Ani DiFranco: A singer and wrong-righter

Ani DiFranco has been a protest singer since she was a child. Fiona Sturges meets the musician, who says she is proud to be both a feminist and a true American
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It's a rare day when Ani DiFranco, an American singer-songwriter who has doggedly pursued a career outside the mainstream for the past 15 years, gets a mention on national television, never mind CNN. But the day before last month's New Hampshire primary, the news channel ran a story on the musical tastes of the Democratic presidential candidates. The front runner, John Kerry, named The Beatles as his favourite group, while Joe Lieberman plumped for Frank Sinatra. Next up was Dennis Kucinich, the most liberal of all the candidates. Alongside Willie Nelson, he named Ani DiFranco as his favourite artist of all time.

It wasn't an entirely random choice, DiFranco tells me, as we huddle around a heater in the Orpheum Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, where she's due to play in a few hours. The temperature outside has reached eight degrees below zero, though that hasn't stopped the familiar bevy of anti-Bush protesters from gathering with their placards. "Kucinich is my guy," DiFranco enthuses. "He's the one I've been waiting for, a radical, progressive, leftist, who is saying all the right things. I've been doing a lot of campaigning for him. He's the outsider in this race, but I have high hopes for the future."

But politics and music don't always make easy bedfellows, as DiFranco has discovered. Just three weeks ago she invited Kucinich to speak before her gig in Des Moines, Iowa, where the first round of elections were taking place. "Just before he was due to go on stage, the promoter said he wouldn't allow it," she says, shifting a little closer to the heat. "He said it was a public space and that you couldn't have any political activities. There were all these goons in the production office right before the show threatening to pull the power. I said, 'Well, no Dennis, no me. You decide.' " After a lengthy stand-off, the promoter eventually capitulated. "What was he going to do, tell everyone to go home?" she rages.

That was by no means the first time that DiFranco had come up against would-be censors. "There was an instance on The David Letterman Show when I wanted to play a political song called 'Subdivision' and they said I couldn't," she recalls. "Their excuse was that it wasn't upbeat enough, but the vibe was very much: 'We don't want this song.' I said: 'Fine, I won't play,' which seemed to shock the pants off them. I think they're used to people favouring exposure over ideals."

In a musical climate where politics rarely intrudes on the more serious business of entertainment, DiFranco may seem a curious anomaly. She has been a vocal supporter of human rights and a staunch critic of the American right since she began writing songs in her early teens. She is a heroine of the college campus, her no-nonsense music spreading not through expensive marketing campaigns but by word of mouth. To her adoring fans, she's a living monument to the anti-capitalist, alternative lifestyle. She is also a feminist with "a capital 'F'. "What depresses me is how women have become ashamed of that word," she remarks. "We've been brainwashed to believe it's irrelevant. We have one word that means we have the right of self-determination, and nobody will say it. It's very sad."

It's worth noting that the most common words used to describe DiFranco in the music press are "feisty" and "spirited", terms that are rarely, if ever, ascribed to men. Does she feel they reflect her personality accurately? "I don't think I'm quite the person that they tend to write about, but I suppose there is a connection here and there," she replies. "I think the people that know me regard me as a very smiley, bubbly, friendly sort of person. There's definitely a double standard of perception between men who make noise and women who make noise. One thing that has remained constant over my whole career is the exaggeration of my anger and militancy. That very outspoken part of me rarely shows up in my personal life, which is why it comes out through my music. Before I started singing I never had the skills or confidence to stand up for myself in a one-on-one situation. I think I've used my music to empower myself, albeit unconsciously."

When I ask if she believes music can be a force for change, she nods vigorously. It is, she says, her most effective weapon against "the forces that threaten to annihilate everything that is good and promising about America. It is so integral to people's lives. It's in bars and on the street, and people bring it into their homes. You can reach a lot of people this way."

Does she ever suffer feelings of powerlessness? "Of course," she exclaims. "I have many dark moments of frustration and desperation and shame and rage that I would imagine any thinking, awake person would have at this time. But I never question my motivation for doing what I do or the promise or possibility of it. That is not to say that I'm doing anything so grand. It's just that I think we all have the possibility to change the world in our own small way."

