The Original Righteous Babe
Photo: Rhea Anna
Ani DiFranco burst onto the music scene at the dawn of the 1990s. Released on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, her self-titled debut marked the arrival of an important new voice, addressing by turns the personal and the political. Almost two decades later, DiFranco remains important—not only because of her music but because she has continued to do things successfully on her own terms. Over the course of 20 studio albums, 10 “official bootleg” live albums, three DVDs and literally thousands of live performances, DiFranco has remained the original righteous babe: She has never gone to a major label, despite offers. Instead, she’s signed other artists to her label. She’s sold over 4 million albums, played Carnegie Hall and collaborated with everyone from Utah Phillips to Prince. And she became only the second musician to receive the National Organization of Women’s Woman of Courage Award in 2006. Last year, was a pivotal year for DiFranco. She didn’t release a new studio album (a rarity), but she did release her first ever anthology, a double-disc package called Canon. And, even more significantly, she started the year by becoming a mother. Petah Lucia, DiFranco and her partner Mike Napolitano’s daughter, was born in January 2008. Here’s what she has to say about both these new arrivals.
Why put Canon out at this juncture, after so much recorded work?
Yeah, well, like you said, there’s so much at this point. So we just figured anybody new to my work, it’s a bit of a daunting scenario, you know. Where do you start? People ask me, “What’s your favorite record? What’s the best record?’’ So we thought a distillation was in order. And also I guess the literal part of “why now” would be, you know, I had this baby. So I took some time off, which I never ever do. Last fall, when I was fattening up for Thanksgiving, I told myself I was going to do these projects that have been on the back burner forever. So it seemed like the right juncture to just kind of pause and reflect. And I think it works in many ways for me, just because I do feel like I’m on to a new era.
What about being a new mom? [Petah starts crying, almost as if on cue.]
I spoke about two years ago with folk-pop singer-songwriter Dar Williams shortly after she had her baby, and she told me that while she was pregnant she didn’t feel like writing songs. But as soon as she gave birth, she started getting thematic and lyrical and melodic ideas again, and she was really relieved that she was still Dar.
What was your experience like? Was it totally different or similar?
Somewhat similar. Although, unfortunately, I still am not writing at the pace that I once was. I just don’t have the mental space. I remember thinking, Well, the baby sleeps a lot. Put the baby down for a nap and write a song, you know? But I didn’t realize [that] when you put the baby down for nap, you never know how long that nap is going to be. I had the experience a few times of getting into my work, and then she’s stirring, and I’m like, “Ugh!” And that’s not the kind of energy I want to interact with my kid with. So I found that I became more and more resistant to trying to use that time to work. It’s hard to get involved and then be wrenched from the process. But I can also understand that Dar’s creative process, in terms of writing songs, would be stalled when she was creating a person. I was really struck by that when I was pregnant, how a pregnant person can just be sitting there and she’s expending so much energy. You know, it’s a person who looks like they’re idle—but they’re giving everything, and then some, to a process of creation.
To me, the fact that you [never went] to a major label means—not to oversimplify—that you didn’t sell yourself out. But it’s a catch-22 because some people have accused you of selling out when you released albums that were slightly more polished than the first few.
Sure. Or putting on a dress. Or having my picture taken in a magazine.
Or getting married.
Oh sure, yeah, that. Can’t forget that.
A certain percentage of the [lesbian] community felt betrayed [by that].
That was true, to some degree. But I really feel in retrospect that it was a much smaller degree than even I understood at the time. Because you know how media feeds on media—that something that may or may not be true, even to a tiny degree, can become hugely true through the regurgitation [of it]. And I think back on my experience of that time. I remember once—it was prior to getting married—I remember walking out on stage in a dress. I think I was in a little black dress and fishnets. It was that phase [when
I was] 23 years old, I’m young, I’m sexual. And I remember hearing somebody in the back of the room, some chick, say, “Sellout!” I assume it was because of my attire, you know—because of my feminine appearance or something. And I remember thinking, Wow! Putting on a dress means that I’m not who I am? And that I’m not standing here doing exactly what I was doing yesterday in pants? What an equation—dress equals weakness and passivity and obedience. But honestly, when I got married, all I heard was, “Congratulations. We’re so happy you’re happy.” I mean, people were sending me gifts. I really just got a lot of support and a lot of love from my audience. That’s what I remember. And then I remember reading about how they were so betrayed and angry. And I think I believed it at the time, reading it so much or being told that so much. It took me awhile to realize that my experience was not that at all. That’s just stuff I read. My audience was really overwhelmingly supportive.
Which is as it should be.
But even so, if you don’t fit somebody’s perception of you, and that makes somebody want to get off your boat, that’s just fine. And then somebody [else] gets on, or not, or the boat gets lighter, or whatever. I think it’s much more important to be happy and be yourself.