The Hard-Won Wisdom of Ani DiFranco

GMD Three

Singer, songwriter and social activist Ani DiFranco has always made a living out of being deeply vulnerable and relentlessly honest. Three decades into a fascinatingly independent career, she dove even deeper into her public, personal journey with a 2019 memoir entitled “No Walls and the Recurring Dream.”

The lack of partitions refers to the one-room house she grew up in with her dysfunctional family in Buffalo, N.Y. She moved out when she was 15.

“There I was with a shaved head and jacked-up army boots singing in a sort of punkish and in-your-face way with super-feminist lyrics. It took a while for me to be embraced, I would say.”     –Ani DiFranco

“My first stop was to rent a room in a lady’s house that I knew who ran a Lebanese diner nearby the guitar store where I hung out,” she says. “By the time I was 16, I started renting my own apartment. As an unofficially emancipated teenager it was hard to fit into an adult world. I was leading an illegal life from top to bottom.”

Feb. 21 | 7:30 p.m.
Harrah’s Lake Tahoe | Stateline, Nev.

It wasn’t long before DiFranco split for New York City where she soon made an impression on the early 1990s coffee-shop scene with her openly bisexual, no-holds-barred power.

“When I was 18, I shaved my head and there was no sort of culture for that, so it was very intimidating for people,” she says. “I was like f*** being a boy toy. F*** the capitalist system. I was making my own clothes. I was rebelling against a lot of things. It’s hard to describe how edgy that was to be at this time.”

When DiFranco founded her own music label, Righteous Babe Records, in 1990 there was no office for the company, which would soon go on to produce critically acclaimed classics such as “Not a Pretty Girl” and “Little Plastic Castle.”

“It was just a thing I wrote on my cassettes to rebel against the idea that you had to have a record deal,” she says. “There I was with a shaved head and jacked-up army boots singing in a sort of punkish and in-your-face way with super-feminist lyrics. It took a while for me to be embraced, I would say. I was pushing on the culture of the acoustic circuit and confronting all of the defensive, whatever, egos that were out there and patriarchal tendencies traditional in the folk world.”

Nowadays DiFranco is much like any other mom living in New Orleans with a devoted husband, teenage daughter and 6-year-old son. The artist who turns 50 this year still follows the issues closely, especially those dealing with women’s rights.

“I stand back from, say, the #metoo movement and all of the seismic challenges and also imperfect slings and arrows, because I remember a time before it when I personally heard, ‘Me too, me too, thank you,’ every night from women in my audience,” she says. “But you didn’t see that in major media or broadcast in a global way. For me, it’s an indication that women’s lives are really finally hitting the radar in our particular society. We are fully hearing, fully experiencing these things from radically different perspectives. Those perspectives are being treated with validity and concern. There is evidence that we are awakening to the full humanity of everyone. This kind of transformation is painful and hard and fraught and not linear, but it’s happening. That I feel is just incredibly hopeful.”

In her memoir, DiFranco tells the story of a liberated teenager with the courage to speak up for what she believes in, making her way through a dangerous, complicated and often harsh world.

“I think I’m kind of an open book so to speak,” she says. “Anything I feel is on my face. I’ve been told for 30 years by listeners, ‘Thank you for your vulnerability,’ and I never got it. Yeah, I’m at risk, I guess, so what? But f*** that.”

Together with time, reflection and a loving family, it was a 2019 recent Netflix documentary called “Brené Brown: The Call to Courage,” which helped DiFranco to realize that she’s always inspired her listeners more than she ever really knew.

“The way she articulated it made me realize what people were saying: You were strong enough to make yourself vulnerable and show yourself and be yourself when it wasn’t safe and it wasn’t expected and it wasn’t welcome,” she says. “A suit of armor is not where strength comes from. That’s maybe how I earned people’s trust. I said a lot of things along the way and I had a lot of thoughts and feelings. Thankfully people have remained curious and given me a place in the world to put them.” |