From an angry teenager with a voice that couldn’t be silenced, Ani DiFranco has grown into a wise mother who knows, as ever, how to speak up for what she believes. All along the journey, through the many incantations of womanhood she came to embody, DiFranco’s voice has been true and strong.
“Whatever truth that weaves through all those songs,” DiFranco says, “that’s the essence of who I am and what I care about… I don’t have to try to be consistent. I try to be just as transparent and honest and in the moment as I can.”
On Puddle Dive, one of her earliest records, the song “Willing to Fight” pushed people to think outside their realm of comfort. “I know the biggest crime,” she sings, “is just to throw up your hands. Say ‘this has nothing to do with me. I just wanna live as comfortably as I can. You gotta look outside your eyes, you gotta think outside your brain. You gotta walk outside your life to where the neighborhood changes.’”
Perhaps it’s this understanding that no matter what life brings her, she still has a responsibility to speak up for what she believes is right. And as much success as she’s had in her life, she has not stopped seeing the shortcomings in society.
DiFranco never hesitates to give credit where credit is due, and she points to luminaries like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger as leaders on this path that combines the political with the musical.
“Woodie used music to unite and inform people,” DiFranco says. “That was huge for me. And Pete Seeger, who I did know, was a direct teacher of the highest order for me. From the instant I met him [20 years ago], I recognized I was in the company of a master. Not just technically. He knew how to bring people to their own truth.”
DiFranco shares that gift. Just ask any of her millions of fans across the globe. How does she go about writing a song, whose lyrics are so specific and yet have such a universal quality to them?
“Sometimes I am overwhelmed with a feeling. I’m grappling and I need to get it out now and a song comes out start to finish. Me and my guitar move through something, and in a few hours, there it is. Other times it can be months or even years of pushing words around in my journal or trying different ways. Sometimes it starts with a line, and then things start to develop around it. Or it starts with the guitar, a chord change or a melody or a rhythm, and the words come later,” she says.
The lyrics are so vivid and evocative that they would truly be enough, with a few simple chords. But DiFranco is a badass guitar player. Her rhythms are hard and driving, and the music she makes has a sentiment all its own. She attributes much of this to her parents, who gave her a guitar as a young girl.
“I’ve had a relationship with an instrument for 35 years,” she says. “After that long, it becomes an extension of your body and you can express yourself intuitively through this tool.”
That’s why she thinks it’s so tragic that in times of economic hardship, arts and music programs are often the first thing to go in schools.
“That’s the last thing they should cut,” she says. “Especially in times of struggle, kids need an outlet. And a relationship with a musical instrument is like medicine in your life. It gives you access to healing.”
Because of the evocative and honest quality of DiFranco’s music, songs have a way of drawing listeners right back to a specific person or moment, even if that person or that moment is long gone. DiFranco acknowledges that in the creation of each song, there’s that initial spark of inspiration rooted to a place and time. But for her, the meaning changes.
“The moment I made the song becomes obscured, in so many other moments. I have fleeting gauzy images associated with the birth of a song, or none at all. Some songs, I know the window I was looking out of. I know the apartment I was living in, or the emotional context. A song that’s any good at all grows and evolves in a way that’s hard to explain, so that even what I meant when I wrote it isn’t necessarily relevant,” she says.
That doesn’t diminish the overall relevance of the song, however. The very fact that the song has the ability to take on new meaning over time makes it a living, breathing entity with staying power. Like her songs, Ani DiFranco has proven she has the innate ability to grow and evolve with time, and to maintain a relevance that our society needs.
See Ani DiFranco perform live at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Sunday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. The doors and bar open at 6 p.m. For tickets and additional information visit suffolktheater.com. 631-727-4343.