Ani DiFranco's Red Letter Year begins with a psychedelic New Year's Eve party and ends with one of the loosest and liveliest New Orleans jam sessions you'll ever hear. In-between, the prolific musician-activist muses on current events, love, insecurity, and her new role as parent amid arguably the most beautiful and sophisticated arrangements of her career.
When we spoke recently, DiFranco was in her New Orleans studio, getting ready to get ready to hit the road again, beginning with a Saturday solo slot at this weekend's moe.down festival. Until then, she's busily been working on new albums by self-described "cosmic tranny" Animal Prufrock and folksinger Anais Mitchell while juggling the dual responsibilities of work and motherhood, pretty much like every other contemporary parent.
What's going on down there?
I've been buried in these records. I should be getting ready for my tour. I'm coming off of my summer vacation. We spent a month at my mom's place in Quebec, on a lake without electricity or running water. I find that a month is plenty long enough to forget everything you know.
Who's in your band these days?
Todd Sickafoose, my left-hand man, and Andy Borger, a new drummer I've never met. Can you believe it? It's like an arranged marriage. In a week or so we'll rehearse for a couple of days and – bam! – we'll take a mystery journey onstage. Todd has an FK1, a little tiny keyboard that makes atmospheric sounds, and we've been traveling with a Wurlitzer, too, so he'll jump over to that. But our relationship with this drummer will be a tabula rasa, so I don't know what we'll be doing this tour. We’ll just be making it up.
Have you played moe.down before?
Yeah, I played at the very first one ten years ago. This year I'm playing solo, by the way.
Do you do anything different at festivals as opposed to audiences of dedicated Ani DiFranco fans?
Yeah, sure. When I'm playing to my own audience, I can assume certain things. And when I'm playing to a general audience, I try not to assume anything about who I'm talking to or what their political sensibility is. And generally, when you're outside in the elements, keeping people rocking is just the best thing to do. It's hard to do anything very subtle outside, with other stages bleeding into yours, and people drinking and getting sunstroke. It's not conducive to the sort of real finite focus you can get in a theater setting, so the setlist adjusts accordingly. You're there for the party. I definitely don't water down my politics, though, because I don't believe in that. Whatever you say with an open heart and inclusive motivation is cool. And it's amazing what people will listen to and take in if you come with the right vibe. There may be a slight shift in the way I introduce a song or in the flow of a set.
Since you moved to New Orleans, have you become involved in local issues apart from writing songs like "Red Letter Year"?
I'm a person who's really not home enough to build community in any one place. My community and the people I work with are international. The work I do isn't so much based in where I live because I don't really live anywhere.
What nonmusical things are you most involved with these days, politically or otherwise?
"Politically?" I was going to say my two-and-a-half-year-old. She's very expressive. She doesn't hide her fuck-off feelings and will deliver them to anybody, from her dearest comrades to a stranger on the street. Lately I've felt like I've been on full-time damage control. "She doesn't really mean anything by that screech in your face. We'll just be leaving now." I have a nanny, of course, so I can walk onstage and she doesn't walk into traffic while I'm there. As you can imagine, as soon as I get offstage I'm Mom again. There's very little time in my life for anything extracurricular – even songwriting. I feel as though I have just enough energy and leeway to play shows; to stay on the hamster wheel of my work, which is performing and interviewing and these album projects I'm involved with. But to write a song? That is so far down the list – past laundry and sleep – that I hardly ever get there. It's a little excruciating, but I'm also very grateful for this journey and mothering job. It's also a ton of fun, and I know I'll get back to having more time for my work and other interests soon enough.
How is Barack Obama's presidency working for you – or not – so far?
I lean toward empathy with the man. I relate to him. I have immense respect for him. I relate to him in the sense of where he comes from. He's an activist who's so smart that he got elected president. He's smarter than me, which I love in a president. So I look at him with unending gratitude and respect that he managed to do that. We have so many opportunities as citizens with him there. He's an enabler. I like to think of all of the work he will enable us to do.
That being said, of course, he's only one man, and I couldn't begin to fathom the oppressive pressures of his position. I hope the current health-care bill does not pass because it's too compromised. It's bullshit at this point. This public-private combination sounds very threatening to me: one system for the poor, one system for the rich. This is not the spirit he set out with or the change we need. I'm afraid it will be a failure the conservatives and Republicans can use to get elected in the near future. I wish Obama was sitting more in his own immense power. He's a powerful teacher. I ache for him to really stand in his own power and say, "What's wrong with socialism? Can't we move beyond the Cold War, people? Has capitalism served us so much better? Can't we look to the examples of socialized medicine in Europe and Canada and recognize that this is not evil we're talking about." I'm saddened by this little spiral we've gotten into. I want him to get back up on that ever-inspirational horse we know he has out in the barn.
But being a public person myself, I've become aware over the years of how much people look to their heroes to fix everything. Even just standing onstage and hearing, "Ani! Tell them to sit down." It's like, "What? You're right next to them. Why me?" All the calls that come in from whatever activist organization: "Ani, if you could just do a benefit, if you could wave your wand, you could fix this." Well, not really. So I stop short of feeling disillusioned with him because I really feel we need to look around at all the rest of us. What are we doing to help this debate stay on track? He's only one man.
Ani DiFranco tour dates:
09.05.09 moe.down - Snow Ridge Ski Area, Turin, NY
09.11.09 Kalamazoo State Theatre, Kalamazoo, MI
09.12.09 Wall to Wall Guitar Festival, Champaign, IL
09.12.09 Krannert Center, Urbana, IL
09.13.09 The Paramount Theatre Aurora, Aurora, IL
09.15.09 Mayo Civic Center, Rochester, MN
09.16.09 Duluth Entertainment Convention Center - Auditorium, Duluth, MN
09.18.09 Fargo Theatre. Fargo, ND
09.19.09 Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, Manitoba
09.20.09 First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN
09.22.09 Riverside Ballroom, Greenbay, WI
09.23.09 Vic Theatre / The Vic, Chicago, IL
09.25.09 Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, MI
10.10.09 Lobero Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA
10.11.09 The Grove of Anaheim, Anaheim, CA
10.13.09 Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz, CA
10.14.09 Tower Theatre, Fresno, CA
10.16.09 Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, CA
10.20.09 Arcata Community Center, Arcata, CA
10.21.09 McDonald Theatre, Eugene, OR
10.23.09 Crystal Ballroom - Lola's, Portland OR
10.24.09 Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA
10.25.09 Western Washington University Performing Arts Center - Concert Hall, Bellingham, WA
10.27.09 The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts - Chan Shun Concert Hall, Vancouver, British Columbia
11.15.09 Calvin Theatre, Northampton, MA
11.17.09 The Egg, Albany, NY
11.20.09 Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA
11.21.09 Town Hall Theatre, New York, NY