`I'm gonna look back on this period and think, aw man, wasn't that a gas?'
`Folk-punk' rebel Ani diFranco never wanted to be rich and famous. She just liked playing music. So what went wrong? asks Glyn Brown
Friday 27 June 1997
That'll be at midnight. For now, it's early afternoon and here we are, shivering by the radiator, DiFranco perched cross-legged on the dressing table. They say that rock 'n' roll is full of mavericks, free-thinking rebels, and of course, it's not. DiFranco, though, is truly independent, with a Beat-style lack of interest in fortune, which is probably why recognition took so long. After about 15 years of slog (she's 26 now), and nine exhilarating album releases on her own Righteous Babe label, she's suddenly broken through into total airwave domination of her American homeland, and everyone knows her name. With considerable enthusiasm, she prepares to give me the introductory gloop on herself. It's quite a story.
DiFranco was born in Buffalo, upstate NY, a dilapidated, blue-collar town big on unemployment and abandoned buildings. Her parents? "My mother was an architect when I was very young and my father worked at a science research lab, so they were both professionals. Then - uh - my family kinda disintegrated, and my brother had a lot of problems. By the time I was a kid, my mother had become a housecleaner, a maid, and my father was... was unemployed. And then they got divorced." She rolls her eyes and tries to make this sound funny, but it left their daughter roaming the streets for kicks. In a Leon/ Paper Moon-type scenario, she was browsing in a guitar store at the age of nine ("I was precocious") when she bumped into Mike, "a 30-year-old degenerate folksinger barfly". Mike often needed a place to sleep, so he'd crash on her mom's floor. "And he became my mentor in a sense, but really we were just like buddies. I was probably the only person who would listen to him." Ani already had an established circuit of bars she'd play, so they began performing together, a hideous concoction of John Lennon songs. "I think I was just a novelty for him."
It didn't last forever. She quit home and school, got waitressing work, met a builder, "so I started house painting as, like, a construction bitch. I was never a very skilled carpenter, but I could do a lot of demolition..."
You can get callouses out of a number of things, though, and DiFranco figured she'd rather do it with guitar strings. So she took her catalogue, already prolific, and began her career of solo touring. It was during this time - driving the length of the States in a '69 VW beetle, playing 130 shows a year, and selling LPs she'd recorded at home from the stage apres-gig - that she developed her individualistic manifesto. As the word spread, she was approached by major labels, and resolutely turned them down, large corporations being things where artists, get pseudo-power as long as they do as they're told. And things she inherently disagrees with. "Yet now, back home where I'm [laughs] less obscure, I'm already implicated in the whole rockbiz world, it's guilt by association."
You're not an evil person, Ani.
"Hm. But even talking to the rock press, you get wrapped up in it and convince yourself these things have meaning at all. And I've operated my whole life on the premise that that stuff - taking yourself so seriously - is silly."
But surely it takes killing ambition to tour the country and establish yourself, to be in a position to turn down corporate offers?
"Well, see, but that was never my goal. All those years I was busting my butt on the road, that wasn't the reason. The focus was always playing music for people. Even if it was a very unglamorous situation, like a school cafeteria, a church coffee-house, where you'd play for 50 people, 30 people, or 12 - you'd feel you'd learned something." However naive this sounds, on the evidence, it's probably true. "And now I'm on a very strong footing, and if someone offered that contract it'd be like, why? When I have all of this, and my independence and control as well?"
What's ironic, then, is that DiFranco was recently dragged on to a Stateside financial programme to talk about making more money than Hootie and the Blowfish - per unit. America can't get over the fact that this maverick and hayseed has made it work. Her recent album Dilate (visceral, rocking, vital) sold 250,000 in the US; DiFranco took home 50 per cent profit, simply because she put in almost 100 per cent of the work, production and press. "Whereas Mickey Jackson and the Hootie boys are selling bazillions of albums, and I sell - or did for many years - just what I sell off the back of the stage. It's this inherent misunderstanding of the whole world of independent musicians, operating on a small budget. When Woody Guthrie was young and Columbia Records offered him $25 to make an album, who was he to say no - that's a good day's work! But technology's more in our hands now. You can make a recording very cheaply on a home studio. You can remain independent.
"If you love what you do and don't need to be rich and famous - uh, too soon - then that is really a possibility for any of us." To prove the point, Ani has just helped 61-year-old activist Utah Phillips put out an album of funky, hip-hop satire.
Heady stuff, but on this can-do attitude and several others - for example, her roving, non-specific sexuality and her relaxed feminism - DiFranco initially took a kicking from a defensive, twittering US establishment. "Probably cos I was a little chick with a big mouth. It's changed so much over the past five, 10 years; now we have Riot Grrls, angry wimmin [snarls, waves fist], and the industry's finally realised that not only do women make music, they buy it, too. When I stomped around the stage, growling about this or that, I was stereotyped as a militant feminist. People thought I'd have fangs and a puppy hanging out of my mouth, they'd meet me and go, `Oh, I thought you'd be, uh... taller.' "
Are the States a bit cossetted when it comes to girls? "I guess. Their value is in their looks, the ideal woman is still very passive, but I'd rather be me, and have a good time, than be gorgeous and useless."
Dilate was the story of a love affair that went exceedingly wrong, but Ani tells me she's recently found a guy who's very, very right, a lover and "fast friend". Consequently, she's happy all round - "I'm gonna look back on this period of my life and say, `Aw, man, wasn't that a gas?' " My final question, on a vital, need to know basis, is what's that deep, rasping, sawing sound on Dilate's version of "Amazing Grace"? "That huge `hrrough'? That monster chugging? It's a lion breathing."
Which is a cool finale n
Ani DiFranco plays Glastonbury this weekend and London's Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, 2 July. A live album, `Living in Clip', is released on Monday on Cooking Vinyl/ Righteous Babe
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