They say that the truth will set you free. So if you must know, the hand-on-my-heart truth is that I spent the first few years of my fledgling music journalism career positively terrified of the musicians I was forced to interact with in order to do my job.
I have always loved music to an uncomfortable degree—so much it hurts; so much I wish I could eat it; so much that my friends will always tease me about being the crier at shows. And when I was just figuring out how to approach music as a writer, my blind devotion to the art of songcraft and performance had become so mind-bendingly intense that being thrown into situations where I actually had to talk with the artists whom I admired was tantamount to being forced to meet the President of the United States while wearing my pajamas. And my carpal tunnel wristbands. And my retainer.
I knew that being uncool was part of the equation. I’d read Lester Bangs. I’d seen Almost Famous. But like the great Cheryl Strayed once surmised while giving advice to a young writer, I was down too low. I was convinced that the musicians were everything and I was nothing, and I couldn’t find the rung to step up onto to meet them in between. The idea of suddenly coming face-to-face with artists whom I had only ever connected with in emotional, visceral, and dare I say spiritual ways made me want to bend over and barf.
Just the other day I found a cassette tape that contains my first ever phone interview. I still remember the awkwardness of that conversation like it was yesterday—it was with a singer-songwriter that I’d been listening to since high school, and when the publicist put me on hold to connect me with my interviewee I started panting uncontrollably into the receiver. The nervousness was clearly audible in my voice, and I was convinced I was probably going to pass out at any second. I could barely focus on what the artist was saying long enough to form a reasonable response, and as soon as they would stop talking I would quickly move on to the next question on my list like a doctor asking routine follow-up questions at a check-up.
A few years after that first phoner I decided to temper my uncoolness by getting a job at a record store. It helped for a while, being surrounded by passionate and well-versed music nerds who were all just as endearingly awkward as I felt. In hindsight, working at the Electric Fetus was one of the first times I felt like I ever really belonged anywhere. But just as I started to get comfortable, I discovered the unthinkable side effect of being in a record store all the time: Musicians would go there too. And worse yet, I would have to talk to them.
On one particularly sunny day I was standing behind the counter surveying the aisles of the shop when I spotted the lead singer of one of Minnesota’s more well-known rock bands sifting through the used vinyl racks. I turned and whispered excitedly to my boss. “Isn’t that cool? Do you see who that is?”
“You’ve gotta stop doing that,” he replied, rolling his eyes at me and shaking his head. “You put these guys up on a pedestal, but they’re just people. They’re just like you.”
My boss went over to greet the famous musician while I stood there and shuffled my feet, trying to blend in with the stacks of posters and CDs behind me. Then, to my horror, my boss turned around and pointed at me from across the store and asked the musician to wave at me. I was so embarrassed that I wanted nothing more than to be able to fold myself in half like a dollar bill, tuck myself into my till, and close the drawer behind me.
Eventually the musician came over to where I was standing—it was a store, after all, and I was the cashier—and not only did he turn out to be a totally reasonable, friendly, and down-to-earth dude, but it turned out he recognized me from being in the audience at one of his shows. We laughed, we participated in a totally run-of-the-mill transaction, and he went on his merry way. Maybe my boss was right. Maybe they were… just… people.
A lot of that awkwardness has faded over the years, more because of rote repetition than any kind of grand revelation, but I still find my pulse pounding when I get the chance to encounter someone I truly admire.
I’ve spilled a lot of ink about Ani DiFranco over the years, and somehow I’ve always managed to say too much while never quite explaining it deeply enough. To properly assess my relationship to Ani’s music I’d have to detail my whole adult life—all of the best parts, and most certainly all of the worst. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain there is a timeline of all of my relationships and disappointments, all my moments of peace and periods of dark despair, and on the timeline each peak and valley would be charted next to Not a Pretty Girl and Knuckle Down and Little Plastic Castle and Revelling and Reckoning and all the rest of those Ani albums that helped me see through to the other side. There would be dots for those nights when I drove around and around and around the lakes listening to Dilate, and there would definitely be hash marks for all those shows where my chest felt like it was expanding and opening so wide that it might erupt.
But that all sounds like hyperbole and it doesn’t even properly set up the true exhilaration and depths of dread that I’ve experienced when faced with the idea of actually, literally talking to Ani DiFranco. In real life, with my real voice questioning and answering hers. It was so unthinkable that the first time I interviewed her I had no choice but to do it down on my knees, cowering in the corner of my bedroom with a sweaty rotary dial telephone receiver pressed to my ear. A short while after that I had an opportunity to potentially meet her, and when it fell through I felt genuinely relieved; I had no idea how I would handle interacting with her in person, and what if it went terribly? Would spending a few fleeting moments with her be worth possibly sullying the bulletproof image of her that I had constructed in my head? (Cue Ani singing, “I just want you to live up to the image of you I create…”) And would I still be able to have such transformative experiences with her music if something weird happened out here in the real world?
