Ani DiFranco - Biography

Few folk artists in the modern era have had the influence of Ani DiFranco. The so-called “Little Folksinger” has had a profound influence on not just how younger folkies write songs, but also how they conduct their careers. Spurning major label and corporate interest at every stage of her career, DiFranco became a hero to the DIY masses on a similar scale as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye.


As a precocious nine-year-old growing up in Buffalo, NY, DiFranco convinced her parents to buy her a guitar — and befriended a local singer-songwriter named Michael Meldrum at the music store. Meldrum was working on growing the folk scene in Buffalo, bringing artists in from New York City to play the tiny venues around town, and he found an unlikely kindred spirit in the nine-year-old. Before long, DiFranco was joining Meldrum on stage and befriending some of the visiting folk musicians from the big city; among the ones who made an impact on DiFranco was Suzanne Vega, who would stay with DiFranco’s family because she couldn’t afford a hotel.


Already a veteran of the live music scene by the time she became a teenager, DiFranco was already prime for a career crisis. Putting her guitar down, she began studying dance at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. But her time away from music was short-lived, and she was soon writing her own songs — lots of them.


Never lacking in inspiration, DiFranco was able to draw directly from a series of personal events in her late teenage years. Her parents had separated painfully, and her own relationship with an older man had ended abruptly after an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent trip to the abortion clinic — a decision and an experience that would leave far-reaching echoes in DiFranco’s catalog.


By the time she was 19, the budding folk singer had already penned in excess of 100 songs. She sharpened them in folk-friendly venues in New York, having relocated to the big city for a better shot at finding her voice and finding her audience. Sure enough, her audience was waiting for her — and they wanted material from her. DiFranco borrowed $1,500 and purchased some studio time, recording a dozen of her favorite tracks from the enormous batch she’d written — including an unflinching account inspired by her appointment at the abortion clinic (“Lost Woman Song”). When she’d finished, the result was a lo-fi cassette of sparse acoustic songs, which she began selling at her live shows. She sold out of her first batch, and soon decided to take a proactive role in her own distribution. Without much backing or expectation, she formed Righteous Babe Records, which would become one of the quintessential independent labels of the 1990s.


Her first release — that ramshackle eponymous cassette (1990 Righteous Babe) — struck a chord with a lot of its listeners and began to make the rounds via cassette taping and trading. The importance of these pirated tapes was not lost on DiFranco, who would modify the standard copyright disclaimer on all of her albums to read “Unauthorized duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.” She proved especially popular on college campuses, and was soon receiving far-flung offers to play in front of student groups. Loathsome of the attention she received as a long-haired, feminine folk singer, she cut off her hair and started wearing boots — later saying “Boy, did that change the environment of my performances.” It wouldn’t be the last time that she would alienate some of her audience merely by her appearance.


Not So Soft (1991 Righteous Babe) followed shortly thereafter, and found DiFranco already expanding her sound beyond the minimalist approach of her debut. Based largely on the strength of word-of-mouth, DiFranco had already drawn the interest of some majors — the sort of break that most fledgling musicians in New York City spent their whole careers craving. The courtship never went far, though DiFranco would later admit to having contemplated signing with an indie label at the very early stages of her career before deciding that she was better off on her own.


While largely unknown to the world at large, DiFranco was already on her way to becoming a heroine in the gay community. Early songs like “The Whole Night” and “She Says” found the protagonist contemplating same-sex romance, while acknowledging confusion and conflict. While searching for her identity, she found that all too many people were already eager to define her. Her reaction was swift. Imperfectly (1992 Righteous Babe) addressed itself directly to those who expected DiFranco to fit neatly into an archetype. “In or Out” championed bisexuality (“Some days the line I walk turns out to be straight / Other days the line tends to deviate”) and expressed her frustration at being made to feel like an outsider by the straight and gay communities alike. “I’m No Heroine” spoke to fans with frankness that few artists dared — “I don’t fool myself like I fooled you” — poking holes in the mythology that was rapidly growing around her.


