Ep11 – Ani DiFranco
In This Episode
ALAN: Hello and welcome to episode 11 of the Theatre Podcast. It is 2019, Happy New Year, everyone, happy New Year, Jillian.
JILLIAN: Happy New Year.
ALAN: This episode here is with Ani DiFranco and you might be thinking to yourself that it’s a little unusual for a theatre-focused podcast to interview somebody like Ani DiFranco but the, the-, she has a bit of a crossover that, of course, we’re going to get into in the episode.
JILLIAN: Well if we back up real quick- for those who don’t know who Ani DiFranco is because you are a theatre person, you should know. So, Ani is a folk singer and activist who has been around for, what, 20 years now?
ALAN: Mm-hmm, longer than that, yeah.
JILLIAN: Yeah, and she is definitely a voice of a generation. She was one of the original feminist folk singers and she’s a brilliant songwriter and just wonderful person.
ALAN: Mm-hmm, and a lover of all things theatre and Broadway performing in general and we do get into this in the episode but she indirectly had her hands in getting Hadestown to Broadway.
JILLIAN: Mm-hmm, she helped with the original concept album and she worked with Anais Mitchell, who she signed to her record so without Ani there would be no Anais, really, to the extent which we know her now and she had a lot of input into the original concepts and the original songs.
ALAN: Yeah, Ani’s had an incredible career. She emancipated herself before she was 18, emancipated herself from her parents and just went out playing guitar everywhere she could, playing with her guitar teacher. Amazingly enough, she just never fell into the same pattern that most record labels want you to fall into; she was always like “nope, I’m going to do it myself”. She talks about this a lot, her passion, and she uses the word “grit”, which, in the last couple of years, has come around many times in many different reference but it all kind of means the same thing. If you’re going to be uber-successful, you need grit or a hell of a lot of luck or a good combination of the two. She’s a self-made woman, a self-made person and always has done what she wanted to do, stood up for what she believes in, supports those people who follow her, who are of similar mindset who just want to make the world a better place and bring music for the sake of bringing music and perform for the sake of performing and she talks about a lot of that, in that performance, whether it’s a band, a solo singer, or a theatre production (or whatever it is), performing is all the same. It’s bringing people together, bringing a crew together, bringing your cast together, it’s bringing an audience together so in one moment, everyone is experiencing the same thing.
ALAN: That’s art, it’s the beauty of all of this.
JILLIAN: I like that a lot of what you said crosses over from music to theatre to dance to everything. It’s that passion and it’s that drive and that’s that special thing that makes this need to create universal and this feeling of bringing everyone together, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s still this magical experience. I don’t know, I trailed off [laughs].
ALAN: [Laughs] I wondered where you’re going with that. Well, all right, let’s get into it here. Everybody please connect with us online- @Theatre_Podcast on Instagram and Twitter, Faceboook.com/officialtheatrepodcast or you can email us, let us know what you think: email@example.com. Please also rate and review us everywhere you find podcasts, those are very important to keep us going so please now enjoy this episode with Ani DiFranco.
ALAN: Welcome to the Theatre Podcast, intimate, personal conversation with theatre’s biggest talents. I’m your host, Alan Seales. This episode’s guest is a little bit different from the normal type of guest that I have on the podcast, as even though you may not see her starring in a Broadway show right now, she’s certainly no stranger to performing in front of thousands. An amazing singer and musician but also a poet, songwriter, activist- she has release more than 20 albums over her 30 year career, not to mention that she is a massive fan of Broadway, which is the tie-in we have here.
ALAN: Um, I have the absolute pleasure of having with me today gold record maker, Grammy award winner, and one of this generation’s leading ladies of rock: Ani DiFranco.
ALAN: How are you doing?
ANI: You’re making me sound impressive.
ALAN: You are kind of impressive.
ANI: I love it, can I take you with me everywhere I go?
ALAN: Yeah, I will give you that intro everywhere I can [laughs] but the format of this podcast is normally we have these people on, we talk about their background and where they came from, and then we get into what they’re doing now so I see absolutely no reason why we can’t do that with you and we’ll touch, of course, on your love of theatre and Broadway. So, for those of you listening, we will get to the Broadway stuff.
ANI: Yes, a bit of a side-track with the ol’ folk singer [laughs].
ALAN: Yes, but I want to know about you. Tell me about your childhood. You were born in Buffalo, let’s start there.
ANI: Yeah, Buffalo, New York, center of the universe. Went to public school, magnet school. I had a good education, I feel like, of the world and, yeah, got into music. When I was 9 years old I got my first guitar and just sort of never looked back. I’ve been following my guitar around ever since.
ALAN: That’s a good way to put it. So, I guess you just go where the music takes you?
