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Ani DiFranco hates interviews. Instead of being fun and chatty like she is on stage, she sounds caged, caught and cornered. She'd rather reporters shut up and just come hear her music.
"If I had my druthers, I'd just kinda play the music instead of talk about it and try to define it," she says in a phone interview before a sound check in Albany, New York.
The funky little folksinger is always working. At any time during the year, she's either on the road or in the studio. She just finished the "F-Word" tour with Maceo Parker, James Brown's former saxophonist, and is back on the road with the "Peaceful Workers Tour." She didn't even think of taking time off for her honeymoon. Out next month is DiFranco's latest release, To the Teeth, her third release this year.
DiFranco has been described as a folk-rocker who strums her acoustic guitar with the force of legendary punkers Fugazi and the grace of Joni Mitchell. During live shows, she growls and pounds her guitar against her chest as she flings herself into the music. When she sings, her voice has the haunting ache of an oboe.
Fans follow her around the country, recording and trading bootlegs of her live shows. She always switches up set lists and says something different or sings something new every performance -- unlike 90 percent of all other folk-rockers.
DiFranco writes about women's lives in women's words. She writes about things women do or feel but usually don't talk about: molestation, menstruation and abortion, as well as things like frustration, hating, loving and hurting. She writes about love and the politics of love and personally political issues like unemployment, capital punishment, racism and the war on drugs' being a war on poor people. She has been nominated for a couple of Grammys and is appearing on lots of movie soundtracks and magazine covers.
Born and bred in Buffalo, New York, young Ani (pronounced "Ahn-nee"), the progeny of two MIT graduates, never had a radio. What she did have, though, was the music of folksinger friends of the family. She started playing guitar when she was nine, left home during high school and moved to New York City. She waited tables, played on open mike nights and, like most musicians, toured around skanky bars and sold tapes out of the back of her car. But unlike most musicians, when record labels called, she didn't answer the phone.
Instead, she started her own label, Righteous Babe Records. (The telephone number's 1800-ON-HER-OWN.) That way she could do what she wanted, when she wanted. A few years back, Forbes said she was an entrepreneurial genius because she was making more per unit than Hootie & The Blowfish (before Hootie was a joke).
DiFranco doesn't get much airplay, but she doesn't care. A lyric like "my cunt is built like a wound that won't heal" wouldn't go well with the drive-at-five crowd, anyway. She did make a video once in which she was naked and covered with a lot of blood. But no one ever saw it, because she didn't like it. It wasn't something she made herself, just something she was in. Besides, she doesn't really want to be a part of MTV. It's full of commercials, DiFranco says. Bars are full of music. So that's where she went, and that's where she played. She has been touring for ten years now and has lately been selling out hockey rinks to fans who know all the words to her songs.
Her twelfth solo album, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, was a little disappointing after its predecessor, Little Plastic Castles, which was filled with funky ska horns and lyrics worth repeating. This time around some of her fans are wishing she had slowed down, waited a little longer and worked a little harder on some of the songs.
People at Righteous Babe urged her to wait with this new album. But since she's the boss, she didn't. "It's done. It's ready. It exists," DiFranco says. "Other people take a year or two or five. I work quicker. My songs are coming to me quicker right now."
DiFranco doesn't worry about sales or distribution or making the public hungry enough to buy another. "That strikes me as odd. It's a funny way to approach art," she says. "I'm just sort of following my muse as it runs along before me."
To the Teeth, from what has been heard of it, is a mix of love songs and anger-at-the-unfairness-of-the-world tunes like the ones she used to tackle before she fell in love, got distracted and wrote Dilate.
The title track of her new one is about how everyone is armed to the teeth and how white-bread schoolboys keep killing other kids with their parents' guns. DiFranco's solution? Open fire on Hollywood and MTV and all the newspeople. The song ends with her taking all her friends to Canada where they die of old age. Another noteworthy song is "Hello Birmingham," about the recent abortion clinic bombing. (Years ago DiFranco wrote about her own appointment to "shed uninvited flesh.") And the artist formerly known as Prince is also on the album, singing the shit out of "Providence," to quote DiFranco. The two met this summer. She sang on his new album, so he sang on hers.
DiFranco has also been doing a lot of producing. She produced underground folk artist Dan Bern's CD Fifty Eggs and one song on Janis Ian's CD Hunger. "Working on somebody else's record is refreshingly free of all the emotional baggage and insecurity that one attaches to one's own," she says.
Also coming on Righteous Babe Records is a CD by Arto Lindsay and a spoken-word CD similar to the Utah Phillips albums, from Sekou Sundiata, who was DiFranco's poetry teacher at the New School in New York.
Rumors are that DiFranco might take a break from her endless, exhaustive touring schedule. After declaring for years that she's got spots and she's got stripes, too ("that's Mister DiFranco to you"), she got hitched last year to her skinny blond sound guy. She calls him "Goat Boy" because she thinks he looks like a goat. (When we spotted the happy couple two-stepping at the Broken Spoke in Austin in January, we thought he looked more like a girl.) Maybe she'll settle down. Maybe she'll have kids.
But don't count on it.
"The thing about doing what you love, it's hard to think of reasons to stop, and music is my life," she says. "Art is what I live for. When I'm not touring or in the studio, me and the Goat Boy are at home recording, or I'm getting together with friend and jamming.
"It's more than a job," she says. "It's an adventure."
Ani DiFranco performs Monday, October 18, at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas. Call (713)629-3700.
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