Yet there were still so many things I wanted to ask her, especially in the wake of what she’s gone through this year. And there are things that I wonder about that I sensed, after listening to so many records and reading so many of her interviews over the years, that she just might wonder about, too. Finally, now that a full decade has passed since my disastrous debut phone interview and five years have passed since I nervously spoke with her, I figured I might finally have reached a point where I could not only survive an interview with one of my idols but could actually enjoy the conversation and maybe even learn something new about her—and myself.
It turns out that I was right.
The truth is that it’s been a challenging year for Ani DiFranco—maybe one of her toughest, at least from a public-image standpoint. Around the holiday season last year, it was announced that she would be leading a writing retreat for her fans at a resort near her home in New Orleans, Louisiana. And that resort was on the site of a former slave plantation.
Backlash to the retreat came swiftly, fueled by Twitter hashtags and lengthy Facebook posts from concerned fans, and after a few weeks of deafening silence Ani herself finally spoke up, apologized twice, and canceled the retreat. It was an epic fail played out in real time online, and suddenly the whole world was talking about her for the first time in years for the absolute worst reason.
I wasn’t in a position to defend Ani at the time—I was both biased and underinformed—but my gut told me that something didn’t sit right about the way the situation played out. Here was a woman who had fought tirelessly for decades for not just women’s rights but also specifically racial justice through both her actions and her songs. When taken into context with her body of work and her lengthy track record, the idea of her being targeted by activists as racist seemed absurd. How could something like this happen?
With my knowledge of her experience—at least, from a public viewpoint—kicking around the back of my mind, I put on an advance copy of her new album, Allergic to Water, last week when I was preparing for my interview and was intrigued, but not completely surprised, to hear that it’s one of the quietest, most tender and vulnerable sounding records of her career. Although I wasn’t sure how to phrase it to her when we spoke, I could sense the pain on every track. She was wounded, and it was palpable.
Although I can’t relate to her specific experience, I do know what it’s like to fail spectacularly in a public way. I knew I had to ask her about it. And I did.
I met up with Ani on Saturday afternoon at First Avenue, just a few hours before she would play to a packed house of adoring fans. We set up a makeshift recording studio in the venue’s upstairs Record Room, and as her guitar tech tested levels in the next room and a generator whirred on behind us, we got to work dissecting the tone and songs on her new album and deconstructing her difficult year.
While the specifics of the controversy surrounding her writing retreat were indeed enlightening, what I took away from the conversation was the very human moment where she conveyed what it was like to be at the eye of an online s**tstorm.
“You know, it took me about six months to just fall asleep again. It was just kind of devastating,” she said, speaking candidly through teary eyes. After explaining the circumstances in further detail, she reflected that, “it became more of an excuse for debates that needed to happen, for feelings that need to be aired 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 dialogues.”
From there the conversation roamed all over the place. We touched on the role motherhood has played in her creative process and how she was forced to make her new album in the wee hours of the morning and during naptimes, which contributed to its softer, more intimate sound. And we talked about the new energy she felt toward performing now that there were fewer shows on the calendar—”I’m more grateful to be on stage than I have been in a decade,” she noted—and her favorite book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, which inspired her new single “Woe Be Gone.”
But for me the part that was still ringing in my ears was the section of the interview where we uncovered and tapped into that pain she had experienced, and it was still at the very front of my mind when I returned to the club later that night to watch her perform.
That night she was on fire. I had seen her perform at least 10 times, but had never seen her quite so loose, so ferocious, and so in the moment. She culled from a set list that relied heavily on her biggest hits and beloved rarities, weaving in a few songs from the new album but mostly dipping back into her back catalog to help tell the story of the night. At one point, she called out a staff member carrying a box of beer through the crowd and asked him to bring her a Grain Belt, while at another point she brought out a box of Glam Doll donuts that were left for her backstage and started distributing them into the crowd. She was having fun, and on top of it she was clearly having a cathartic experience.
I found myself getting excited not just at the old songs that always pull at my heartstrings and jog my memories but also the ones that touched on her activism and voice of political and social dissent. I could hear how these old songs took on a new meaning in the context of what had happened to her this year, and I found myself choking back tears as she followed up the protest poem “Fuel” with “Tis of Thee,” with the line “we’ll never live long enough to undo everything they’ve done to you” ringing out and rising up over the din.
For the first time, I started thinking about her songs in terms of what they meant to her instead of what they meant to me, and I realized that I had to get out of the way and set aside my own baggage for a second in order to connect with her music on an even deeper level. Much to my delight, getting to know her a little bit in person didn’t detract from the of seeing her perform one bit, and in fact enhanced it significantly.
When we wrapped up our interview earlier that afternoon, we proceeded to chit-chat and cover much of the same small talk that pops up in my day-to-day life. “How long have you worked at MPR?” she asked, and in my mind I couldn’t help but think, “That’s what a normal person would ask me!” What a relief it was, in that moment, to finally take her down off the pedestal where she has stood all my life and put her on a rung where I could step up and meet her eye-to-eye. It turns out that even Ani f***ing DiFranco is a person, too, and I’m pleased to say that interviewing her was a highlight of my career.