ANI: Yeah, I mean I’ve been- this is an aside- but I’m on the board of a free music school in New Orleans now for about 10 years called the Roots of Music and I was just at their annual benefit talking to all the kids that are in that program Just talking to them about how the language of music, when you learn the language of music and maybe you learn the skill of playing an instrument, it can transform itself into a passport and it can take you place you never dreamed of. That’s the power, the power of music: the universal language. So I didn’t know that when I was a kid, I was just really drawn to it and thank God, it’s been my whole life.
ALAN: Well, going back to your childhood a second, I was reading online that you became emancipated from your parents at 15. What is that story?
ANI: Yeah, my family was a bit troubled. My parents split up when I was 11 and I was living with my mom and then my Mom decided to move to Connecticut, rural Connecticut. So I went with her to explore her new locale and her new life and determined within a few days this was not for me. This was when I was 15 so I just went back to Buffalo and started renting a room in this lady’s house. That just lasted a few months, then that situation blew up and I think I spent my 16th birthday in the bus station, you know [laughs], classic ‘just trying to fend in the adult world’. Then I got an apartment, I got a job, I just got myself going, you know, finished high school when I was 16 and was playing music already.
ALAN: You were busking with your guitar teacher when you were 9.
ANI: Yeah, and then following him around to his little gigs in bars and clubs and coffeehouses, so I continued on that path. I dabbled in college but I really just sort of continued with the music.
ALAN: That’s crazy and your daughter, Petah, is sitting behind you right now. How old is she now?
ANI: She’s 11.
ALAN: 11, so is she following in your footsteps, here?
ANI: In some ways. She’s a beautiful singer, I mean, I was touring until I was 7 months pregnant so she was in there absorbing music, pushing her feet against the guitar like ‘get it away’ I imagine [laughs] this cacophony that she was experiencing but she came out with perfect pitch, with an incredible sense of melody and harmony more advanced than I, seriously.
ANI: On the other hand, we have led very different lives up until now. When I was 11, I was already kind of a crazy free agent and she’s more of a child of the 21st Century, much more close to home.
ALAN: Yeah. You always seem to be a little bit-, everything I’ve read about you, you’ve always seemed a little bit emotionally ahead of your physical age. You just always-, and I’m interpreting what I’m seeing online, you seem to always have this knack for being like ‘nope, I will not compromise who I am, this is me, I am a very high-integrity person, I will not compromise’ I guess. I know I keep going back to that. Where did that part of you come from, is that accurate?
ANI: I think so. I think that’s been part of what has drawn people to my work, is that attitude, that stance. Where’d that come from? I mean, I guess my parents, in a way, especially my mother, she’s a super independent lady. Yeah, you know, she was 50 years old when she picked up and decided to move to Connecticut and start a new life. Fearless, I guess, is the word and so I think she gifted me with that. Just fearlessness and the rest was just making it up as I went along.
ALAN: Yeah, you know you were saying you went back to Buffalo, you went to Connecticut for a few days and you were like ‘nope, not for me’ and that’s a special part of a very small select group of people who can say ‘nope, I’m this young but I know-, I have the wherewithal to say I know where home is, I’m going to go back’ and especially, like you were saying, you followed the music back.
ALAN: Did you go back to Buffalo for the music, for that scene that you already knew?
ANI: Yeah, I kinda already had a thing going. I was 15, I was hosting the open mic at Nietzsche’s, I was playing every Saturday night at the Essex Street Pub, I had a thing. I had a life and I had a purpose. I think I was just sort of lucky to have had that very early on, a sense of what I wanted to do. I always knew what I wanted to do, strong convictions, and I was driven towards it. I’ve always had a hard time discerning people who are like ‘I don’t know’, but that’s also a very human condition, too, and probably a beautiful one full of possibilities, you know, to just keep yourself open to whatever path for much longer. For me, it was always like ‘I wanna do this. I don’t know why but I just know I do.’
ALAN: Yeah and that’s very driven. In theatre they always say ‘if you can ever see yourself doing something else, you should do that’.
ANI: Hmm, yeah.
ALAN: Because it’s such a hard business.
ANI: Mm-hmm, it’s not worth it unless-, you must be desperate, indeed. [laughs]
ALAN: So, I thank you for sticking with it, obviously you’ve made quite a bit of a difference, and then your first album you released in 1990 under your own record label, right? Which is Righteous Babes Records, which you founded when you were 19 in 1989. I’ll give a quote here and, again, this is your mission statement, right? ‘A people-friendly, subcorporate, woman-informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock stardom and ideology before profit.’ So, why that?
ANI: ‘Why that’? I mean that was just sort of my ethos that I had solidified around me and, again, my purpose. The whole, yeah, being independent and staying independent, you know, 1990 there was not a lot of precedent. Like I was saying earlier to the kids here at Guitar Mash, the record deal was the only barometer for ‘are you a legit musician/performer’ and I just had an attitude about that right from the beginning. Why are corporate record company people the arbiter of whether my art is legitimate art or whether it has a purpose? So that was part of my attitude as a young person, I just wanted to thwart that idea and that system. When I was 19 and I made my first cassette, I scribbled ‘Righteous Babe Records’ onto it, but there was no there there. That was just an idea, that I don’t need a record company. Then slowly, it became a record company, an actual thing over the course of the next 5 or 10 years.
ALAN: Well, how did you get your first record out, then, if you just had this cassette and you’re like, ‘all right, here’s my master’, how’d you get people to listen to it?
ANI: I was playing around in bars and coffeehouses and I would sell them to the people who were there, who were interested. I put an address- I got a P.O. box when I made my first-, this was pre-internet, you know. I got a P.O. Box and I put that P.O. Box on the cassette and people started writing in. Right from the first cassette it had a life of its own. It made its way hand to hand and then people wrote to the P.O. Box and said ‘can she come play the Women’s March at my Kalamazoo University’, you know, and I started going and playing at Student Union halls and this and that. That was my entrée into touring. In the early days, for the first 5 years at least, probably 10 years, I had no distribution because that was a major label scenario. I grew up in Buffalo so I had 10 tapes on consignment at this store and that store in Buffalo and then Rochester and then Cleveland, you know, and it sort of slowly, organically built from there. I was probably going on 10 years in to a “career” in music before an independent distribution company, which, again, I was dead-set against signing with a label, so when an independent distributor said enough people had walked into record stores asking for my records and nobody had them, they would called the indies saying ‘do you have this obscurest thing?’, finally they called me.
ANI: It took 10 years.
ALAN: What market did you find was holding onto your music the fastest? Was it, like Cleveland, everybody loved you in Cleveland? Everybody loved you-, I guess Buffalo is where you’re from.
ANI: Well, New York, I moved to New York when I was 18, the city, so that was probably the hub of my career for a long time. I would say, in general, other young women were my first audience and then beyond that, just other young political radicals. You know, male, female, whatever make and model were the people who supported my art right from the beginning. Actually, before the national distributor, something that factored in pretty heavily were there were these newsprint, black-and-white catalogues of women’s music. Yes, that’s right, women’s music. That’s how old I am- in record stores, if you remember what those are, in the back corner there would be a section called ‘women’s music’ and that’s where I was racked in the beginning and it was mostly dykes, feminists. It’s just, if there’s a feminist singing, she goes back in the back corner. So there were these women’s music catalogues called Ladyslipper and Goldenrod and they were the first national distribution of sorts for my cassettes and then CDs before they were actually distributed into stores legit.
ALAN: So you’ve always done this out of artistic integrity, you’ve made your choices based off integrity, not what would bring you the most money because it sounds like you could’ve signed with a label a decade before you “made it”.
ANI: I did have offers, I had interests, I had lunches, I had free lunches and flirtations with record companies when I was young and each time I was like ‘yeah, with what I’m trying to do, this is not the right place.’
ALAN: What were you trying to do?
ANI: I was trying to make radical art and I think hooking up with a big business, a profit-motivated business, I just always looked at this sort of corporate music industry-, the interests of corporations and the interest of art are fundamentally contradictory. Not that there’s something evil about the music industry or anybody in it, just that I had a sense that the interface that I was searching for through my art with other people, the connection that I was looking for, that was not the right way. When I flirted with that world and entertained the idea of signing with this company or that company, I just looked at how they did business, how they thought, what motivated them and I thought this was not aligned with how I think. Besides making me rich and famous, how does this serve my path? I was more about finding my own way to reach people.
ALAN: And you feel like you still got there? It took a longer road but you still got there?
ANI: Yeah. A lot longer. It took a lot of patience going through the early years. You’re trying to have music be your job and feed yourself and pay your rent and you have no distribution. People would write to the P.O. Box offering me gigs and I’d get on a bus or train and go to that little school or club in whatever town and everyone that came to my shows said to me for 10 years ‘I can’t get your records anywhere, where can I get them?’ and I was like ‘Ladyslipper, Goldenrod’, you know, these obscure, feminist music catalogues that if you go to a women’s bookstore, you can ask the chick at the counter if maybe they can special-order a tape for you. It was an egg hunt, so it was a lose-lose situation. I can’t sell a record, nobody can buy a record that I made, so it took a lot of patience. I had to remind myself every day, why am I doing it this way, what is my point? I would see other young people, young women-, they’d be opening for me in a hole-in-the-wall and within a year they’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone and I’d be back at that hole-in-the-wall. I did that for 10 years and I saw all of these people whiz past me on the industry track and it was hard but I’m so happy in the end. People look at me with jealousy now, ‘look at how strong and stable your audience is’ because it was built slowly and organically, it’s a different foundation in that I never had a hit song, I never had a hit video or a song on the radio, so that sort of lightning-fast stardom can also burn out as quickly. For me, because it was such a long slow building process, it’s a very sturdy house.
