability. But, the amazing thing I found is that telling the truth is much like telling lies, in that, when you do it once, its easier to do it again. And again and again and again. I think I was very young. I sort of had a glimmer of a mission and a purpose that I could fulfill and it had to do with dropping the comfort of ideas like private and personal because those were luxuries that I couldn’t afford if I really wanted to make a change in the world around me. In the beginning, it was extremely hard to play my songs in whatever random mixed company, in whatever bar or coffeehouse. Extremely hard when a parent or a person from my former life shows up to a gig and there were many hurtles to get over. The more I did that, the easier it became. And now I’m well beyond censoring myself even when I probably [laughs] should.
When something politically charged happens, do you feel like people say, “Alright, what does Ani have to say?” About gay marriage or other issues, do you feel responsible to speak out about them?
Well, I said something on my last album about [marriage], specifically. It was sort of a song [“Amendment”] on why don’t we ratify the [Equal Rights Amendment]. And then take freaking abortion off the table, and marriage rights, and children’s rights. All that comes under the realm of the domestic sphere which is where women’s rights is born. I think all of that could be approached through the ERA which we just never managed to get over the net. It would be so politically expedient to do so and could have a lot of really good ripple effects. I’ve been asked a lot of over the years, “Is it a responsibility to be you?” and over the years, I’ve said, “No, it’s an opportunity.” Because its many things and your life is a sort of a byproduct of what you focus on and what you pay attention to. So I’ve always wanted to focus on that, what a privilege it is to have people listen to you when you talk.
You moved to New Orleans from Buffalo around ten years ago. Has living there changed your style of music? What other types of music do you want to incorporate into your own?
Well, not in terms of types of music or incorporating genres. I think I had this funny little sort of realization after maybe a year or two of living down there. One of the realizations I had pretty early on was, Whoa! Look at all this happy music. You know, super-happy-party-make-you-feel- good-and-shake-your-butt-music being created by some of the longest suffering people in our society. I sort of step back from myself and go, Ooh, whiny white kid with a guitar, wow, that’s what the world needs. I think that all started to factor in. Like, what about taking that direct route to transcendence? Not that a sad song can’t help uplift people, but what about going right to the Wooo! you know? The Yeah! and I started to try to write happy songs deliberately. What of my simple joys and pleasures have I written about? Not much.
Is that how songs like “Smiling Underneath” come about?
Yes, exactly…and its really fucking hard.
To write a happy song?
It’s really hard. When you have something bubbling over in your gut, scalding you, and you just need to vomit it out in order to survive. Okay, that’s something I’m familiar with. To write a happy song is really elusive and challenging because you don’t want it to get out of you. You want to just hang on to the little morsels you get, and its like, You don’t need to know about this and I don’t even know what I would say about this, except don’t go away! I’ve been sort of consciously trying to include my happiness more in my songs. I think that is because I live in New Orleans.
You spoke onstage today about your seven-year-old daughter. I was wondering, how does she see you? How does she hear your songs? Does she have a good read on it?
I don’t think she’s got a real read on it. She just knows me in a different way. It’s funny. She said she wanted to take guitar lessons recently, and I said, “Oh, cool.” She had one lesson and I was driving her in the car and from the backseat, she’s like, “Mommy, I don’t want to take guitar anymore,” after one lesson. “Well, alright, whatever, you can take needlepoint, or nothing. But why?” She said, “I don’t want people to look at me.” I was like, “Oh, well, they just look at me because that’s my job.” But, you know, I think the only thing she knows about what I do is that it takes me away from home, it causes me anxiety, and it makes me not present for her. It makes me public property instead. I was afraid she would hate music altogether in the beginning actually. She didn’t want me to play guitar at home at all cause guitar was the other. It was the enemy.
That was the thing that was taking your time away?
And my focus, and the other thing I pour myself into. And then also, she just sees maybe the toll it takes, the joy of it, the adventure of it. She came on the road with me for three and a half years and has been a student of the world. But I think she doesn’t really necessarily know what I’m putting out there, talking about, or anything yet. She just knows the emotional ride of it, has a sort of weariness that kind of gives me a heads up, like, wow. Her take on this is always very enlightening to me. It makes me realize I can’t let music take me there. I have to stay in a place of peace and joy with it and only do it in a sustainable way.
One fun thing you did in your career that you don’t do very often, is cover a song. For My Best Friend’s Wedding soundtrack, you covered, the Dusty Springfield classic, “Wishin’ and Hopin'.” How did that come about?
I literally got a call and they said, “Here’s a funny idea, and we are doing this movie.” I knew the director from the Australian film, Muriel’s Wedding and thought that was cute. And then, here’s this song [singing], “Wear your hair just for him,” and you know, although the world thinks that feminists don’t have a sense of humor. [Laughs] I secretly do! So, I thought that was hilarious to cover that song in an isn’t-it-ironic sense. Those are the kind of fun things that take you out of your daily grind. There was another fun thing that I just thought of where me and Jackie Chan did a duet. Another jazz standard [singing] “Unforgettable.” You know, it was like, a call comes in with, “We’re doing this record for a project called When Pigs Fly: Collaborations You Never Thought Of, and I was like, “Absolutely!”
Is there anybody in the past you were like, OMG, I would love to meet this person and play one of my songs for them?
I don’t know. I don’t really try too hard to get to hung up on dreams about, Oh, I wish this thing would happen or this person would come into my life. I just wake up and follow my nose everyday and the people that I meet, you know, some of them suck and some of them are awesome [both laugh]. And the awesome ones I just follow them.
Is there anyone you wanted to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?
I’m sure if I sat down and thought about it long enough I could make you a list as long as my leg that I would just like to have a moment with, but I don’t really stay up nights fantasizing about that stuff. Because I think that’s kind of dangerous, wanting too much for something outside of yourself to come in and make it all seem worthwhile or something. For me, it’s more about making exactly where you are work for you.
Ani DiFranco currently lives in New Orleans and is in the studio recording her new album. For upcoming tour dates and to check out her full catalogue of music, head over www.righteousbabe.com.
Eric Himan is a touring musician from the Broken Arrow, Okla., area. His tour dates and latest album, Gracefully, can be heard at www.erichiman.com.