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Ani DiFranco: ‘It was very hard in the beginning to put my inconvenient truths into song’

Ani DiFranco (Deborah Feingold)

Ani DiFranco, 48, is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. DiFranco’s poetic lyrics often tackle major social issues, and she has been active in various progressive causes. Her memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” was released this spring.

I understand that [when you were] growing up your house had no walls except around the outside [and a bathroom]. You talk about getting dressed crouched behind your bed. We all know that feeling — but not at home as much.

It was just so incongruous, this life I was leading with my family. Because there wasn’t a psychic atmosphere of openness and closeness. And there’s something about that total exposure, yet lacking in intimacy, you know? That kind of set me off on whatever course I’ve been on.

It’s the perfect metaphor for no boundaries — and you certainly had a phenomenal amount of independence as a kid. Didn’t you starting gigging at 9 or 10?

Yeah. There I was in bars, just sort of shadowing [an older musician friend] around Buffalo and getting a window into the adult world.

With kids of your own now, does it ever boggle your mind that at their age you were playing in bars?

It sure does when I look at my daughter in just a completely different stage of life at the same age. And how, in one generation, you can go from one way of growing up to a radically different way. It’s funny, because I’m not the helicopter parent. I’m: “Go fall off that thing. Then you will learn to be cautious. Go up the slide. Of course. Why wouldn’t you go up?” All these parents, like, saving their child from ever having an experience — I’m not like that. And yet, she hasn’t had nearly the experiences that I had, growing up in a different world, where a 9-year-old girl doesn’t walk home from school by herself and let herself in and cook herself dinner.

I feel like my emotional state then was: I can’t feel all of this right now. I sort of learned to push [feelings] down. Recently, I’ve been in therapy and been made aware of the coping mechanism. Apparently, I’m real good at it [laughs] and can do it for decades.

Ah, congratulations.

Yeah, thanks. We all find our techniques.

Through your music you found a way to connect with people?

Yeah. I mean, one-on-one I was always so afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings. Make somebody mad. Be seen as x, y, z. Just a lot of accommodating and dealing and feeling walked on and pushed around and misunderstood. So I invented this job where I could make myself understood and seen and, you know, [have] this place on the stage where I could have intimacy.

Yes, you mentioned preferring smaller venues, and your almost aggressive eye contact with audiences.

Totally. I picked them out one by one, too: I got you. All right. Now I got you.

What was that about? Was that like a teacher trying to make sure people are paying attention? Or was it, “We’re here together, we’re going to hear each other”?

I imagine some of it was a technique for dialing people in. And even, of course, for a lot of years, shutting people up. But, underneath, capturing their attention was just a super craving for connection. Just searching, searching, really desperately searching.

So what was a satisfying response to you?

When the person that you're singing to just also lets the veils go in the wind. It's hard to even articulate, but I feel people's energy when I'm performing. I feel their resistance and then when there's complete openness and receptivity. I feel the energy start to spin between us. Sometimes I have felt like I send out a wave, and I feel it come back even bigger from an audience. As though it hits a distant shore, and it comes back a tsunami.


There's a lot of love in it. You feel them. You empathize. It's like we create this wave of love and understanding. It's the best feeling.

You’ve described the volatility at home growing up, the sense of walking on eggshells and not wanting to offend. But you’re very engaged politically, you don’t shy away from things and have talked about being a lightning rod for controversy or critical thinking.

My parents gifted me with a real awareness, a political awareness and caring that they showed us. A give-a-s---itude. So, yeah, it was very hard in the beginning to put my inconvenient truths into song and to stand in front of people, even some of whom I knew, and sing my little songs. And I remember just that ongoing feeling of anger and resistance from the world at large to my voice going into it and hurling at unsuspecting citizens. And all of these condescensions and stereotypes just pushing me down in a way: “You’re a crazy, angry b----.”

In response to your music?

Yeah, my songs. And then the hilarious juxtapositions of showing up as actually me, in every city, and having the dude at the venue go, “I thought you’d be taller. …” You know? [Laughs.] Yeah. No, it’s me that you thought was so angry and dangerous and mean and hairy and scary. Can you listen to my voice and be my friend? Because that’s what I need. I don’t want to do it the other way by only saying comfortable things. But right from the beginning, through the fog of criticism or resistance or negative responses would pierce a person who was just, like, “Thank you.”

Can you remember moments where it all just comes together?

Oh, there are so many. I'm blessed. Last night, at [an] event, I heard a sentiment that I've heard so many times in my life. And it never gets old. It never gets less significant or important for me. One of the women who came up to ask a question in the Q and A started with, "You saved my life." And it's, like, "You saved my life with that. You give me purpose." All of the hardship of this life that I chose is so worth it in that. It all makes total sense to me, and I'm so happy we did this together. You know? And another woman stepped up to the mic, and the first thing she said is, "We love you unconditionally, Ani." I was, like, "Yay! Unconditional love!" That's what I was seeking all along. Whew. That's what it's all about for me. Seeing and being seen. That recognition of each other's humanity.

After thirty years of being on stage, there's that sort of repeated image that appears in my life of the ghost light in the old theater, you know, when you're leaving at night. It's so evocative, so lonely, but it's so majestic and awesome. Like the faintest echo of the grandeur of it all, you know? Down to just one little glowing light of what we were to each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed.