If you’re like me, you’re probably able to chart large chunks of your life through Ani DiFranco’s discography. For me, it’s listening to Not A Pretty Girl on my discman in the break room of the Waldenbooks I worked at. It’s Living in Clip on super repeat in my friend’s car all of our senior year. It’s Revelling/Reckoning my first week of college, the music that bridged from my bedroom to my dorm room. And it’s Knuckle Down, filling up my headphones while I took the subway to work every morning, the year of my first teaching job.
With more than 20 albums, decades of touring, and her infamous record label Righteous Babe Records going strong, it’s hard to look back at the musical landscape — especially the queer musical landscape — of the last 20 years and not make a connection to Ani D.
Mother Jones recently published a pair of interviews, creating a Then and Now portrait of DiFranco. She only recently took a break from her constant touring and music making schedule to slow down, mostly due to the addition of her daughter Petah, now three, to her life. The author of the interview had interviewed DiFranco 15 years ago for the zine Monkey Magnet, and side by side, they make for a interesting catalogue of the folksinger’s life.
Answering the question of what music she liked in 1995, she says:
…if you look at my music collection it’s like folk and roots and world music and beat, ambient, death, sex music and rap and hip-hop and thrash and punk. You know, it’s just whatever.
In the same breath she answers that if she could tour with any musical idol, it’d be Tom Waits (true), and Salt N Pepa (joking). But now, DiFranco demures from any attempt to get her to talk about pop music, saying that her top three albums to listen to would be Hank Williams, Pete Seeger and Jon Hassel. She does note that her favorite artist on the RBR roster right now is Animal Prufrock, and expresses love for female songwriters like Regina Spektor, Anais Mitchell and Joanna Newsom.
Another genre in the mix is what her daughter likes to listen to:
Schoolhouse Rock (which I remember from my childhood) does indeed rock. Other than that, she pretty much listens to the same music we do. She loves the Jackson 5 and squeals along with James Brown. She also loves “the mommy music” and requests my records a lot, but I haven’t written any kids’ music yet.
The younger DiFranco of the zine interview shows the same strength and focus as Difranco now, although she appears more generous and humorous in her 1995 interview (I’d imagine that after years of doing interviews, though, you learn to economize). When asked about how she’s handling fame (by then DiFranco had racked up press in the New York Times, Ms., Interview and more), she gave a candid answer about valuing her own anonymity:
I mean, I know you won’t even believe it, but it’s just not my thing. I’m bad at parties. I’m the person who like, everybody turns around a couple hours later and are like, “where’s Ani?” I’m like 20 blocks away. I’ve just kind of left. I dunno. I’m a little hibernating animal. Anonymity is one of my favorite things. I mean, that’s why I moved to New York when I was like 18, because there, there are just so many people that there’s no one and you’re just lost. You’re completely invisible and I find that very liberating. I think I’m a very solitary person. To actually not be anonymous is a bit claustrophobic for me.
And when the conversation got to the topic of selling out (remember when that was the musical dividing line in the ‘90s between indie and not?), DiFranco gives thoughtful response to whether or not she ever considered signing a record deal and giving in:
Sometimes. I mean, less and less, because things are looking up for me. But I have a lot of friends who are musicians and a lot of them sign record deals along the way with indie labels and major labels and people come from behind and zoom right past me all the time. I mean, it’s taken me so many years to get to here and, you know, things could have been very accelerated and life could be very glamorous and cushy right about now. But I sort of chose a different path and I have to be happy where I am and not be resentful of everybody who just sold right out and have all these things I don’t have. Ultimately, that is not what I want. I want other things.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but I’d bet DiFranco doesn’t regret the path she chose. If respect, autonomy, activism, collaboration, and the ability to still be doing what you love all these years later is part of the “other things” DiFranco alludes to wanting here, then I’d say she’s doing just fine.