Her prolific pace continued with Puddle Dive (1993 Righteous Babe); each new year brought a new album — something that would hold true for much of her career. By this time, DiFranco had begun playing with drummer Andy Stochansky, who would become a staple sidekick and key collaborator for years, both in the studio and on the road. While branching out to include other players, she also continued to evolve as a guitar player, refining her rapid picking and staccato style. Like I Said (1994 Righteous Babe) revisited some of the early solo songs from her catalog and fleshed them out with the more complex arrangements that were beginning to take root in DiFranco’s writing.


What followed was DiFranco’s most fruitful stretch of songwriting — and a series of albums that would prove durable even in the competitive set lists of her later career. Out of Range (1994 Righteous Babe) continued her progression from solo artist to band leader, while Not a Pretty Girl (1995 Righteous Babe) saw DiFranco, like Dylan before her, falling for the charms of the electric guitar. Lyrically, she continued to mix the personal with the societal — painting a sympathetic portrait of a stripper on “Letter To A John” and blasting the shallow state of the music industry on “The Million You Never Made.”


But the music industry was changing. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (1995 Maverick) came out of nowhere to spend three months at the top of the charts and become one of the zeitgeist-defining albums of the decade. Mainstream journalists, fans and music execs alike all scrambled to find the next big thing, and some of them “discovered” the folksinger from Buffalo — who, in the meantime, was going about her business playing hundreds of shows per year and building her fan base through word-of-mouth. The convergence of these factors led Dilate (1996 Righteous Babe) to make DiFranco’s inaugural appearance on the Billboard 200, as well as her first significant airplay on commercial radio.


Dilate took an incisive look at love in all its many manifestations. Much to the chagrin to a small but vocal portion of her lesbian fans, the inspirational romance was decidedly between a man and a woman. Just as her shaved head and big boots had once been a defiant statement against expectation, so now were her tubes of lipstick and occasional dresses (as seen in the Dilate artwork). Some fans jumped ship. Others cried “sellout!” at shows. DiFranco, predictably, was undeterred.


Long covered primarily by zines and college radio stations, DiFranco suddenly found herself in the pages of Time and Wall Street Journal. Ms. magazine, a personal favorite of hers, hailed her as one of the “21 feminists for the 21st century.” She was even feted by Prince in the pages of Forbes.


But the attention didn’t sit well with DiFranco, who noticed that the hook behind her press often had little to do about her music or the message behind it. Instead, what so many people — Ms. and Prince included — were finding commendable involved the bottom line. With ownership of her own label and sales now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, DiFranco was making substantially more money per album sale than the average rock star. While that was all true, DiFranco insisted that it was missing the big picture. She was especially galled by the coverage in Ms., which prompted an open letter that would become part of her lore, in which she demanded that her epitaph not read “CEO” but instead “Songwriter, Musicmaker, Storyteller, Freak.”


“Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capitol, only to be eventually recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer,” she wrote.


As the buzz grew, DiFranco soldiered on with her music and her incessant touring. Her powers are best experienced in a live setting; with eight releases under her belt and new fans arriving by the droves, the timing was right for a live album. Rather than just highlight a single strong night from the road, though, she sorted through over a year’s worth of material.


Living In Clip (1997 Righteous Babe) wound up spanning 31 tracks over two discs. It would become DiFranco’s first gold album — and one of the best live albums of the decade. Old songs are redefined, new songs are introduced, and the chemistry between DiFranco and her band (bassist Sara Lee and her banter partner Stochansky) and DiFranco and her audience is as palpable as possible. The live setting also created a proper showcase of her effervescent energy as a performer, as well as the goofy, good-natured sense of humor that coexisted with her typically dark and serious catalog. The personal drama of “Gravel” is prefaced with hooting and animal noises, while the lacerating “I’m No Heroine” begins with DiFranco giggling about torturing Stochansky.


After several years of dating, DiFranco married her sound engineer Andrew Gilchrist (aka “Goat Boy”) in 1998, in a Universalist service officiated by DiFranco ally and occasional collaborator Utah Phillips. Again, she faced backlash from a certain segment of her fanbase, who claimed betrayal or deception, even though DiFranco had never identified herself as a lesbian. A year later, she would receive further scrutiny when she consented to the unlikely usage of “32 Flavors” in a promotional ad for the National Football League. Some of her fans were upset by any sign of corporate interaction, while others specifically objected to her choice of client; they flocked to the message boards to label their onetime heroine as “immoral” and, inevitably, a “sellout.” Righteous Babe released a resigned statement admitting that “contradictions are at the heart of daily life — every life — in the era of capitalism.”


