Getting frank with Ani DiFranco: Folk singer-songwriter talks ‘Hadestown,’ her memoir and ‘Prison Music Project’ ahead of Breckenridge concert
Editor’s note: This show has been postponed because of weather.
BRECKENRIDGE — Ani DiFranco sees herself and comedians as kindred spirits. Though she has a guitar and a melody as an aid, they both stand on a stage and open themselves up as vulnerable artists. People like Dave Chappelle inspire her and make her wonder how they can do what they do.
“But I know how you do that,” the Grammy Award-winning folk musician said. “You do it once. And then you do it again. And then you don’t stop. It gets easier and it doesn’t. You get used to it.”
DiFranco, who is performing Friday, Feb. 7, in Breckenridge with singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop, has had decades to get used to it. (2/7/20 UPDATE: The concert has been canceled due to inclement weather.) This year is the 30th anniversary of her debut album. Years before it released, she was busking in bars with her guitar teacher at age 9. She doesn’t remember why she wanted the guitar specifically, but she was glad her parents got her one.
She also painted, drew and danced when she was younger, though the medium of music spoke to her more, allowing her to put herself out into the world.
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“Music is like the … connective tissue that connects us all, and it happens everywhere,” DiFranco said. “People take it so deeply into themselves, and it’s just so vital. I think that of all things that I used to enjoy doing, I think it drew me the most powerfully because it satisfied that need in me the most, to connect myself.”
The feminist, bisexual activist began writing her own autobiographical songs when she was 14, using her tumultuous home life as material. She grew up in a cabin in Buffalo, New York, that had no interior walls except for the bathroom. Lacking boundaries, she was exposed to any moment her parents fought. The next year, she became an emancipated minor and moved out of the home, later spending her 16th birthday in a bus station.
“It’s not a tragic story, but it is an interesting one,” DiFranco said. “Music was definitely my horse that I rode on, and it took me further and further out there into the world. In a sense, I loved every minute of it.”
Yet she noted there were traumatic times that were difficult to revisit in her writing.
UPDATE: The concert has been canceled due to inclement weather. Tickets will be honored for a yet to rescheduled performance or they can be refunded.
What: Ani DiFranco with Jesca Hoop
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7. Doors open at 7.
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $43 in advance and $46 the day of the show. Visit BreckMusic.org to purchase.
Along with the guitar, DiFranco’s parents instilled her with progressive political ideals — DiFranco recently read “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and recommends it — and is in support of funding arts education as much as possible because of her personal experience.
“I always think it’s such a bad idea to defund arts programing … when the economy gets bad,” she said. “No, that’s when you put it all into outlets for children to navigate through and heal themselves when things get hard.”
When she was 19, DiFranco started Righteous Babe Records to release her first album. It was a testament to her independence and anticapitalism that matched her shaven head. Over her career, the record label has expanded and has been a home to artists like Andrew Bird and Anaïs Mitchell. DiFranco is in awe how it started as a “symbolic way of flipping the bird at the music industry” that is still alive and fostering new talent today.
Living as an outspoken troubadour, DiFranco finds performing in today’s political climate both scary and hopeful. As current events seem to spiral downward more, there’s more room to be real and honest.
“I’ve done a lot of pushing of the political envelope in my songs, and there’s a lot of backlash, a lot of recoiling. There’s a lot of fear and defensive responses,” she said. “But with the atmosphere being so heightened now, it’s like I can talk about patriarchy in polite conversation and everybody doesn’t leave the room anymore.”
Most of DiFranco’s life has been spent in New York, and she’s been able to play alongside legends like Bob Dylan, Prince and her hero Pete Seeger. Since 2008, however, she’s resided in New Orleans, which she’s found to be friendlier and less frenzied. While the Crescent City is not as iconic a setting to folk as it is other genres, DiFranco is known to blend punk, funk, hip-hop and jazz, much like a painter would pick different paints rather than limit themselves to the shade of one color. She takes all of her experiences and puts them out in a “proverbial gumbo.”
“When I stand back from myself and try to gauge myself as much as anyone can objectively, I see myself as quintessentially American because I’ve traveled the world,” DiFranco said. “All of my ingredients are the staple foods of American culture. I grew up loving them all and being nourished by them all. They all come through me and my art.”
Lady of the Underground
A few years ago DiFranco had the chance to blend and expand her musical horizons even more when Anaïs Mitchell reached out to DiFranco to produce a concept album about the Greek myth of Orpheus rescuing Eurydice in the underworld. Those songs became the 2019 Broadway hit “Hadestown,” which won eight Tony Awards out of 14 nominations, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
But when DiFranco was involved with the project back around 2010, she had no idea what it would become. She listened to a live recording of the small Vermont production, fell in love and saw the potential. Along with producing the album, she lent her voice to the character Persephone while Justin Vernon of Bon Iver played Orpheus, Mitchell was Eurydice and Greg Brown performed as Hades.
“She wasn’t content to just do her next little folk disc and say, ‘This is a song cycle related to the Orpheus myth,’” DiFranco said about Mitchell. “No. She kept evolving it an eliciting collaborations and opening it up further and further until it got all the way to where it did. I think it’s just an indication of her extraordinary maturity that she had the wherewithal to stick with it all that time.”
Though she likely won’t go the route of Jimmy Buffett or Bruce Springsteen with her own Broadway show, working with Mitchell has enticed DiFranco to change points of view in her work. She wishes to get creative with writing characters in the third person rather than work in the first-person perspective like she has for 30 years.
A month prior to the success of “Hadestown” at the 73rd Tony Awards, DiFranco released her memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream.” A reference to her childhood home, the book collects her origin story and stops in 2001. Like “writing with the other hand,” DiFranco struggled to put down her guitar and revisit her past, but the self-reflection made her feel more grateful. Each time something horrible happened in the news for which people wanted her to come out with songs, she was focused on her memoir.
“It was a weird juxtaposition to not be reacting and churning out reactions to the daily news cycle, but instead to be going in, very deep, to something very old,” DiFranco said.
Now she is in the second phase of her life, taking care of her children, gardening and cooking when she isn’t rocking out or working on her next album. DiFranco shows no signs of slowing down and earlier this month was featured in an interview for Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst’s “Rage Baking” cookbook.
Then this May will see the release of the “Prison Music Project” collaboration. In 2010, Zoe Bookbinder started working with nine incarcerated artists at New Folsom Prison in California and DiFranco has been assisting her for the past five years. The album features diverse songs, poems and raps by the writers themselves — sometimes recorded over the phone, other times in the studio once released — while women, such as DiFranco, also have tracks that reinterpret them.
Through the process, she befriended contributor Spoon Jackson, whose song she sings and who was sentenced to life without parole at age 20.
“We talk on the phone a lot and mostly what I do is listen because he is a person so cut off, his voice is so cut off, he has nowhere to put his gifts, he cannot use them,” DiFranco said. “He is so desperate to be heard, to be seen and to be recognized in his full humanity. I feel through him what that feels like — it’s awful.”
Proceeds from the nonprofit record will be donated to some sort of criminal justice reform organization, but it is still to be decided on where.
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