Ani DiFranco has always been an idealist and an iconoclast.
She was lured by but never signed with major labels, opting instead for the grueling yet freeing path of remaining independent on her own imprint, Righteous Babe Records, which she started in 1990. She is a folk singer, in some ways akin to the classic mold of her late friend Pete Seeger. Yet she also melds into her mix African rhythms, jazz and funk. Her baldfaced feminism, bisexuality, furious guitar-picking and gorgeous acoustic melodies have inspired many a young woman to go shirtless at her concerts. She is also a Grammy Award winner, and now, at 48, a married mother of two.
Her new memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream” is part feminist and social-justice manifesto, part bracing road story. She tells us about the artists that influenced her — Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Thelonious Monk and Joan Armatrading, among them — and the experiences that shaped her (for starters, an unusual childhood). Then, when she gets to 2001, DiFranco pulls back. Readers looking for a definitive account of her life should be forewarned: “I only ever intended this book to be the ‘making of’ story,” she says at its close.
But what an origin story. DiFranco grew up in a log cabinlike home in Buffalo that literally had no walls inside, save for the bathroom. Every thought DiFranco had was inherently outside the box because there were no boxes — or rooms, as was the case. DiFranco’s parents’ bed was visible from her own. The house’s experimental design became especially disconcerting for DiFranco when things grew turbulent. Her parents fought, and her brother was suicidal. “As I lay there in my bed,” she writes, “with only the armor of my eyelids shut tight, I learned to completely leave my body.” DiFranco was often left to her own devices.
Fortuitously, she began taking guitar lessons with a musician who would come to be a lifelong friend. At the tender age of 9, she essentially became his sidekick: “We hung out in bars and coffeehouses, busked on the street, foraged in thrift stores.” By age 14, she was writing songs. A year later, DiFranco became an emancipated minor and moved out of her family home. She confides that to pay the rent she relied on the $300 she got as an underage dependent on her father’s Social Security .
After attending Buffalo State College, DiFranco ultimately fled for a sublet in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. She worked odd jobs, including as a nude model. Simultaneously, she managed to write an album’s worth of songs, which she recorded on digital audio tape in 1990. She began hearing from fans, mostly young college women, who contacted her by snail mail. Many were invitations to play at very low-budget events. DiFranco is eager to connect: “I was searching, through music, for the experience of family,” she writes.
So she set out on the road and slowly worked her way into the hearts of music lovers — one gig at a time — often traveling in beat-up cars, with a female or male adventurer-lover in tow.
These experiences are both heartening and bracing. She learned how to handle the misogyny in club venues unfamiliar with her style of lyrics and sound. “There were dudes everywhere unaccustomed to hearing a voice like mine singing words like those and their hackles would go up,” she writes. The sound guys, she writes, “just couldn’t accept my ideas about the acoustic guitar. It made them mad.”
There was also the dangerous matter of being a woman alone and in transit. DiFranco recounts several perilous situations, including one where she accepted an invitation to stay at the home of a friend of a friend in London. The seemingly kind offer turned traumatic when the guy insisted that DiFranco pay for her lodging with sex. Another time, she and a female lover accepted a ride from a burly driver in a semi who had a baseball bat peeking from underneath his seat. As they drove farther and farther down a two-lane highway with no other cars on it, DiFranco claimed she needed to make a pit stop — and she and her lover jumped. DiFranco wrote the song “If he Tries Anything” for her 1994 album “Out of Range” in the aftermath of that trip: “We are wise wise women/We are giggling girls/We both carry a smile/To show when we’re pleased/We both carry a switchblade/In our sleeves.”
For the most part, however, DiFranco approached her travels with wonderment and abandon — and often met intriguing, colorful characters along the way. They include Prince, who attended a show she played in 1999 in his native Minneapolis. She vividly recalls the moment the rock icon rolled down the window of his limo: “There he was, lounging on the white shag-carpeted floor of the car in the most vivid purple silk chemise, looking up at me with eyelashes flapping like butterfly wings.. . . My face was bare, but Prince was sporting full base and powder. I immediately dug the flip of the script. There we were, both inhabiting our own brand of androgyny, smiling at each other.”
Glam vignettes aside, a deep and thoughtful current runs throughout DiFranco’s memoir. She’s a longtime activist, and her book highlights the value and power of speaking up: “With any heart, and with a solid basis of mutual respect, you can go toe to toe in fierce debate with someone and then shift gears when the meeting or class is over and relate once again as friends,” she writes. “We can make room for each other to make mistakes, we can enter uncomfortable and even adversarial spaces, and then we can come back to a hand- shaking stasis and even laugh together.” Ani DiFranco — idealist and iconoclast.
Karen Iris Tucker is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes primarily about genetics, health and cultural politics.
By Ani DiFranco
Viking. 320 pp. $28