I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014, working as an editor at Acoustic Guitar magazine, when I got the opportunity to sit down with the legendary protest singer Ani DiFranco for a probing interview and an intimate performance for 20 or so people. The Q&A was videotaped for the online series Acoustic Guitar Sessions (two parts embedded in text below). It was early on in the era of cancel culture, and DiFranco had been very nearly cancelled for planning an artist retreat at a former plantation. The irony was stunning: Here’s a woman who’d spent her entire career as a stanch political ally, not just of Black Americans, but of all people of color, all gender identifications, the poor — basically, all people marginalized by the dominant culture. DiFranco, unlike others who have been rightly cancelled in the years since, survived the ordeal, and she continues to fight the good fight. Our conversation touched on that controversy, but we also talked a lot about her music and her guitar playing — two topics often ignored by those who focus exclusively on her activism.
The AG Interview: Folk singer Ani DiFranco comes face-to-face with feminist icon Ani DiFranco
By Mark Kemp, Acoustic Guitar, October 2014
Ani DiFranco is all smiles as she cruises into Point Richmond, California, in a blue Mini Cooper convertible on an afternoon so gorgeous the hills across the bay in Marin County appear crisp against the turquoise sky. Wearing a blue long-sleeve top and brown pants emblazoned with an Aztec-looking print, the singer-songwriter and feminist icon grabs her trusty Alvarez mini-dreadnought from the trunk and prepares to pick and thump out a few new tunes
You’d never know that DiFranco has just experienced one of the worst periods in her 24-year career. It all started in late December 2013, when the singer announced that she would be holding a songwriting retreat at a former slave plantation near New Orleans. The choice of venue enraged many of her fans, and by the end of the year the controversy had gone viral, with angry comments—some vicious—ricocheting around Twitter, Facebook, and several feminist websites. The worst remarks branded DiFranco a racist; the more measured ones pointed out that she had been tone-deaf to the impact of her decision. In early January, DiFranco issued a full apology.
Adding insult to injury, the brouhaha came on the heels of another controversy, this one involving Michelle Shocked, who had recently melted down onstage in San Francisco, launching into what fans heard as a homophobic rant. The two incidents were wildly dissimilar—Shocked is known for her erratic behavior; DiFranco is not—but the moral spotlight was nonetheless aimed directly at outspoken female folk singers.
It was a cruel irony for DiFranco, who’s spent her career consistently fighting racism and injustice of all kinds. “The whole process of that was very painful,” DiFranco says. “It’s just amazing to be in it—this thing that we see happening, you know, where people get kind of crucified, and then to be . . . . Whoa! Now it’s me! And to understand how that affects your family and your friends and your whole community. It was like, yeah, this is a heavy place to be sometimes: feminist icon.”
DiFranco has not let the incident keep her down. In recent months, she’s focused on recording her extraordinary new album Allergic to Water, the follow-up to 2012’s Which Side Are You On? She’s also been hitting the road, performing new songs, including one fine, bluesy, fingerpicked gem called “Rainy Parade,” with the telling line “You’ve got to take your lemons and make your lemonade.”
When her folk-music mentor, Pete Seeger, died a month after the controversy, she was inspired to look at the bigger picture and focus on heeding the lessons that the great champion of human rights had taught her and so many others. “If you want to be a great activist,” she told Acoustic Guitar the day after Seeger’s death, “you have to do it yourself . . . . That’s what I learned from him.”
Watch the full episode of Acoustic Guitar Sessions Presents: Ani DiFranco
DIFRANCO HAS BEEN doing it herself since 1990, when, at 21, she released her debut album on Righteous Babe Records, the independent label she still runs. She not only fast became a role model for other young girls who wanted to play guitar well and sing about issues important to them, but also for young entrepreneurs who wanted to do things their own way, without pressures from the corporate music industry.