ALAN: You’ve got lifetime fans now.
ANI: Well, I hope, I don’t know. So far, so good.
ALAN: Your label, I was reading up on that and that’s grown organically, too. One of the things-, I was reading through the FAQs and I found it very respectful, admirable I guess-, they were like ‘can I just send you my demo?’ and you were like ‘yeah, of course, but we’re not going to choose you based on your demo. You’ve got to go out there and hustle.’ I’m paraphrasing but ‘you’ve got to play your gigs, you’ve got to build your name and then we can hear from you in addition to your demo, you’ve got to work your butt off, too’ just like you did. I respect that. You’re looking for artists and bands coming up that have just as much grit, we’ll use that word, as what you had.
ANI: Right, and willingness to leave their house and go everywhere and play for everyone and talk to everyone and have every experience of performing, of being on stage. I think that is the essence, maybe that’s a good tie-in for what your podcast is really about because performing-, that’s the natural state of music. Music is not a commodity that comes in a plastic box or 1’s and 0’s, it’s a human interaction. Performance in time and place, that’s the natural state of music, it’s a social act. So I think my deepest love and the people that I relate to and connect to are people who are performance-based.
ALAN: Yeah, you feel it. You literally, you emotionally feel it, you can physically feel it. That’s why I agree, when you go to these concerts and everyone’s jumping up and down, you have tens of people or hundreds or thousands that are all, for that moment, in perfect sync. They’re all together. They’re all experiencing the same thing together.
ANI: Yeah, that’s the healing moment of music. It’s like connecting yourself to somebody else in a moment.
ALAN: It brings everyone together regardless of differences, which is so much of what you stand for. You mentioned it earlier, that we’re here in City Winery, it’s the 7th annual Urban Campfire, so it’s unique and immersive musical experience where artists break down the wall between stage and the house and invite the audience to play and sing with them. When I was coming in, everyone was wearing a guitar on their back.
ANI: [Laughing] Hundreds of guitars down there, yeah.
ALAN: So this year’s theme-, giving you a free plug here, I love it-, this year’s theme is Songs for Change, which focuses on the power of music to generate awareness and bring people together so it’s perfect. We obviously know you’re not one to sell out or take a gig just because it’s offered to you, so what spoke to you about this one? Why are you here today?
ANI: Yeah, just to have the experience of, first of all, singing together. Group singing, very healing, just ask Pete Seeger, that’s the ultimate. It’s not just performers and people gawking at them in a moment, sharing a moment, it’s that everybody’s making the music together, you know, that’s probably the most inherent state of music. This is an experience where not only are people singing along, but they’re playing along [laughs] and it just seemed too unique, who could pass that up? Do a gig where everybody brings a guitar with you?
ALAN: You should try that with one of your next concerts.
ANI: I mean, we’ll see how it goes down there.
ALAN: You guys have, like, the VIP section on the left and the guitar playing section on the right and then you could hand off the chorus of all of your songs to the guitar playing section, that’d be great.
ANI: Yeah, man.
ALAN: I’m going to go back to your label for a second and talk about one particular artist that you’ve discovered, Anais Mitchell, right?
ALAN: Composer of Hadestown, which is currently playing in London, coming to Broadway, so a theatre show. How did you find Anais?
ANI: Uh, I saw her play in a little bar in Buffalo and I was like ‘ooh, yeah. She has a thing. She has a thing.’ Whenever I see a performer that I dig that’s just out there on the periphery doing their thing, once I established my audience I was like ‘want to come open for me, share the stage?’ You know, just an excuse to hang out with people and enjoy their music. So I brought her out on the road with me and that sort of developed into-, I released a few of her records on Righteous Babe. She was searching for an outlet for her work and then she came up with this Hadestown project and contacted me early on. I mean, I think she was on my label at the time and I got behind it early on. That sort of helped propel it and it went from, you know, a theatre production in Vermont to an album, that we realized with a bunch of different performers, Justin Vernon, Bon Iver, Greg Brown, who else is on that record-, me and Anais, all kinds of singers, I’m forgetting. Then she just kept-, I mean, talk about a young person with conviction and staying power. She’s been working on this Hadestown show for a decade now.
