Ani DiFranco has a lot to show for her 20 years as a singer-songwriter and all-around bisexual/feminist/indie icon. There are the 17 studio albums (not to mention almost as many live albums, the EPs and the retrospective), the poetry books and her successful record label, Righteous Babe.
Her career has pretty much become a blueprint for artists who want to make a living making music while maintaining control of their career and artistic destiny. But DiFranco was never one to waste a moment patting herself on the back about it. She’d much rather keep moving forward.
This year finds DiFranco, as always, hard at work, still performing behind her 2008 album “Red Letter Year” and recording a new album in her new home base of New Orleans. The pace of her work is even more impressive considering DiFranco had a child in 2007 and married producer Mike Napolitano earlier this year.
During a break from the sessions for her new album, DiFranco talked to PGN about how much has changed in her life over the last few years, and how much has stayed the same.
PGN: Are you recording for a new album? AD: I’m slowly plugging away at a new record in between being a mom and being a mom. I’m just taking it one track at a time.
PGN: Is it just you that relocated to New Orleans or is Righteous Babe based there now as well? AD: Just me. Righteous Babe is still in Buffalo.
PGN: Did relocating to New Orleans have any effect on the way you write music or record? AD: Yes, but it’s a little more personal than that. I relocated here because I fell in love with a New Orleans dude. He also happens to be an amazing record producer. Lucky for me. For the past few years, I’ve done all my recording at home with him. That last record I put out, “Red Letter Year,” the sound of it has a lot to do with his production and studio skills. That’s been a great blessing for my recording. Also, in a more peripheral sense, being down here, surrounded by amazing musicians and a profound musical culture, means I have access to all that. I invited a lot of Louisiana musicians onto my last record. The record benefits from that presence as well.
PGN: Listening to “Red Letter Year,” it sounds more textured that previous efforts. Did you play around more with the production and instrumentation? AD: One thing is I’ve got this great band going on right now and my team is stronger than it has ever been. Another thing that contributed to “Red Letter Year” was taking a little more time. I took two years from beginning to end on that project. I had a baby in the middle, so that’s what protracted the process so much. But in the end, having to take so much time away from the record in the middle afforded a lot of perspectives and time to come up with more ideas and realize them.
PGN: Did taking that long a break have the effect of, when you came back, you looked at what you had done and thought, “I really need to change a lot of this.” AD: Oh yeah. Making a record, you sort of go into a recording studio, you spend these long hours, you get totally inside it and you really have no idea what you’re doing — if it’s right or wrong, left or right, up or down. Usually I do this process so fast and furiously that my perspective comes after release dates. Then there’s the record in its little plastic box and I go, “Whoa, that song is too slow. And this song should have blah, blah, blah ... ” To do that before the record release, this is my new discovery. It’s really helpful.
PGN: Did you have any apprehensions about operating out of New Orleans considering that the city still bears a lot of the scars from Hurricane Katrina? AD: No. I relocated before Katrina. I love this place, even in its battered state.
PGN: Is there any chance of seeing any New Orleans-based artists surfacing on Righteous Babe? AD: Jeez. I don’t know. It could happen. There’s nothing in the works. We do have a lot of great new releases. There’s an Erin McKeown record out now. Anais Mitchell is putting out a very ambitious folk opera this winter on Righteous Babe. It’s something I’ve participated in. That’s an exciting release coming up for us. But no New Orleans project just yet.
PGN: Does being married give you any fresh insights into the fight to legalize gay marriage? AD: No: I think that anybody that wants to get married should get married. I’ve always thought that.
PGN: Has becoming a mother changed your views about religion and spirituality? AD: I think of religion as very separate from spirituality. So I guess my views on organized religion are much the same as they always were. I guess maybe my spirituality has shifted and probably deepened through the whole process of pregnancy and childbirth, and now parenting. It would be hard to quantify in a few words. It did refresh my perspective on things like patriarchy. I know for most people that word doesn’t come up when they refer to spirituality, but for me there’s a strong connection being female and being a part of that whole feminine lifecycle. It’s hard to say quickly and concisely, but it made me freshly aware that a balance of power between the genders is essential for things like peace on Earth and healing all of our social diseases. There’s a lack of balance in human society with patriarchy being the mean standard for the whole planet. There’s an essential resonance that occurs in nature between the genders, and if it’s not resonating then there’s an imbalance that occurs and it’s manifested in many, many ways. I don’t know. I think that becoming a mother puts me back in touch with the absence of the feminine in our way of thinking and living.
PGN: Do you still consider yourself an atheist? AD: Uh. Well. Let’s see. What does atheist mean? It means that I don’t believe in a God sitting on a cloud? Then, yes. Definitely. I believe that all living earthly things contain the divine. We are the divine. Is that atheist? I don’t know how atheist is defined right now. I don’t believe in God, a patriarch looking down on us. I think that the universal consciousness is contained within every part of the universe. That’s kind of where I come from.
PGN: Having participated in the Democratic National Convention in 2008, do you have any opinion about how the Democrats and President Obama have conducted themselves since taking office? AD: I sort of see Obama as a very good, very thoughtful man trying to do what’s right. I see a lot of people building roadblocks all around him in Washington, D.C., impeding progress. America, we’re very much a culture of celebrity now. I think a lot of people wanted Obama the Superhero to swoop down and save us all from ourselves. There’s been a sense of disillusionment and criticism of Obama on the left echoing the right. For me, that’s a very un-democratic response to how slow and painstaking change is. I think that it’s not Obama’s responsibility to save us all. We have to do it together. That’s how democracy works. I would love it if my fellow citizens focused more on their Congress people, their senators and trying to get them behind things like healthcare. I would like it if we could focus more on ourselves and the work we can do in our community. I think that Obama could and would be doing a lot more if he had more help. What I’m really interested in now is capitalizing momentum of his election. I think he re-energized a lot of people into just being aware of themselves as citizens. I think if we could continue that trend away from consumer-dom back into citizenship, and invest ourselves beyond the act of voting, then we could really start to create that change together that we are so seeking.
PGN: Does motherhood make you more or less inclined to be as politically active as you have been in the past? AD: I was the same person with or without the baby. Motherhood is maybe when some people awaken, but I think that this is not the case for me. I have a baby but that’s not the be-all and end-all of my perspective, life and thinking now. I was always very politically aware and active. That hasn’t changed at all. That was always a big part of my work and still is.
DiFranco performs at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St. For more information, visit www.righteousbabe.com or call (215) 627-1332.