With her 20th studio album, Allergic to Water, coming out November 4, the revered feminist songwriter Ani DiFranco came through town this past Saturday to play a show at First Avenue. While in town, DiFranco set aside a few minutes of her busy schedule—which has become even busier in recent years with the addition of her second child, a new son—to discuss her new album and her tumultuous year.
The entire transcript of our conversation is below. And for more on Ani DiFranco and my personal reaction to meeting one of my favorite artists, see this week’s column, “How I overcame my fear of famous people.”
Andrea Swensson: You’re listening to 89.3 The Current. I’m Andrea Swensson, and I am at First Avenue sitting across from the singer/songwriter, fierce guitar player, record label owner, and feminist boss lady Ani DiFranco.
Ani DiFranco: Boss lady! That’s right.
Ani, welcome back to Minneapolis!
Thank you, nice to be here. Boy is it pretty out. I get my autumn on.
Before we talk about your new album, I wanted to ask about your relationship to Minneapolis—you’ve played more than one show on your birthday. What’s the story there?
Oh, I mean that’s just kind of dumb luck I guess. I do have some friends here, a fellow that I toured with for a bunch of years who is now promoting my shows here, so it’s great to come through and see him and swap stories, and celebrate my birthday, which also happens to be his son’s birthday, so that works out every year. We get a joint cake in Minneapolis.
To be honest, when I listened to the final track on your last album, which is a song called “Zoo,” I was wondering, is that going to be the last we hear from Ani for a while?
Well it kind of was. You know, it takes me a couple years to make a record now, because I’m on baby time. But I guess, whatever, your kids come along and especially this new one of mine, I’ve got two now, and they’re needy little you-know-whats. So yeah, you begin to question every ounce of energy you put into anything else, you know, as a parent. So yeah, it does go by the way for a while. And I think as a typical parent it seems like you may never get your life back. But everytime I do remember to play guitar I really dig it. [laughs]
In a way, I feel like that song sets the tone for the new album, which I feel is more introspective than other recent albums. This is such a tender record; even your voice sounds a little more vulnerable. Was there a particular mood that you were going for when you started recording?
Well, I guess it just kind of happened that way, you know, the intimacy and I like the word you used, tenderness. I mean, I worked on this record alone a lot, because this baby – it was hard enough for him to let one parent go, let alone two. I’ve been working with my husband for a few records now and he’s a great record producer/recorder, but this time I was a little on my own because I was sort of working in the wee hours or little snatches in naptimes, that kind of vibes. So it has the sound of somebody in headphones trying not to wake anybody up. Which is a different approach for me. You know? Certainly from past recordings. But I dig it. It’s sort of—you know, I think I’m a little bit more chilled out as a person, in general. The kids—that’s part of the good grounding effect of kids.
When I first heard the song title “Woe Be Gone” I thought, is that a Garrison Keillor reference?
[laughs] Yeah! You know, that didn’t occur to me until like last week. Lake Wobegon—that’s so not what I was thinking. I don’t know. I’m a little slow sometimes. Or maybe, who knows what subliminal Garrison Keillor bidness I got going on.
What does that song mean to you?
Well, it actually comes out of a book I read. A book called The Alphabet vs. the Goddess. I ask most audiences these days if anybody knows this book, and then I proceed to rattle on about it until somebody cuts me off. But it really affected me, this book, and that song kind of, you know, it was the seed for that song, and I think others to come, really. I’ve only begun to think about this idea of the written word being connected to patriarchy, and how the left brain that devised that great invention and every one since that is predicated on the written word, it’s all the imagination of the left brain, the sensibility, which is inherently the masculine side of our nature. Anyway. So it takes this sort of question of ‘How did patriarchy start? How did we get here? Of all the ways this could have gone?’ And it takes it, I think, refreshingly out of the boy-girl dichotomy, or question, and into left-brain/right-brain territory. And the solution, the sort of feminist path becomes activating our right hemisphere of your consciousness, until we create balance that way between the gendered parts of our nature. So anyway, I very much want everybody to read this book, and I’m very blatant about it.
Not to be all “give me a State of the Union address,” but you’ve been so long identified with the feminist movement, and I feel like this year, feminism—the word—has gone through some interesting changes and adaptations. Celebrities being asked if they are or not, and the internet being used to convey these messages in new ways. What are your thoughts on the way the word feminism has evolved?
Well, I can’t say that I’ve been reading all of this media and keeping it. I’ve sort of heard about it second-hand through interviews that I’ve participated in and people saying, ‘oh, feminism—keeps coming up these days!’ I think it’s interesting that you say the word—feminism, the word, is being said. Is feminism, the concept, being enacted? Well that’s another question. But yes, I’ve been peripherally aware that the word is being—I mean, and for me, every time it is said, it’s good. You know, it’s a beginning. I think we have to begin to just do things like acknowledge patriarchy, which is the foundation of our society and every other globally, you know, and acknowledge feminism, which is a potential path away from patriarchy for all of us to take and to walk along. So I, really, anybody getting the dialogue started is ok in my book. And certainly—you know, somebody asked me about, well isn’t this an imperfect model, in Beyoncé, or whoever was projecting the word feminism behind her? For me it’s a wonderful model, you know. I mean, who are her fans? And if they are encouraged to self-identify, that’s a great step.
