On how music’s changed in 30 years
I’m 17 and I’m in love. Hopelessly, ridiculously, sickeningly so. We’re lying in bed in my girlfriend’s dingy room in student halls, light streaming in through the sheet we’re using as a makeshift curtain and bouncing off the discarded pop cans and takeaway boxes that litter every available surface. It’s hardly paradise. But here, in her arms, it feels like it. And then a song comes on. It’s Both Hands by Ani Difranco, and something about the way she sings makes this perfect moment even more so.
That was 14 years ago and, spoiler alert, we’re no longer together. We’re good friends though – the best – and it seems absurd that we ever dated. It was a lifetime ago. But one thing that always takes me right back there, to that dingy room all those years ago, is Ani. So when I pick up the phone and I’m greeted with a soft hello from none other than Ms Difranco herself, it’s a little odd.
The iconic singer-songwriter is talking to me today from her home in New Orleans, promoting her new record, Binary. It’s her 20th studio album, and while her sound is certainly more mature than it was when she started making music 30 years ago, it feels as urgent and as political as ever. No wonder: being a woman in the age of Trump is some pretty potent inspiration.
Ani’s previously described the US president’s ascent to leader of the free world as “patriarchy run amok” and during our interview laments the “culture of combat and dirty, dirty fighting” that we’re currently living in. What’s the antidote? Is there one? “In America right now the most radical thing you can do is listen,” she tells me. “There’s no dialogue and that doesn’t help. In one sense, these are very dire, very regressive political times, and in another sense, I feel great hope. I’ve been a political artist my whole life and I feel less alone than I’ve ever felt. There are more people willing to talk to me about something like patriarchy, for example, than ever before. The energy of resistance, the energy of activation is everywhere, given the dire circumstances, so I hope that that will be the stronger energy in the end.”
Patriarchy, Ani says, is “the elephant in the room, every room, in every country, around the globe”, and for any progress to be made, that’s something we have to acknowledge. “Where there is imbalance, there is turmoil. Where there is balance, there is peace. I don’t believe you can start with the fundamental profound imbalance of patriarchy and ever achieve peace. It’s just against the laws of nature. In order to heal racism, environmental destruction, these perpetual wars that are happening all over, these social, political diseases, we have to go back to the source and address patriarchy together. Now is the time to say the P word, to see if we can really address it.”
But while there’s much anger here – understandably so – there’s also richness and a depth and nuance to Binary that was perhaps lacking on earlier records. What’s changed? “I feel like in the beginning songs just came straight from my spleen, out of my mouth, out of this hole in my face, and splatted against the world,” Ani laughs. “I learned a lot about the world through that process. Now 30 years have gone by – I started as a teenager and I’m 46 now. Sometimes the songs still come right from the spleen and they go unfettered into the world, but I don’t always stop there now.”
We talk about Ani’s children, Petah and Dante, and the challenges of motherhood. Has bringing life into the world changed the kind of music she makes, I wonder? “I don’t think it’s changed the nature of my outlook or the way I write. But many times it has smacked me down,” she chuckles. “Unable to write, unable to work, unable to do my thing.” Is that frustrating? “It’s humbling, it makes you more patient. Or it makes you crazy. Both. Having to have taken so much time and energy away from the other things I care about: activism, music, travelling, creating art, and trying to create revolution through art - these things have been burning in me my whole life. It’s challenging to put them down, but I do think that I’m stronger for it. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is the thing you should do.” Are her kids fans of her music? She ponders the question for a minute, turning it over in her mind. “My daughter, I think so. I don’t know if she would put it that way but she has certainly been raised on it. She was in my belly. I toured with her inside me until I was seven months pregnant, so I feel like she came into this world knowing my whole palette of melody and harmony and phrasing. She can sing harmonies with me better than anyone. She knows my music in her belly. She actually did sing harmony with me on this record, on Even More. She’s 10, and she already has a way more sophisticated grasp of melody and harmony than I did when I was that age.”
Ani and I spend a lot of time talking about the past; how she has changed and how the world has changed, and whether 2017 is as she hoped way back when. Have we, as feminists, made the progress young Ani hoped we would have? “I was never one to try to imagine what the goal was in anything, really. It’s just about being present every day in what you think is right. Have we made enough progress? Well, it is what it is. I’m certainly at the age where I’m done feeling like it’s not enough. You can’t pour your energy down that hole. Like the song that concludes the record, I put it at the end as a kind of ellipsis. You don’t fight to win because if that is why then you will hit the wall really quick. You fight because that’s the right thing; and you fight because it connects you with other people who will make your life a better place to be; and you fight because it feels so good to be accountable to what you believe in. To be fully yourself. So that is an end in itself and there’s no such thing as winning, but that’s the beauty of it.” Our conversation turns from the last 30 years of Ani’s career to the next 30. Does she think much about the future? What does she still want to achieve, and what will her 40th studio album sound like? She laughs and laughs. “I sure don’t think about the future. I never have. I think it’s a blessing to not ever give a fuck about where I’m going. I have more will every day to live in the now and to try to make it the most sincere and energetic and real, if imperfect, now that I can.” With that, we say our goodbyes and I hang up. Smiling, I text my friend: “I just interviewed Ani Difranco”. Her response says it all. “<3”
Read more of our interview with Ani online at divamag.co.uk. Binary is out now.
ANI DIFRANCO TALKS TO CARRIE LYELL ABOUT 30 YEARS OF MAKING MUSIC AND BEING A WOMAN IN THE AGE OF TRUMP “The energy of resistance, the energy of activation is everywhere”