She began using Alvarez guitars, because she felt they could withstand—and correctly amplify—her signature percussive style of playing. And she continued promoting Alvarez as her music slowly broke through to larger audiences: when she released her now-classic album Not a Pretty Girl, in 1995; when she first reached the Top 40 on Billboard’s album chart with Little Plastic Castle, in 1998; and when she began regularly topping the Independent chart in the early 2000s, with Revelling/Reckoning (2001), So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (2002), Evolve (2003), and Educated Guess (2004).
By the end of the last decade, DiFranco had released 19 studio albums, as many live albums—not to mention numerous EPs, videos, and compilation appearances—and written some of the most popular, important, and enduring feminist folk songs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including “In or Out,” “Not a Pretty Girl,” “32 Flavors,” “Napoleon,” “Joyful Girl,” and “Amendment.”
Over the past few years, DiFranco’s begun to rethink her equipment choices, and she now incorporates several vintage guitars and amps into her arsenal. At one point in our interview, when discussing her longtime love affair with Alvarez, she reveals, “I’ve sort of learned that maybe I’m a Gibson girl now.”
The recent acquisitions have enriched DiFranco’s sound. When she launched into her sets at the Fillmore in San Francisco and Napa’s Uptown Theatre in March, she played her reliable Alvarez guitars on her more percussive, rock-based songs, but she used a Gibson LG to bring warmer textures to her slower, more soulful songs. She broke out her 1930s Gibson-made Cromwell tenor guitar for the dirty licks of “Which Side Are You On?,” playing through a 1960s Magnatone Twilighter amp for the authentic vibrato it produces. She attributes her later-period sonic experimentation to the influence of her husband of nine years, producer Mike Napolitano, calling him “a real supertaster of sound. He’s been sort of helping me evolve my gear over the last bunch of years.”
Sitting with her little Alvarez MSD1 in her lap, DiFranco strums a few chords as we talk about her songwriting, guitar-playing, and controversy-making—not to mention the recent honor she received up in Canada.
Mark Kemp: Congratulations on your honorary doctorate. How did that come about?
Ani DiFranco: I went to Winnipeg to get some sort of lifetime achievement award from the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which is a great festival—huge, vast, amazing, roots- and world-music festival. I guess while I was in Winnipeg, the University of Winnipeg decided to bestow that doctorate upon me [laughs], since I was in speech-making mode or something.
MK: So, are you wearing ‘Dr. DiFranco’ well?
AD: I haven’t yet pulled it out, but when I need to . . . Next time I’m pulled over.
MK: You’ve said before that folk music isn’t just a singer with a guitar, and I once wrote something similar in my liner notes to a Phil Ochs box set. To me, folk music can be anything from Odetta and Ochs to Zimbabwean singer Thomas Mapfumo to hip-hop acts like Public Enemy and the Coup. Would you talk about what folk music means to you?
AD: To me, it’s inextricably connected with the community that it comes from. It’s sort of a sub-corporate, noncommercial kind of music that’s often politically radical and connected with activists. . . . As you said, [it] can apply to so many different genres or sounds of music, as long as it’s people’s music, whoever those people are.
I got into a cab once with a fellow who was in my band at the time, and the cabby saw our instruments and said, “What kind of music do you play?” I never know how to answer that question. My friend Han said, “It’s music with a story.”
MK: Speaking of old folkies and music with stories—you were close with Pete Seeger. He performed on your last album, and you’ve shared stages with him many times. Can you talk about some of the lessons he taught you?
AD: Every interaction with him was a lesson. He was like a Buddha. By the end of his life, he just emanated that sort of loving, respectful energy.
I have many memories of being at benefits where all of us folk singers collide. The first time I met Pete was at one of these big benefits. There were a lot of stressed-out folkies, well-meaning lefties, activists, a lot of performers kind of vying for the spotlight, and tension in the air—and I remember Pete showed up and transformed the atmosphere instantly. Within ten minutes of being in the building, he had everybody involved in the show in one circle backstage, holding hands, singing. It was his presence and his ability to refocus people to what matters—that was just so stunning.
