Behind the Music with Ani DiFranco
By Noah Michelson
Growing up in Wisconsin, the closest thing we had to a good record shop was Best Buy. In high school, when I had an extra $12.99 lying around, I'd wander the electronics superstore in search of an album cover that caught my eye and then -- knowing nothing about the band -- I'd buy the record based purely on the artwork.
Most of the time I ended up burnt (it turns out you really can't judge an album by its cover) but once in a while I'd stumble across something amazing like Imogen Heap's I Megaphone or, perhaps my most prized find from that dicey -- dumb even -- game, Ani DiFranco's Dilate.
This was 1996 -- the year I left small town Wisconsin for biggish town Minnesota and college and the morning I arrived at school I was unpacking my clothes listening to Dilate when my soon-to-be best friend Kate wandered into my dorm room and said "You like Ani, huh?" I still like to tease her that if she was trying to hit on me it was a horrible pick up line -- what straight guy listens to Ani DiFranco? -- but really it's just one example of the ways that this little folk singer from Buffalo, New York, has changed my life.
Maybe the above statement comes across as a little cloying -- a little too dramatic and teen-angsty for a 31-year-old man to be writing, but I stand by it. Ani is one of those rare artists that can take the most personal parts of her life, feed them into her guitar, and generate a song that is both searingly intimate and universally relatable (or if not, then perhaps relatable for a specific universe -- one where the women and queers and people of color and poor people are coming for what's theirs and those done wrong -- by the government or the dreaded patriarchy or even (especially?) love are redeemed) -- not an easy feat.
I finally got to meet Ani two weeks ago when she played the legendary Town Hall in NYC. I'm often leery of meeting my idols, both professionally -- as I don't want to be reduced to a drooling, babbling idiot -- and personally -- as in the past I've been letdown upon learning the person I've loved/looked up to/thought was really kick ass is actually a prickish egomaniac. But Ani did not disappoint. First we discussed how folk music has changed over the last 20 years, her highly controversial sexuality (there are still queers who won't forgive her for marrying a man -- even though she's always been into both genders), and why she's still 100% behind Barack Obama, even if some of his allies have jumped ship:
And then my trusty video teammates, Athena and Keren, and I were treated to an intimate performance of Ani's song "78% H20":
It's hard to believe how much has changed since Ani began peddling her self-titled album out of the back of her car in 1990. Ani is married, has a baby, and twenty years later the prolific 19-year-old bald headed righteous babe is now the head of one of the most successful independent record labels in the country, tours relentlessly, has helped to rehabilitate downtown Buffalo and New Orleans and is still putting out close to an album a year. Here's to another 20 years of music from the little folk singer that could.
-- NOAH MICHELSON
Previously > Mondays with Morrissey