Ani Difranco’s Wake Up Call: Battered-Eyed Crooner Is Ready To Kill
It’s still morning when Rolling Stone Online correspondent Benjamin Wagner puts a call in to folk-punkster Ani DiFranco. The 25-year-old singer/songwriter — asleep somewhere in Connecticut — is touring in support of her seventh independent release in five years, Not A Pretty Girl. While DiFranco’s confrontational songs have drawn criticism for their incisive edge, she has steadily built a dedicated, largely female following through relentless touring.
Rolling Stone Online: I didn’t wake you, did I?
Ani DiFranco: I haven’t been up long and I can’t promise I’ll be too coherent, but then I’m not usually that coherent.
RS: So what happened at Irving Plaza the other night? You seemed pretty frustrated with the sound.
DiFranco: [Groans] I don’t know what the fuck they do in that place, but little folk girl shows up with her fuckin’ acoustic and practically blows up the system the first night. I’m a slut for it. I have to have so much volume. I just can’t function without it. So I think after the first night they decided they were going to ration me. And this guy at the monitor was such an ass hole! The whole night I was imagining different ways to hurt him, what it would sound like…
[The line goes dead for a minute…]
DiFranco: [Laughing] I just pulled the phon off the table — I’m so sorry!
RS: I feel like I should bring you some pancakes or something. Leave it to corporate New York to jar you from slumber.
DiFranco: Oh yes, please — pancakes! No, it’s o.k. I won’t hold it against you. And I won’t hang up the phone again!
RS: What does your sound man add to your live sound?
DiFranco: He has a couple of toys he’s been getting into. One of them is a Jam Man. It’s a little sampler. At certain points in the night I can hear when he’s having fun. He samples little sections of my vocals and then flies ’em back so I can sing with myself. For me, the more things that are happening, the more surprises you throw at me, the happier I am.
RS: Your audience goes haywire when you spit out your more venemous, profanity-laden lyrics. Is that odd for you?
DiFranco: It’s kinda’ goofy. Yunno’, you just say the F word and people get all titalated. Oh, get over it. It’s kind of funny, so I don’t really care. Occassionally there’s some Joe Newspaper ins some town and that’s the one thing he’ll talk about — how I write to shock. And I’m like, ‘What are you, in kindergarten?’
RS: There seems to be some hip big sister thing going on with you and your audience.
DiFranco: I like to strive for it to be a relationship with peers. I mean, I’m not Buddha come down from the mountain. And I don’t wanna’ be some kind of rock star chick. That’s just not interesting to me.
I think there’s something about performance that’s supposed to alter the room and the people in it. If there isn’t a more complex dynamic than that rock star/passive consumer thing going on, then nothing really happens. I’m always trying to elicit some kind of dialogue, even though it’s a bizarre situation. I mean, it’s set up all wrong: I get the microphone and platform, and they’re standing in the dark.
RS: It’s a far cry from your coffeehouse days.
DiFranco: Right. That was much more intimate. There was more of an exchange. It’s been really difficult to make something real happen. I mean, it’s also fun just to get up there and rock and not stand around and blather. I guess that’s what I look for: some kind of human exchange, as trite as that sounds. [DiFranco speaks in a baby voice] I want to be genuine and real.
vRS: Is touring beginning to wear thin?
DiFranco: It’s been a bunch of years that I’ve been on the road, so I’m actually very acclamated to it. I haven’t really been in contect for years. I’ve been driving around buttfuck America. It’s actually strange to be in New York now — I feel like a tourist. I need some place to call home because I don’t have a physical home. So I’ve had this pathetic, hard-up year. I think I’m getting desperate for some sense of grounding — and it’s not going to be a place.
RS: What part of New York feels like home?
DiFranco: I grew up in Buffalo which is kind of a hard-knock, blue collar, nowhere town. It’s just crumbling. So I’ve never been a very cosmopolitan girl. So when I got to New York, the chaos and delapidation factor really made me feel comfortable. So I live down on Avenue D where, you know, anything goes. That’s New York to me. I suppose that there’s life above 14th Street, I’m just not familiar with it.
RS: How did you begin playing with press-on nails?
DiFranco: My guitar playing was getting more and more aggressive and I was getting pissed off bu the people at the fucking bars who were there to pick up people and not listen to the chick in the corner. So I had to develop this survival technique. The nails that God gave me were just not adequate. So I tries a bunch of brands. Lee are much too thin. In fact all fashion nails are two thin, except for one brand that I eventually found. They’re Nalene Action Length and they’re twice the thickness of regular fingernails. So I Super Glue them on and tape them. I just kind of strap myself in.
RS: You’re adamantly anti-music biz, and yet there were MTV cameras on stage with you the other night.
DiFranco: I had a revalation one night when I saw Allen Ginsburgh on Conan O’Brien. It was the most bizarre thing. Now, I’m not actually a big Ginsburgh fan, so let’s start there. But he gets up and he’s talking about being a fag, about sexual politics and the CIA and drugs — shit is just spewing out of his mouth. It was the most fascinating 20 minutes of television I’d ever seen. He cut right through the small talk and the bullshit and gossip, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ Imagine the information that can be disseminated. Not like I’m some great source of any kind of information. But [exasperated] … I don’t know.
RS: You’ve called your songs journal entries. How does it feel to have audience members and journalists analyzing your life?
DiFranco: Really, really claustrophobic and frustrating, if I let it. Luckily, I was born with some kind of sense of humor in overdrive. I think self-examination and reflection is so important. But at the end of the day the word ‘whatever’ comes in very handy. There are just so many opinions of me, and from one to the next you wouldn’t even know it’s the same girl they’re talking about.
RS: There seems to be an overwhelming amount of what Jung called projection between you and your audience.
DiFranco: Yeah. And there’s a value in that. I guess I’ve resigned myself to give up my humanity while I’m working and become a different symbol for each person depending on what it is they need to see. And then when I’m hanging out with friends, I get to be me.
RS: Your encore the other night — “Joyful Girl” — seemed like a mantra to remind yourself why you’re there.
DiFranco: Yeah, that’s a realy new one. Sometimes on my bad days before I’ve had coffee — which is probably now — I feel this fucking self-pitying martyrdome thing and wonder why it is that I have to be under fire. Why can’t I just have this pleasant job where everybody likes me abd nobody judges me and nobody wants anything from me. I mean, I have a great job, and I’m really lucky. I should just suck it up and deal.
RS: You seem to get inside your songs so effortlessly. What’s the secret?
DiFranco: My schitzophrenia at work. I’ve always been really into the dynamics of people’s emotional states. Myself, I can launch so fully and completely into something and it’ll evaporate a few seconds later. My music’s always been a microcosm of that. One minute I’m a battered-eyed crooner, and the next I’m ready to kill.
This interview first appeared on Rolling Stone Online