ANI: She’s still developing it, I think it’s probably in its final stages, now that it’s gonna be on stage in London and headed for Broadway. As somebody who’s been going to Broadway shows lately, thanks to my daughter and her love of musical theatre, even on Broadway, even at the top, even at the height of musical theatre, a show that’s all amazing songs like a Hamilton, that’s rare. That is rare. I think Hadestown is going to blow people away. The level of the songwriting and the music is as high as it can be.
ALAN: Did you-, are you producing it? Are you behind it that way?
ANI: These days, no. It’s out of my hands, yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll be roped back in at some point but Anais is just going for it. They had their East Village stint a few years ago and she keeps developing it and she’s got a lot of people on board now so bless her.
ALAN: So have you ever thought about getting into the producing side of the theatre world like that?
ANI: I mean-, oh, well, I have been asked a few different things like, you know, this Hadestown project, I was involved in that along the way. Definitely, lately I have been thinking about that idea of-, because I’ve written hundreds of songs and just made a lot of my own damn records, you know, new writing challenges. One thing I did the last few years was write a book that’s coming out, so that was different, writing challenge. Yeah, recently the idea of writing a show that’s-, not Ani Di’s songs about her life but, yeah, creating a context to compose music in and a storyline and writing around that. . . that could be an intriguing new area to venture into.
ALAN: That’s what I was kind of getting at, I was like ‘when are we going to see the Ani DiFranco musical?’ We’ve got the Cher Show coming out and then there’s, like, jukebox musicals galore. I think your life would make a pretty good musical at this point.
ANI: Yeah, well, people have brought that idea to me. I don’t know about a musical based on me but I’d love to try writing not about me. [laughs]
ALAN: Do you normally-, I guess that’s a good segue there, your songwriting, is that normally about you on the inside or do you ever just write about things that are completely made up?
ANI: Well, yes. Yes, exactly. That’s what it all-, that’s what it is, it’s both, all the time. I try to write about what I know, so often that’s what I experienced and what I saw and what I felt about it but sometimes it’s what the guy next to me experienced. There’s a lot in everybody’s life that is not exactly and only them and exactly what happened so, as a writer, I take all kinds of license. I make all kinds of sh*t up, you know? But I try to keep it close to home and not speak for something or somebody so far outside myself that I’m being presumptuous. Yeah, I would love to-, I’ve been on the planet long enough now that I think I can imagine and use the writing skills I’ve garnered along the way to apply them to a different kind of project, so that could be kind of fun.
ALAN: Well, I will go see it.
ANI: Okay, good [laughs].
ALAN: There’s a lot of people, yes [laughs].
ANI: Two hands clapping.
ALAN: It’ll just be me out in the audience.
ANI: Counting on you, man.
ALAN: So, the Broadway community in general over the past several decades has become incredibly active and vocal, especially with the rise of the AIDS crisis in the 80’s. Through various organizations, Broadway is always raising awareness for funds and not just for AIDS research but for other causes like March For Our Lives and women’s health organizations, et cetera.
ANI: Very cool.
ALAN: So now with social media, the theatre’s reach is more vast than ever and more and more people have the ability to get involved both from a fan standpoint and from the artistic standpoint and actually, our episode with Bonnie Milligan, she kind of touched on this. I asked her because she’s on “Head Over Heels”, which is for representation of plus-sized women and transgender and LGBTQ and it’s the spectrum, it’s an amazing show, go see it if you haven’t. She said that with a platform like this, now, people are looking to her for all sort of reasons and for her, she feels like she’s been given a gift that she is just wasting if she’s not using it to speak truth, to speak to try to make people better. Is that why you got into the activism and the feminist movements and all of that? What put you there?
ANI: Well I guess I started there, really. It’s not like ‘Oh, look, I have an audience and a platform, let me use it’. That was just always my bag [laughs]. Sort of talking about the social dynamics. First observing them and experiencing them and then trying to address it in song, in my art, all of these power plays amongst people. That fascinates me. So I guess I always sort of looked at the world with a political lens and it was fundamental to my art. Yeah, people have asked me a lot along the way, ‘do you feel a responsibility because you have a platform, blah blah blah’ and I think, my answer has always been ‘it’s not a responsibility. We all have that responsibility. Whatever you do, you have the equal responsibility to stand in your truth, to represent it, to respond to what’s happening around you when it’s not good, when it is good, support the good stuff and the good folks doing it and push back with all the bad stuff. Yeah, to me, it’s like I don’t have any more responsibility than you do to be real and to try to make the world I want to live in but I have an opportunity. It’s like, yeah, it is a gift. I think that’s a good word. We all share the responsibility but some of us have the gift of having our voice be heard more widely. That’s an opportunity and it can also become a burden for the people who go there. It’s like, once you do step out on a limb then you experience all kinds of ramifications for that- a lot of support, a lot of people going ‘oh thank God, thank you’ and ‘you’ve helped me so much’ and ‘that’s exactly what I feel and experience, too’ but you get a lot of pushback. You get a lot of resistance. Not only that, but on the flip side, you get a lot of expectation and pressure. Then suddenly, you become known for representing something, some “cause” or a marginalized voice or experience and then there comes an expectation, a pressure, and then you find out that pressure looks different coming from each individual and to satisfy this person’s idea of who and what you should be would mean disappointing the person next to them, and the person. . . You know, I guess it’s just part of being a public person, being a performer. There’s a lot of people to answer to and the more you say, the more there is to answer to.
