Ani DiFranco On Why Politically-Charged Music Is More Important Than Ever
The '90s cult icon talks activism and her latest album 'Binary.'
The '90s cult icon talks activism and her latest album 'Binary.'
Text: Alexandra Ilyashov
Binary, fiery singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco’s 20th album, which dropped in June, has been in the works for three years: “I’m on baby time! I’m a mom of two, so there are lots of interruptions in my work,” DiFranco says. “In my 20s, I put out a record every two minutes, but I guess I’m more like other humans now -- a record every couple of years, instead of a couple a year.” Binary’s tour, dubbed “Rise Up,” just kicked off a few weeks ago. The Buffalo-bred, New Orleans-based artist also held the 2nd annual Babefest earlier this month, a daylong celebration of arts, politics, and activism to “ignite participation and inspiration about citizenship, community, and being accountable together to our society,” DiFranco says. “How do we get shit done? How do we get from here to a better place? It’s so overwhelming for all of us to begin to fix everything that needs fixing.”
Activism, be it for anti-war efforts, women’s reproductive rights, or LGBTQ issues, has always been essential to DiFranco’s life and career. “The current political climate is more dire than ever, although I felt like the George W. [Bush] years were equally dark,” DiFranco says, though she’s fairly optimistic now. “I actually feel a sense of possibility, and, dare I say, even hope. So much American hypocrisy that has existed all along is being exposed right now, which means we can address it together; I feel less alone than I ever have in my political activism,” she says.
Ahead, DiFranco explains how she’s evolved as a plucky, powerful singer-songwriter and deeply-committed activist.
Why did you decide to title your newest album Binary?
Basically, nothing exists except in relationship with something else, and to everything else – so the title Binary is kind of related to my feminism. I see relationships as being not just a priority, but actually the stuff of existence – only in relationships do we really come into being. You can find this not just in freaky feminist musings like mine, but also in science and quantum physics. I’m really intrigued by the idea that the universe is just an endless field of possibility until there is an interaction, and then reality is created through an interaction, whether it’s an interplay of masculine and feminine, or of positive and negative.
How did you come up with the concept for Babefest, which launched in 2016 and just had its sophomore iteration this year?
The idea is a yearly gathering that unites arts, politics, and activism, and trying to find other people to learn from, to resonate with, to inspire and teach each other. I’m just looking for ways to do more in terms of igniting participation and inspiration in myself and anybody who will listen to me. How do we get shit done? How do we get from here to a better place? It’s so overwhelming for all of us to begin to fix everything that needs fixing. The more we can get together and form relationships with each other, and take it one moment and one path at a time, the more doable it becomes.
For decades, you’ve been an ardent activist, and that’s reflected in your work. Has the current administration and perilous political state affected your advocacy?
I think I’m doing it much the same as I always have. Certainly, the current political climate is more dire than ever. I’m less alone in my political views, in that, “Holy shit, we have to do something!” approach. So many people are now saying, “Okay, enough is enough.” People are getting involved that never got involved before, speaking up when they used to be quiet, taking to the streets for the first time, and trying to help people and organizations that are doing good work. I think it’s a time of great possibility.
What’s making you optimistic, exactly?
There are so many examples; I live in New Orleans, and I have driven by Confederate monuments for 15 years, in my new hometown. I believe that it’s thanks to our current [political] regime and Neo-Nazis marching in the streets, those monuments are gone. Finally. There’s nothing like really exposing the underlying realities of inequality and oppression to motivate and activate people. I feel like there’s much more receptiveness for me talking about something like patriarchy these days. For most of my life, people have just eye-rolled, but at this point, there’s no more textbook-manifestation of patriarchy than fascism [of the current administration]. So, can we talk about it now? Because patriarchy doesn’t go away. Whether we choose to acknowledge and address it or not, more people are now willing to acknowledge and address things. I think that that’s very exciting.
Your current tour, “Rise Up,” clearly reflects that marked shift toward discussing, then doing something about, the enraging political climate.
Now is the time. There is momentum around us and inside us, to affect change in our society, so what better time to get up and propel it, to be a part of it? In 2016, my whole year was sort of dedicated to the message of “Vote, damn it,” and I was focusing on trying to encourage voter participation. That’s still definitely part of what I want to talk about, because step one of rising up is going to the voting booth, people. If we opt out of voting, the outcome can be excruciating and extremely dangerous, even, which is where we are now. So, Rise Up is an all-inclusive, “let’s be a part of our democracy and make it come alive again” tour.
How has your sound and your songwriting evolved throughout your lengthy career?
I’m a more patient person and writer than I used to be. My kids basically just prevent me from getting anything done, other than pouring my love and attention and creativity into them, so it’s been hard to adjust. I’m somebody who loves my work, is inspired by my work, and I’ve actually lived through my work my whole life – it was frustrating to put the breaks on all of that. After I got over the frustration, I realized it’s actually very useful for songwriting. I could write a good song as a young and impatient person in a moment if the stars align, but now, I only get scant moments to create something, so I chip away whenever I can, and it’s helped me to be a better writer overall.
Do you still enjoy touring nowadays?
It was hard to leave my little ones – that’s always a little heartbreaking. My youngest is four, so it hurts to leave each other. But I’m back on my horse, I love what I do, and I’m excited to be out playing music, engaging with people again.
What’s the most meaningful feedback you’ve gotten over the years?
People often bring that up how vulnerable I make myself onstage and through my songs. I’ve been told, “I appreciate not just your honesty, but also your vulnerability”. It’s really interesting to me, and it’s taught me how much we need that from each other.