I told this story the other night onstage: I was at his 90th birthday party, a benefit for the Clearwater organization, and there he was, meeting and greeting, and he was an extraordinarily lucid, sharp man, even to the day he died. I remember one reporter standing up and saying: “Mr. Seeger, you’ve been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor…”—and just sort of listed [Seeger’s] many worldly accomplishments—and then his question was: “What are you most proud of?” And Pete paused, as he does, and he said, “I stayed married to the best woman I ever met. . . . We had four children and six grandchildren.” . . . I thought, what an amazing radical feminist flip of the script!
MK: The day after he died, you and I talked on the phone, and you told me his activism wasn’t just activism in the big sense, but that he acted immediately on things. Can you expand on that?
AD: Yes, that was very instructive to me. When I called him up to ask him to play on my last record, I left a message on his machine, and he called me back that day. You know, I’m out doing whatever I do, and I think it took me a week to get back to him. He had already sent me a letter, with some sheet music, and different versions of “Which Side Are You On?,” and [suggestions like] “We could do it modally, or we could do it this way.” When I finally got him on the phone, he’s like “Hang on” [plunk], and he’s got his banjo [snaps her fingers rapidly]. . . . He’s just on it. Full of energy. Just one of those people who knows that to get it done, you do it yourself, and you do it now. Now!
MK: That’s pretty much what you’ve been doing now for more than 20 years, isn’t it?
AD: I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying. He is an amazing teacher.
MK: You’re one of the most influential and pioneering independent artists from an era—the ’90s—that spawned a slew of indie-minded acts, like Fugazi, who also had their own label, and many others. Back then, did you foresee a time when major labels would lose their decades-long power grip on artists, like they have in the digital era?
AD: I don’t know that I have a better read on those macro movements than anybody else. In fact, that’s not really what I think about. I think for my personal journey it was just about following the people, like Pete Seeger, that I respect. . . . All of the industry people that approached me, it was like, “Hmm, if I follow you, I’m going to meet a whole lot of other people, and those are not my teachers.” It was just an instinctual thing, for me, about what was the right path. And then, as it turns out [adopts a faux dramatic voice], the music industry is going down in flames!
MK: And you’re fine?
AD: Yeah, I’m fine. And I feel very lucky now that I just wasn’t dependent on anyone or anything else.
MK: Let’s talk about the way you play guitar. To me, it’s obvious why your lyrics and vocals resonate for so many people. But that combination wouldn’t work if you didn’t have an equally individual guitar style—that percussive, staccato sound that’s become your signature. How did you evolve that kind of playing?
AD: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 9, and I started playing out [at clubs] at that age. I had a mentor in Buffalo, Michael Meldrum, who started bringing me to his gigs. I was his little dancing monkey—you know, “Look at the little girl with the big voice!” I think just being in bars playing music—coffee shops sometimes, colleges sometimes, but mostly bars—is what taught me how to play. Contrast, dynamics [she hits a chord hard on her guitar] are so important. My early songs are like [hits another chord], “Hey [hits chord], I’m [hits chord] over here! [hits chord] Hello?” Loud against silence makes somebody’s conversation at the bar stick out, and they’re like—oops. And then they turn, and they look at you, and once you’ve got them, then you gotta keep them.
So, I think my playing style was all about getting you to turn around and then trying to be my own band, keep enough going on to keep your attention in a bar when you’re not there to see the folk singer in the corner—you’re there to have a drink and relax. It was the early survival skills that influenced the way I played forevermore.
MK: You’ve written hundreds of songs, and you use more than 50 different tunings. What do you do, make them up?
AD: I do, I do! I think somebody taught me DADGAD when I was a kid, and that opened a door, and then after that it was like, “Well, what else can you do?” It’s sort of like changing your palette of colors. I just make shapes with my left hand. So, it’s kind of interesting that you change the tuning and then the shapes sound different and different shapes work and . . . .
MK: So, I guess that means it’s kind of a nightmare to figure out how to play your songs?
AD: Yeah. To play my songs without the crazy tunings often would be impossible. To go back and forth with these crazy tunings—if you don’t have an awesome guitar tech like I do—is hard.
More recently in my life, as I saw my operation begin to downscale, and I have to think practically, I’ve been writing more in standard tuning. Like, what if that [guitar tech’s] not there someday? Also, when I think of a really crazy tuning, I make sure to write more than one song. So, if I’m going to put this guitar all the way down in this crazy C world or B world, then I better have three or four songs I can work.
A lot of what I do is motivated by what’s good for the show, what gets me through the show. Even when I’m writing a song, it’s like “Oh, I have so many slow songs—I need a fast song right now.” It’s all about being onstage tomorrow night: What’s gonna work, what do I need?
MK: When you find a new tuning that you like, does that write the song? Or does the song dictate the tuning?
AD: The tuning is often the ticket to somewhere. Just like a different instrument. I have different kinds of guitars—tenor, baritone, standard—and all the different guitars have different voices and they bring out different things. And so, it’s the same with a tuning. It will definitely evoke something in and of itself that you can follow.
MK: For a long time, you’ve been an Alvarez artist, but lately you’ve been playing other brands. Are you at a turning point, gear-wise?
AD: I started playing Alvarez guitars on stage in the early ’90s. And I think that they have, over the years, influenced the way I play. These are the instruments that I’m holding, so the way they amplify and the possibilities therein, I think, were the parameters of my sound that I developed. I have some vintage instruments that I play onstage now, and I’m looking for more. And I’ve sort of learned that maybe I’m a Gibson girl.
MK: How did this change of heart come about?
AD: You know, I messed around with some nice old Martins and was like, “Oh, that’s pretty, but not me.” The guitar I’ve really been loving a lot is a [Gibson] LG. They’re warm and I don’t have to do as much EQing to get it to where I want to go.
MK: So, does this mean you’re moving away from Alvarezes?
AD: I love Alvarez and I will always play this little guy [nods to the Alvarez MSD1 short-scale dreadnought in her lap]. It’s the one I take everywhere, and hence, I’ve written a lot on it. I play it onstage for a different sound. And the baritone. And even one of my WY1s is still good for rocking out and doing what I’ve always done.
MK: Switching gears a little: Do you ever feel burdened by constantly having to be Ani DiFranco, and all of the expectations that entails?
AD: I’ve been asked that question a lot over the years, you know, and my answer over the years has been “No, it’s not a burden, it’s a privilege. And it’s an opportunity.” I mean, wow—I can say stuff and somebody listens. That’s not something everybody gets. But lately, this year, I’ve intersected with more of the burden element of my role.
MK: You’re referring to the controversy that happened recently . . .
AD: Yeah, the controversy of a songwriting workshop that I was going to host. The host location—where people were going to stay and be involved in the seminars and the performances—was a former plantation outside of New Orleans. Some of my audience objected to the setting, or questioned it. And unfortunately, the folks that I’ve been working with for 20 years, who are awesome people and have done an amazing job, they just didn’t get it—first of all, that maybe the setting was not the right one for me. This is a setting they’ve used for many other songwriters—Richard Thompson and Todd Rundgren—but their audience is a different audience, and they don’t have the expectation of being the feminist icon.
But even I didn’t. . . . I mean, I saw the word plantation and I thought, “Whoa, that’s going to be weird. That’s going to be weird. That’s going to be a crazy scene.” But I didn’t realize that there are women in my audience who were like, “That’s beyond weird—I can’t go there.” And there was a discussion that ensued online that was kept from me. It went from maybe a reasonable discussion to a very angry controversy, and by the time I found out, there was a lot of anger in the air. And it was a very unfortunate whole series of events.
MK: How did you eventually find out about it?