ANI: But it’s so, so worth it because all of those moments of affirmation where somebody comes up to you crying and trembling and says you saved their life, that makes it all worth it, every moment.
ALAN: You seem-, again, this goes back to you doing your truth, right?
ALAN: You say what you want to say about the world and you just happen to have thousands of people that agree with you.
ANI: Yeah, I mean, I think for anybody who is living their truth, I really believe that the universe will hold you in that. Because there’s room for all of us.
ALAN: I agree, yeah. Recently, with the rise of social media, with the internet getting as big and reaching every corner of the globe as it can so far, there have been a lot of changes that have happened in terms of getting the word out about all of these causes. What’s probably the most significant influence of change for you so far?
ANI: Like, social media-related?
ALAN: Yeah, if a platform has changed-, so you don’t have to go to rallies anymore, you can just make a video and put it on YouTube.
ANI: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been resisting [laughs] the change of organic beings operating in time in space to life on a screen and activism on a screen and art on a screen and human interaction on a screen. I’m kinda old-school so I’m pretty now-based. I think that it’s changed less for me just because I’ve been really intentional about that but I don’t really know how the young people of today and the people of the future will strike that balance. I’m as unsure of anybody else as what does ‘clicktivism’ mean? What does it do? I have this sense that most of the real change that occurs happens when we leave our houses and we go and experience each other and we make a real, new relationship happen. I think that’s how we empower ourselves, by connecting ourselves to other people and then you’re not alone anymore. Then you’re not a voice in the wilderness, you’re a part of something bigger and stronger and therefore you are bigger and stronger. I think that can’t necessarily be done or exclusively be done on a screen. Social media, it’s-, it’s interesting having been a performer before the advent of the internet, really, let alone social media and the sort of high-velocity conversation of that. I feel like it’s a bit constricting having been in the world as a performer before and now every moment that you spend in public lives forever on YouTube. It’s, again, the pressure of ‘you have to stand behind every moment, the mistakes that you make, even the hairdo that day or what you were wearing. You know, it’s like that becomes a very big choice. I think of the stunts I used to pull when I was young and playing in bars and it was only happening right there, right then and it was only us and it was an experience that we were having together. If it was hot and sweaty, I’d take my shirt off and so would everybody else and now I would never do that because that means something very different in the age of the internet and social media than it did when we were just in a specific time and place, and the freedom of that. Now, everything has this weight and I think it’s a real challenge for us to bring a much more organic, human approach to this eternity of life online where we have to learn to forgive each other, let ourselves be human and fallible and ridiculous and more or less successful in any moment in what we’re trying to do even though it never goes away.
ALAN: What advice do you give to people your daughter’s age who are asking these types of questions?
ANI: Again, just keep turning away from the screen and looking at what’s around you. Keep making friends with actual faces. [laughs] You know, actual friends with actual faces. That’s what-, when the grid goes down and the world goes dark and everything is suddenly gone, that’s all that really means anything.
ALAN: Keep a wad of cash under your mattress and know your escape route? [laughs]
ANI: Well, I mean, seriously, every summer with my kids, we have a month of no screen because that was my life growing up, that was everybody’s life in the 70’s, in the 80’s, and I just want them to know that the world still exists, even if all those gizmos fell into the sea.
ALAN: Yeah, that’s my challenge. I’ve got two little kids, two boys, and my 2 and a half year old, he knows how to swipe through my phone and use the tablet and turn on the T.V. and recently we went on a vacation and there was a T.V. in the hotel room and it’s not on-demand, we didn’t have Netflix there and they were like ‘what’s that, daddy?’ and I was like ‘that’s a commercial’.
ANI: I know, they’re outraged. ‘What did you say?!’ [laughs]
ALAN: ‘I want Bolt back now!’ and so that’s one of my big concerns, that this on-demand generation now worries me so much that they’re just going to take everything for granted and then not know how to just survive as people. Like, to look up and to make eye contact and to. . . you know.
ANI: I mean, in general, in a word, traveling. Like you were just talking about, of course, sometimes you’re going to show up somewhere with a T.V. and check it out, but really just going out into the world and traveling, especially beyond the realm of the T.V.s and the gizmos, that’s incredibly fortifying, I think, for us humans.