I want to talk about the title track of the new album, which is called Allergic to Water. I’m curious about the metaphor of being allergic to water—when I listen to that song, to me, it describes a person who is so aware of and sensitive to everything around them that it kind of hurts to be alive. Where were you coming from when you wrote that?
Yeah, I mean that sounds like a cool way of interpreting it. I guess my particular way would be that everything that is worthwhile and in fact necessary, what sustains you and gives you life, is also painful. And often the most important things are the most painful. I think the reason I chose that song to title the whole record is because that feeling, I noticed, comes up a lot in the record. It was just that kind of year for me, or couple years.
Are you talking specifically about having children?
Well I think that was a big, very literal, physical thing that I was on when I was making these songs, is pregnancy and birth and raising a squirrely ass baby that just—sleep is the enemy, you know. So that’s definitely been a struggle. And of course it’s wonderful, and rewarding. And other things in my career, like with feminism and my feminist community, and this community that I care so deeply—I mean, that I’ve been involved in and stood up for. I’ve really felt kindered to women my whole life, and yet a lot of my life’s pain has come from this community. It’s just, I don’t know, I’ve sort of been in that existential loop lately.
I’m sure you’ve talked this subject to death this year, but the reason I want to ask about it is that I get the sense it was a pivotal and eye-opening moment—the backlash you received to the writing retreat that was scheduled at a former slave plantation. How did you navigate through that turmoil and how have you’ve moved forward since then?
Jeez, I don’t know. I mean I don’t know that I navigated it well. At the time I did as best as I could. I was unaware of the controversy for several weeks, which I think made it escalate, so by the time I was responding, I was responding under great duress and there was already a lot of negativity in the air, and that’s just not a good situation for a dialogue. And so it continued to not go well. I mean, there’s so many things to take away from that, and I’m still—you know, it took me about six months to just fall asleep again. It’s just kind of devastating, for a while. And there’s so many things to learn from it that it’s hard to even know where to start or what to talk about. But I mean, in retrospect, I swung very far from one—I mean I was fully delivered and gave over to the perspective that going there was not the right thing, and one part of me completely now is aware of how that is not necessarily an inclusive place for everybody. Of whatever color you are. If you’re so sensitive that the pain of the history of that land makes it prohibitive for you to go there, I don’t want to exclude that person. So I should have questioned—I mean, when I saw the choice of venue I was like, ‘whoa, that’s gonna be a freaky scene’. But I am a person who doesn’t feel prohibited from going there, or doesn’t feel that it’s wrong to go there. I think it would have been a very beautiful thing to go there with a very conscious group of people, and I think this is how you absorb and acknowledge and process the pain of history, is you go there.
But anyway, it was a debate that I don’t think—it became more of an excuse for debates that needed to happen, for feelings that need to be aired, you know, in society, and in that sense my role in it was kind of insignificant. You know, we have no racial justice in this country. We have deepening and deepening pain over that. And you know, even in the feminist community there’s a debate that still must happen about white privilege in feminism, or the white direction of feminism. So me and this gig became a springboard for all of these dialogs. What was most painful, I think, for me, was not the social media craziness, because we’ve all seen where that can go and how fast, but the media media that sort of gleefully jumped on board. That was sort of like, oh, shucks, really? I’m the enemy?
Things move so fast now that the focus changes all the time and it seems like there’s always somebody that needs to be in that bullseye.
Yes. We do relish our bullseyes in America today. It’s an unfortunate atmosphere.
If I had to describe the evolution of your albums—and what a foolish task to try to do this in one sentence, but—I would describe your earlier work as more percussive, guitar-driven, and rhythmic, and your more recent albums as setting more of a vibe or a mood and playing with richer colors and tones. You mentioned a little bit about starting a family affecting your calmness, but would you say living in New Orleans has shaped your sound in recent years, and are there other factors shaping it?
Yeah, well, it’s all been one huge physiological thing for me, you know, moving to New Orleans to be with a native New Orleanian who brought unconditional love into my life, and stability, and then having kids with him. So the whole thing has kind of brought me down a few octaves. And it’s really—yeah, New Orleans, I like the grace of the pace of a day there. And I was very much a New Yorker when I came out of the box, you know, and I walked like one and I sang like one. Lots of youthful vim and vigor. And at some point everybody’s gotta trade that in for something else. So I’m looking around now, in my new life, for a way to sing and things to sing about.
You’ve toured and recorded so relentlessly for so long, and now you’re on a bit of a different schedule, spending more time at home. Does that affect how you approach your time on stage?
Definitely. Oh, it’s so good. It’s so good. At first I was resistant, as any new mom [is], like oh, my life is over! This is tragic! And then I realized, it slowly began to dawn on me the great factors about it. Being made to step away from my work is something that never would have occurred to me, and it’s so valuable. Especially with record-making, where you’re making decisions for posterity—which is so brutal when you’ve made them kind of on the fly for so many years. So now the fact that I’m forced to take my time, or my time is taken by something else and every now and then you glance back at the record and go, oh! That song’s too slow. Or oh, just the most basic things that you can’t see when you’re in it. So that’s been really valuable. And like you say, I’m more grateful to be on stage than I have been in a decade.