Her Wayor No Way

Ani DiFranco has nothing to be sore about these days. Though she's often labeled a folkie malcontent because of her caustic lyrics and offbeat, aggressive performances, at this moment, the 25-year-old singer/songwriter is in a mood highly uncharacteristic of someone who's been fielding phone interviews for hours. While she admits to feeling "duct-taped to the phone" in her New York City apartment, DiFranco speaks in an animated, playful manner accentuated with laughter.

Yes, DiFranco is happy, and why shouldn't she be? She's not only been able to pursue her passion for music on a full-time basis, but she's been able to do it pretty much on her own terms.

A native of Buffalo, New York, DiFranco began performing at age nine, when she started playing Beatles covers in local bars. By age 15, she was living on her own, writing her own songs and singing them, she says, at just about every venue in her hometown. In 1988, DiFranco moved to New York City and released her first CD, an eponymous debut she financed with the help of a few friends. The disc landed her some gigs, but more important, it created a buzz that sparked the interest of record labels.

It's exactly the sort of situation that most beginning musicians would kill to be in, but DiFranco, in a display of the independence that's come to characterize her, balked at all the wheeling and dealing, even though she was at the center of it. Instead, she struck out and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Originally run out of a living room and a car trunk, Righteous Babe has since moved to an office in downtown Buffalo and boasts seven employees. Yet it still remains true to its homegrown nature, using Buffalo businesses for its printing and manufacturing.

About the only element of Righteous Babe not in Buffalo is DiFranco herself, who's remained in New York City while turning out the eight CDs (which she produced and designed the artwork for) that at the moment make up Righteous Babe's total catalog. Later this year, Righteous Babe will be putting out its first CD by an artist other than DiFranco, a spoken-word release featuing U. Utah Phillips, a 60-year-old activist/ storyteller/musician. DiFranco is producing the CD as well as playing on it.

"People had been saying all along, 'You're ridiculous; you're a crazy girl; you're holding yourself back,' " says DiFranco. "But I've gotten to the point where the question of what I would possibly need [from a record deal] is almost a legitimate one. I've survived trying to hammer out an alternative model to signing a record deal -- sort of like independence as an end in itself."

Righteous Babe reports that sales of DiFranco CDs now exceed 250,000 -- an impressive number, considering that she rarely gets any airplay outside of college radio. Of late, though, a few commercial alternative stations have picked up the single "Shy" from 1995's Not a Pretty Girl, her best-selling CD to date. DiFranco, almost predictably, is less than impressed that the tune has made the jump from the small time to the medium time in terms of radio exposure.

"I'm one of the least radio-friendly girls [around]," she admits. "[The popularity of 'Shy'] is kind of weird, almost, because I'm like the consummate indie girl who just doesn't get played on the radio and is more likely to [just] show up in your town."

Still, though DiFranco doesn't have any videos on MTV, it's not due to a lack of interest in the video medium. "I love film," she says. "Just because music videos are like three-minute commercials doesn't mean they have to be. There's nothing evil about a video -- except that most of them are."

DiFranco has filmed a video for "Shy," but she considers it only an "interesting experiment" and doesn't plan to market it. Besides, she makes up for her lack of media exposure in person, having toured extensively over most of America, Canada, Europe and Australia, drawing fans of all ages and backgrounds. Originally a solo act both on-stage and in the studio, DiFranco early on added drummer Andy Stochansky, who's also collaborated with her on many of her CDs. For her current tour, she's expanded the band to include bassist Sara Lee.

"I've actually been looking for the right bass player for a long time," says DiFranco. "I played solo forever and ever and ever, and then I played with Andy for a few years -- both of which I really enjoyed. [Adding new people] is kind of a way for me to stay sane or interested in what I'm doing."

DiFranco's latest studio project, the recently released Dilate, was recorded at the Congress House in Austin. Spending three weeks closeted away in the home-style studio with Henrietta, the Congress House cat, DiFranco created her most diverse and powerful work to date. In contrast to her earlier acoustic-only CDs, Dilate has a fleshed-out feel to it, with DiFranco playing a number of instruments in addition to guitar on several tracks. While it may seem that songs with fuller musical accompaniment would take away from DiFranco's formidable vocals, that's not the case. In fact, on many numbers, such as "Untouchable Face" and "Outta Me, Outta You," the whole-band sound enhances her singing. Dilate also features DiFranco's first recorded cover, albeit a rendering of a song more than 200 years old, "Amazing Grace."

The recent exposure DiFranco has received, thanks in large part to "Shy," may have folks going to CD shops looking for more; as a result, Dilate could well be many people's first Ani DiFranco CD. It's certainly not a bad initiation. But it's also certainly not all she has to offer. As for her live performances -- well, the fact that DiFranco lives for the stage and not for the small screen should pretty much speak for itself.

Ani DiFranco performs at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 9, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Tickets are $13 and $15. For info, call 862-3838.

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Joe Hon