AD: Suddenly, one day, my phone just started ringing, and everybody that I know and love called me up and said, “Oh my god, Ani, I’m sorry!” And I was just like “What?” And then it all came down and I had to make a statement: “Make a statement! You’re late! You’re late to the table and now you must make a statement!” So I made a statement, sort of justifying why I thought it was OK to go there [to use the plantation site], why I didn’t say no instantly. And then there was a lot of anger about the defensiveness of that statement. And I was like [sighs], “Oh . . . my god. OK, I’m just . . . sorry. I’m sorry. I messed up. I didn’t get it. The people around me didn’t get it.”
You know, the whole process of that was very painful. [Her eyes begin to tear up slightly.] It’s just amazing to be in it—this thing that we see happening, you know, where people get kind of crucified, and then to be . . . . “Whoa! Now it’s me.” And to understand how that works—how it affects your family and your friends and your whole community. It was like, “Wow, yeah, this is a heavy place to be sometimes: feminist icon.”
Watch DiFranco discuss the controversy
MK: Another learning experience?
AD: There’s just so much to be learned, you know. I guess that’s always been my strategy with my work and with my politics—you just put it out there, throw it out there and see what happens, what bounces back. Sometimes it’s very painful.
MK: When I was reading some of the really nasty comments online, I thought, this must be incredibly painful, because these things being said don’t reflect who Ani DiFranco is. I wonder if this is just a by-product of living in a social media world—it’s a different kind of world, isn’t it?
AD: Yeah, and the amazing thing is, you think, if you’re me, that you can just not be involved in that at all. I don’t do computers at all. I don’t do TV. I don’t have a TV at my house. I find that I’m a much saner person if I don’t engage in that moment-to-moment, talkie-talkie world. But even if you . . . you can’t avoid it. It will come hunt you down, is what I learned. In fact, you can get in a lot of trouble by avoiding it.
Finally, I had someone at the Righteous Babe office put on my Facebook page, “This is not Ani. You’re not talking to Ani.”
MK: Are you going to start getting more personally involved in your social media now?
AD: I don’t know what the solution is for me. I’m considering shutting it down. I don’t know what it will do to a career to not have any presence in this cyberworld that so many live in, but I’m considering it. I just don’t know what the solution for me is.
MK: How would you engage with your fans?
AD: You know, it’s always been an old-school mailing list. I show up in your town. That’s how I have always operated. My career was built pre-Internet. So, it is possible, and I might just kind of steer back that way.
MK: Maybe sometimes rockin’ old-school isn’t such a bad thing?
AD: The other day we were in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, and I went to the music shop on the one street in town [it’s actually called The Music Shop], and here’s this woman, Pearl E. Jones, who’s had this shop for 53 years—she was a Gibson dealer back in the ’60s, and she’s 83 years old now, and she’s still got her shop, and she had all vintage instruments, and she had a Gibson there that I’m still thinking about [laughs]—obviously, I’m telling you about it now! I may just call her up and say, “I need to buy that guitar after all.”
MK: She sounds really cool. What else did she have in there?
AD: At first I walked in and I said, “Oh, can I play some of your guitars?” And she said, “No. We don’t let just anybody . . . ” And I was like [puts on a mopey face], “OK.” And then she kind of looked at me and said, “Unless you know how to play.” I said, “Well, I’m playing at the theater down the street.” So she starts handing me guitars, including an 1860 Martin—looks like a little peanut, with the little Indian feather. [Takes a deep breath] Wow! I mean, I’m only recently in my life playing instruments from the 1960s and thrilling to their resonance, and this guitar was insane! This guitar—this teeny little parlor peanut—just shook my body. It was like . . . Wow! I don’t even know what you’re talking about, guitar, you’re just talking . . . .
MK: But you didn’t get it?
AD: It was not for sale.
MK: Of course it wasn’t.
AD: Yeah, she just had to blow my mind.
© String Letter Media (First published in the October 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar.)