With more eyes on her than ever, DiFranco retreated to a studio in Austin with Stochansky and Lee to record Little Plastic Castle (1998 Righteous Babe), which became her most commercially successful album to date. She would then split time between Austin and New Orleans, continuing her blistering recording pace, for Up Up Up Up Up Up (1999 Righteous Babe). The latter marked the popular Stochansky’s swan song as her drummer; he left on good terms to pursue a solo career. His departure, whether directly or indirectly, also seemed to mark the end of an era for DiFranco, as she continued to move away from the staccato folk songs of her early career and embrace a wider range of styles.


To The Teeth (1999 Righteous Babe) was jam-packed with ideas and instruments, as well as prominent guest appearances by saxophonist Maceo Parker, guitarist Kurt Swinghammer and even a duet with Prince. Without Stochansky, DiFranco even tried percussion herself on a few tracks. With experimentation came the risk of failure, and even diehard fans would be hard-pressed to consider the folksinger’s foray into hip-hop (“Swing”) an artistic success.



While supporting the two-CD set Revelling/Reckoning (2001 Righteous Babe), she got booked on Late Show With David Letterman, only to turn Dave down after being told by show producers that they wanted something “upbeat” rather than “Subdivision,” a pull-no-punches look at racial relations. Letterman aside, she continued her relentless schedule on the road — and soon decided it was time to pay proper homage to a live show that had changed considerably since the days of Living In Clip. She released her first tour DVD, Render (2002 Righteous Babe), and another two-disc live document, the boisterous So Much Shouting, So Much Laughing (2002 Righteous Babe), showcasing her horn section and the ways in which her expanded band had changed some of her old set list staples. Evolve (2003 Righteous Babe) added some further wrinkles to the mix, including Latin rhythms and a deeper immersion into funk and jazz.


DiFranco and Gilchrist divorced in 2003, and she returned to New Orleans to predictably work on another record. After almost a decade of nonstop collaboration, she went to work all by herself again, recording Educated Guess (2004 Righteous Babe) on an 8-track, playing all the instruments, and recording and mixing for the first time in her career. She’d take another unprecedented move on her next album, Knuckle Down (2005 Righteous Babe), bringing in a co-producer: well-known singer/songwriter Joe Henry. The album also featured a guest appearance from labelmate Andrew Bird, whose own widely acclaimed The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005 Righteous Babe) again proved that Righteous Babe’s significance extended beyond its founder’s own vast catalog.


DiFranco took a very rare break from touring in 2005. The decision was not voluntary, as she had developed tendinitis and was ordered off the road. Her father passed away in the summer of that year, and she was temporarily forced to abandon her studio in New Orleans following the carnage caused by Hurricane Katrina. She eventually returned to the Crescent City to finish the socially charged album, Reprieve (2006 Righteous Babe). “Millennium Theater,” written well ahead of the hurricane’s arrival, sounded almost like a prophecy with its haunting repetition of “New Orleans bides her time.”


Seldom one to look backwards, DiFranco was well past the point that most artists would have released a retrospective. On Canon (2007 Righteous Babe), she finally took the time to reflect, pulling 36 favorite tracks from her 19 albums, and putting fresh coats of paint on five of the songs.


On January 20, 2007, DiFranco gave birth to a daughter, Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano. The miracles of motherhood and her partnership with co-producer Mike Napolitano inspired much of Red Letter Year (2008 Righteous Babe), one of her strongest works of the decade. But personal happiness never dulled the folksinger’s edge. Alongside some of her sweetest love songs to date were portraits of President Bush “whistling Dixie and playing dumb” and provocative lines like “I can’t support the troops / Cuz every last one of them is being duped.” Nearly 20 years into her career, the “Little Folksinger” remained one of the boldest voices in the crowd. In 2012 she released Which Side Are You On?

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