ALAN: Mm-hmm. Let me just change gears a little bit here. With everything that’s swirling around with our current presidential administration, do you feel overwhelmed or energized when it comes to taking more of a political stand on certain issues?
ANI: Well, it’s overwhelming, of course, how far we’ve slid. I’m not surprised at all, I’m not shocked at all. I feel like this is absolutely what I saw coming and what many people saw coming and so here we are. As hard as it is, I try to take inspiration and look at what is happening from the top down, as the shadow side of what is really happening from the ground up and I do, in part, believe that what we’re experiencing in this time and place in this culture is an awakening and that it’s the pushback-, it’s the resistance of the good ol’ boys, of the people who have had all of the power for all of human history to having to share it. It’s an incredibly painful thing to watch, it’s an incredibly destructive thing, this pushback, in a lot of people’s lives but I hope that the lasting results of this political era will be a great and positive change for those of us that survive.
ALAN: Hmm, yeah. Everything, it all seems to be culminating at once and I think the administration sort of ripped a band-aid off of what was already there and people just didn’t want to talk about. So just like some good therapy, once you talk about it, you can deal with it. I agree with you and I think that this is unfortunately sort of a necessity to get us where we need to go.
ALAN: So I feel the same way as you, I’m kind of overwhelmed but a little bit excited to move past it and see what we’re going to become.
ANI: Mm-hmm, I mean you can look at the last, you know, the midterm elections and how many women are now holding public office as compared to the day before, November 6th, and it’s very hopeful.
ALAN: I agree. So, we’ll wrap up here soon but I want to touch on something that you actually mentioned early on, that you have a book, a book coming out on May 7th, 2019. [laughs]
ANI: Don’t hate me [laughs]. There’s a lot of damn words in that book.
ALAN: Well, books are supposed to have words, hate to break it to you.
ANI: I know, talk about standing behind something for evermore.
ALAN: Well, you’ve done several poetry books but now this is a memoir called “No Walls And The Recurring Dream”. What is this focusing on?
ANI: Mostly it’s sort of a coming of age story. I mean, I sort of went from childhood to about 2001, 9/11, to be specific, I was in New York at the time and so yeah, it’s sort of just about the making of the righteous babe, not the re-make [laughs] you know? That’s still happening.
ALAN: So what do you hope the people reading it, they take away from it?
ANI: Well, I try not to calculate that or even worry about that too much. I mean, I just try to be in the moment, in the challenge, in the process of writing complete sentences and count or hope that somehow, this book will do the work the songs have done, which I never calculated. Just like, be in my skin, write in my truth the way I feel it in the moment, and hope that’s of use to somebody. The songs have done good work and, I guess, have been inspiring to others to become themselves. I’ve often felt that what I’m saying and doing in my songs is not ‘check me out, do as I do, I have all the answers from on high’, it’s more ‘check me out, I’m just doing me and getting away with it’. My favorite thing that people come and say to my face is ‘because of you, I went and ______, I went and did my own crazy thing and invented my wheel’ and I hope the book does that similar kind of work in the world but it’s up to-, it’s not up to me.
ALAN: Yeah. So I assume in the book, too, you’ll touch on Babeville, which is another plug I want to give you the opportunity here to touch on. So what is Babeville?
ANI: Well, Babeville is a venue I opened up in Buffalo, New York. It doesn’t factor into the book—
ANI: -- because that’s post-2001. Yeah, it’s an old 1780’s or 1870’s, sorry, cathedral in downtown Buffalo which was going to be demolished because Buffalo is a poor city, sort of an evacuated city center, a lot of beautiful old buildings and infrastructure that have fallen by the way of economic devastation. So here was this Cathedral that was going to be demolished because some stones were falling out of the gargoyle’s and sh*t, so we saved it. Righteous Babe, that’s one of the things that we’ve done because my mother is an architect and I’ve long been connected with the importance of cities as centers of culture and ideas, of the infrastructure of cities as being the repository of our human souls and experience. When you reach out and grasp a doorknob that hundreds and thousands of hands have grasped and turned, it connects you to the past and therefore to the future. I think that these old buildings are very important to our soul and the life of our human soul. So yeah, we saved this church and then we thought jeez, our karma was wrapped up in it, so we just took it over, made it into a venue and the home of Righteous Babe but nope, none of that’s in the book.
ALAN: Okay, then I’m glad we touched on it here [laughs]. That’s interesting. I didn’t actually plan on covering this but you mentioned it so much. You’ve publicly acknowledged that you’re an atheist, right?
ANI: Yeah, not religious per se.
ALAN: Yeah, not religious but you talk about connection and karma and being what some-, most would call spirituality. Are these two different things in your mind or is it all just the same that some people have categorized differently?
