A poem that extends a hand in our lonely times
Ani DiFranco tears down walls with her new memoir
Ani DiFranco began playing before audiences at just 9 years old, and 40 years later the musician continues to find ways to reinvent herself. Her new memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” recounts a life embedded in political activism, a dedication to feminism, and how storytelling has shaped her philanthropy and music. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker spoke with DiFranco to learn more.
Hari Sreenivasan: Musician Ani DiFranco started playing in public when she was just 9 years old, eventually forming her own record label: Righteous Babe Records. Four decades later, she has written a memoir about the road she has traveled since, and about how both she -- and the world --have changed. NewsHour Weekends Christopher Booker has our story.
Christopher Booker: After all the notes from editors and the revisions, Ani DiFranco is happy with what she has written and ready to sit down to record the final draft of her story... well, maybe.
Ani DiFranco: Yeah, it just seems so subjective. I mean, even me telling my own story, I feel like it's just one lady's opinion (LAUGH) you know.
Christopher Booker: Throughout her career there have been many opinions about Ani DiFranco... usually articulated with an impressive array of hyphens: one-woman-show, feminist-entrepreneur, folk-punk- indie-rock-singer...
And throughout, she has been more than willing to weigh in with opinions of her own - on everything from women's rights to sexual abuse to patriarchy.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) "I am not a pretty girl, that's not what I do."
Christopher Booker: But today, perched in a New Orleans church converted into a recording studio, she's a narrator, starting on page one of her long awaited memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream"
Ani DiFranco: I remember being on stage one night in a tight little dress...
Christopher Booker: Even though she has recorded 20 studio albums, sold 5.5 million records and won a Grammy, her memoir is not a highlight reel, rather it's a retelling and interpretation of how it all got started, detailing how a child from Buffalo grew up, started her own record label and launched an independent music career that not only garnered legions of fans, but for many listeners, served as an introduction to a new generation of feminism - one in which she would take a leading role.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) How come I can pick my ears, but not my nose? Who made up that rule anyway?
Christopher Booker: I contacted a number of my friends who I knew were fans of your music. And one friend in particular said "Of the many things I appreciate about Ani and her music is that she showed me, as a 16-year-old, that life is messy, that I can be myself and my-- my full self."
Ani DiFranco: Those are the stories I get on the street now. So many of my fans, you know, have grown up, like I've grown up, and they come- they come to me now and they're like, "Check out what I've done. And you kicked it off for me." You know, and even the dudes-- I love the dudes (LAUGH) who are like, "Man, somebody gave me that first tape and I-- it's like I suddenly-- realized what it's like to be a chick."
Christopher Booker: Since her 1990 self-titled debut- Ani Difranco's music - Released on her label- Righteous Babe Records- has long made the personal political.
A self-described bridge between the traditions of folk music and contemporary times.....
She sang about everything from body image, menstruation, bi-sexuality to how she navigated a world where men often hold a disproportionate amount of power.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) "I was eleven years old"
Christopher Booker: With 1-800-ON-HER-OWN printed on the back of the tapes and CD's she sold out of her car, fans could call Righteous Babe Records directly....As she writes, the number was "part mail-order, part youth crises hotline and part-activist networking switchboard"
Ani DiFranco: There's a lot of people out there who feel that their story and rightly so, feel that there stories are not being told, on tv, you know, in history books, you know, who feel that there voices are not included.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) He says, Call me, miss DiFranco, If there's anything I can do. I say, It's Mr. DiFranco to you.
Christopher Booker: By the middle of the decade - after she toured constantly, word of DiFranco had spread... and this would change things for her.
Kurt Loder: Unencumbered by producers and publicists DiFranco gets to be her folk-punky-bisexual-self on record and communicate with her fans, of whom there are a growing and devoted number directly. Is this anyway to run a career?
Christopher Booker: Turns out is was a good way to run a career. After MTV flashed the 1-800 number on the screen at the end of that segment, righteous babe received so many phone calls they had to unplug the phone and figure out to pay for the bill, which was thousands of dollars.
Conan O'Brien: It's a real pleasure to welcome Ani DiFranco!
Christopher Booker: There would be more appearances on television, music videos, and magazine covers... In the late 90's, Ms. Magazine projected her as one of the 21 feminists for the 21st century... and her live album Living in Clip went gold.
But as her fame increased, so did the weight of being a cultural beacon. As she writes the "high demands" from her fan base grew ever more challenging. Her once celebrated status as a voice for female empowerment was scrutinized with each new career decision.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) Just the thought, of our bed, makes me crumble like the plaster where you punched the wall beside my head. In the old days I talk about how intense and, you know, voracious and almost cannibalistic (LAUGH) you know, my-- my listeners could be, it's like, "No, don't go over there. Stay here. I need you here." And this person's like, "No, come over here. I like it better over here." And you feel so pulled to affirm each unaffirmed person you pretty quickly realize you can't. You can't. (SINGING) And People talk, About my image, Like I come in two dimensions, Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind.
Christopher Booker: As the millennium came to a close, Righteous Babe Records was a robust company - Difranco's prolific writing, recording and constant touring providing the fuel. But as she recounts, by 2001 she found herself exhausted....and realized she had to slow down...and start thinking differently. And this is where she concludes her memoir....at the end of what she now calls her "making of" period.
The years since - what she calls "the remake" have been less intense, but certainly not stagnant... a relocation to New Orleans, motherhood, tours and more music. And while the tempo of her life may have changed, the spirit that she brought to those early club days never left.
How do you think a young Ani would respond to MeToo?
Ani DiFranco:: If-- if this had been happening when I was young, I guess I would have just felt less like a voice in the wilderness, you know. I really have felt that way a lot, a long time. And even-- essences of-- of resentment towards other young women going, "Thank you for saying what I can't say," and me thinking, "Why can't you say it? Why has it gotta be me? I don't want to say it for you. I want us all to say it."...
Christopher Booker: But in writing her memoir, Difranco says, she sees a welcomed disconnect between some of the things she sang about so many years ago and where she see things now.
Ani DiFranco: Writing about that- experience of second-class citizenry that I had through my formative years and, you know, now as I enter an age of maturity I look around and I think, "I don't think my daughter ex-- is experiencing that in the way that I did." You know I got a kid in the sixth grade and I look around at her friend set and they know what's up. They know that it doesn't matter what color you are or what sex you are. And they're not as hindered as I was in my generation. So, and that's thrilling.
Christopher Booker: But this feeling doesn't extend to everything... some of her songs hold just as much punch as they did when they were first written...
Particularly a song she wrote shortly after the Columbine massacre: To the Teeth
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) The sun is setting on the century and we are armed to the teeth. We're all working together now,
to make our lives mercifully brief.
Christopher Booker: What's it like for you to play To the Teeth 20 years later, when it still has such relevance? You could play it now and you could be singing about Parkland.
Ani DiFranco: It can be very discouraging to recognize that, when you have these sort of time capsules of I thought gun violence was completely out of hand 20 years ago, and so did you, remember? Yeah, to be afraid to bring your kids to school, it is just not okay.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) "And every year now like Christmas, some boy gets the milk-fed suburban blues.
Reaches for the available arsenal and saunters off to make the news"
Ani DiFranco: I didn't get to write that song and then solve the world's problems, You know, you just have to believe that you stay on the path of being real and putting love into the world. (SINGING) Because the world owes me nothing and we owe each the world. I think in my work I've sort of tried to talk about my experiences and my struggles, but then, show a sense of possibility.
Ani DiFranco: (SINGING) And I do it, just because I love to.