DiFranco admits to being a fierce patriot but concedes that the word has taken on chilling new meaning since Bush came to power. A sense of patriotism is a theme that recurs on her new LP, Educated Guess, an album recorded on a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder and filled with articulate reflections on love, politics and the unending process of self-discovery. The poem "Grand Canyon" is a proud statement about why she loves America. "It has to do with the culture, the art, the activist's history, the land," she says. "Now, of course, America is a country very much out of balance, culturally as well as politically. Before George Bush was installed, I was in Rome playing a show, and I said: 'If he gets elected, I'm moving here. Now I'm still getting e-mails from Italian fans saying: 'We're waiting.' "

What's stopping her? "This is what I know and this is probably where I do my best work. I love it, so I want to help it. But I will continue to dream of the Italian villa, none the less."

In the past, DiFranco has experimented with jazz, funk and big-band sounds and has collaborated with, among others, Prince and Maceo Parker. Educated Guess, however, is a more intimate, stripped-down affair, with the focus primarily on her voice, a ferocious instrument that can move from a gentle trill to a nails-down-the-blackboard wail in the blink of an eye.

It's doubtless a result of DiFranco's recent divorce after two years of marriage that broken relationships appear so frequently on the album, most notably in "Bodily", "Swim" and the discordant "Bubble" ("I hated to pop the bubble of me and you/ But it only held enough oxygen for a trip or two/ To the moon and back again"). Understandably, she won't go into the details, except to say: "It's been hell on my record collection. Working out who got what was seriously painful."

DiFranco remembers picking up a guitar for the first time at the age of nine. Extraordinarily, she was just 10 when she started playing in coffee houses and bars around her home town of Buffalo. "I remember having my 11th birthday on stage," she says. "I was playing a benefit to save dolphins with all these other folk singers and I remember they brought out a cake." She grimaces, adding: "It must have been charming." Inspired by fellow musicians, she began writing her own songs at 14. "I'd never listened to the radio or heard any mainstream music. I had an older brother who had saved to get a stereo and listened to a lot of classic rock, but that was never my way into it. My musical revelation was as an activity rather than a commodity."

By the time she was 16 DiFranco had got a band together and was playing weekly gigs at local bars. Isn't that illegal? "Oh definitely," she laughs. "I had arrangements with many of the bar owners that I wouldn't drink. I guess I passed as an adult and they were happy with that."

When, at 18, she started touring full-time she was so cash-strapped that she gave up her apartment and lived out of her car. "For the first cross-country tour I was alone in my Hyundai and playing for tips. I was a vagabond for years. Was I happy? Sure, I was on a wild adventure but after a certain number of years of having no help I started to freak out. But just around that time the audiences started to grow enough to support me financially."

There were, at various intervals, lucrative offers from major labels, each promising to turn her into an overnight success. "I probably came close to doing it a few times," DiFranco admits. "But as soon as I started having conversations with these people, I realised they were not like-minded. I didn't have any kind of plan to do it on my own - it was more about knowing what I didn't want to do. They would tell me that I was the greatest obstacle to my own career, but I would just think to myself: 'Well, I'll just keep struggling, if that's all right by you.'"

One suspects that DiFranco's sales - more than three million worldwide - are a result of gritty determination as much as talent. Since 1990, when she put out her first LP, she has averaged an album every nine months (Educated Guess is her 18th, give or take the odd EP) and has toured constantly. As well as being a prolific songwriter, DiFranco is the founder of Righteous Babe records. Launched as an outlet for her first, self-produced album, the label is now home to such diverse artists as Hamell on Trial, Arto Lindsay and Sekou Sundiata. She has a small band of staff working day to day in the office, but DiFranco says she has a long way to go before she becomes an executive in a vast recording empire.

"Not long ago, we won an award for being the best mid-sized independent label," she states. "I was, like, 'Mid-sized?' That's amazing. That's huge. I've always made a point of keeping things on as intimate a scale as is possible. That way, I believe there's no danger of me losing my way."

'Educated Guess' is out now on Righteous Babe records. Ani DiFranco will be playing in the UK in the summer