ANI: Well, my very opinionated and particular perspective is that organized religion is organized patriarchy so that’s the foundation of patriarchy, globally. But then, many people have used many patriarchal paradigms to do great things, so it’s not that it’s a complete dead-end but for me, the idea of God as ‘he’-, once you start there, OK. So there’s a particular person telling this story and, you know, just that flip of the script of that man as the creator, it just seems like. . . really? [laughs] Like, really. OK. I have a song called ‘Alrighty’ on my last record where I just talk about ‘next time I see a man give birth, I’ll picture the creator as a dude with a beard’, you know? [laughs] Sure, but for me, I think just the body that I come in has made me, sets me slightly to the side of all these organized religions but that doesn’t mean that consciousness, that this unifying field of consciousness that connects us all, that is the underlying reality beyond this fallacy of separation, of you and me right now, is not completely captivating and motivating to me and that I don’t want to serve that as much as a deeply religious person might want to in their own context and language.
ALAN: Right, yeah, that makes total sense. I think there’s so much of a spectrum between the devout religious and the atheist but it’s all the same thing, it’s all the same spectrum.
ANI: You would hope, yeah.
ALAN: I mean that speaks back to what you were talking about, just bringing us together despite our differences, is that we’re all the same on a very fundamental level so why are we shooting each other? But I digress.
ANI: Amen, brother, amen [laughs].
ALAN: So we have a couple, three standard closing questions that we ask all the guests here. Very simply, what motivates you?
ANI: Uh, just the feeling of solace and power that comes with connecting myself with somebody else.
ANI: So I use art to do that.
ALAN: And what advice would you give to your younger self or younger people listening now, down a similar path?
ANI: Hmm, what advice. . . jeez, I guess patience, patience, patience, my young child. I mean, I had a good dose of it to go the long road but yet not. So many interviews along the way where the guy across the table was looking at me sideways going, you know, ‘justify yourself’ and I had my hackles up and I was battling everyone. It’s like, why? Just accept that there is a world of resistance, enjoy it, enjoy the process of killing people with kindness and insisting on your humanity until they can’t deny it any longer.
ALAN: Wonderful. This last question, for the standard Broadway guest, I would restrict to a Broadway show but for you, it can either be a Broadway show or a performance of any kind. If you could only see one show for the rest of your life but you can see it as many times as you want, what would you see?
ANI: Well, Hamilton. I feel like it’s already happened because my daughter got so into the soundtrack that I listened to it every day for years. I know every song by heart and the amazing thing that I know from experience is that it doesn’t get old. That’s the level of writing going on in that music so, yeah, having already been there for the rest of my life on a desert island with a Hamilton soundtrack, it’s pretty good times.
ALAN: Or just marooned with Lin-Manuel and he just recites the whole show for you over and over.
ANI: That’d be fine, I just love him already.
ALAN: Well, yeah, so you most certainly don’t do media engagements that you don’t want to do, so sincerely, thank you for giving me this interview today, it means a lot.
ANI: I can sense your pleasure, thank you.
ALAN: [laughs] And for everybody listening, you can find Ani online either at RighteousBabe.com and AniDiFranco.com, Facebook.com/RBRecords, on Twitter @Righteous_Babes and @AniDiFranco, on Instagram @RighteousBabe and on youtube at Youtube.com/RighteousBabeRecs, R-E-C-S. And, of course, you can find more of me at @Theatre_Podcast on Instagram and Twitter, Facebook.com/OfficialTheatrePodcast, you can listen and subscribe via TheTheatrePodcast.com everywhere you find your podcasts. Please give an honest review, I want to read them. This is produced by JILLIAN: Hochman and, of course, a big thank you to our friends Jukebox the Ghost for the lovely intro and outro music underneath you that you are hearing being played right now. Everybody have a lovely day. Ani, thank you so much for this. Again, it’s been wonderful.
ANI: Thank you.
Ani DiFranco is certainly no stranger to performing in front of thousands. She is a gold record maker, grammy award winner, and one of this generation’s leading ladies of rock. While an amazing singer & musician but also poet, songwriter, and activist, Ani is also a lover of Broadway and was a key collaborator to Anias Mitchell in the creation of Hadestown The Musical, coming to Broadway in 2019.
Interview content begins at [4:06].
Connect with Ani DiFranco:
- https://www.righteousbabe.com/ & https://anidifranco.com/
- Twitter: @righteous_babes and @anidifranco
- IG: righteousbabe & anidifranco
Connect with The Theatre Podcast:
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- Alan’s personal Instagram: @alanseales
- Jillian’s personal Instagram: @jillianhochman
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Thank you to our friends Jukebox The Ghost for our intro and outro music. You can find them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @jukeboxtheghost or via the web via jukeboxtheghost.com.