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A conversation with Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips, kindred spirits and collaborators on a daring new album By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
"People my age find folk music very uncool--it's just terribly, terribly uncool," says Ani DiFranco. With her cropped, green hair, boy's hockey jersey, collarbone tattoo, and spiked leather jacket with a sticker on the back that says "Mean People Suck," DiFranco hardly looks like most people's idea of a folkie--and her edgy, often frenetic music doesn't sound much like most people's idea of folk, either. So what is she doing here in Toronto at the Folk Alliance conference, an annual gathering of the faithful presided over by such archetypal folksingers as Pete Seeger? DiFranco is here because she has her own definition of the f word. "Folk music is not an acoustic guitar--that's not where the heart of it is," she says. "I use the word 'folk' in reference to punk music and rap music. It's an attitude, it's an awareness of one's heritage, and it's a community. It's subcorporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority." The fact that DiFranco defines folk by its spirit and intent rather than its sound and dress code goes a long way toward explaining her connection with Utah Phillips, the venerable singer and storyteller who sits next to her in this hotel ballroom. From his fedora and snow-white beard to his repertoire of labor songs and populist anthems, Phillips is as unambiguously a folksinger as he could be--and as stylistically distant from DiFranco as he could be. But appearances are deceiving. Just a few hours ago, DiFranco helped present Phillips with Folk Alliance's Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his gift for entwining humor, entertainment, and politics as an inspiration for her own music. This is only one of the many traits and passions they share; their connection is so strong, in fact, that he's the first outside artist DiFranco has brought onto the roster of her own Righteous Babe Records label. DiFranco's and Phillips' 1996 album for Righteous Babe, 'The Past Didn't Go Anywhere,' is much more than a unique collaboration between a folk elder and a rising young star; it's a bold and ambitious musical statement, brilliantly executed. DiFranco sifted through 100 hours of Phillips' live tapes and picked a handful of her favorite between-song raps--the ones that, she says, "made me fall off my chair laughing or just go off in the corner and cry and mull things over a while." She then took those stories--chronicling Phillips' desertion from the army during the Korean War, the mentors who taught him about politics and life, and various philosophical observations from his years on the road and rail--and holed up in an Austin studio to layer music tracks beneath them. Primarily using light funk and hip-hop rhythms, with dashes of guitar and other instruments. DiFranco created a completely different musical context for Phillips' words while preserving their soul--making a sort of end run around people's stereotypes of folk music. "It was a very calculated move on my part," says DiFranco, "because I can see people around me, people my age, who haven't had the experience I have of being thrown into folk festivals half their lives and coming into contact with all this crazy, subcorporate music. I think that they'd be people who'd see Utah and think, 'What is this? He looks like Santa Claus, he's sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar, and he's singing, what, labor songs? This has nothing to do with me. I don't think so. No--see ya.' They would never find out that what he has to say *does* have something to do with them. So [the album] was taking Utah and putting him into a different context that somebody my age *does* have a vocabulary for, and then getting them to hear what he has to say." For his part, Phillips confesses that when DiFranco originally proposed the project, he had no idea what the result might be like. So, did the radically new medium for his message come as a shock? "I thought it was marvelous," Phillips says. "If I were to pick stories that I wanted to persist if I weren't around, those are the ones I would pick. Not only that, but she has put them in the right order. That's real judgement, almost instinctive. I have old folk-music friends, older people, who say, 'Gee, I wish your voice was louder and the music was softer.' I just say, 'Hey, this wasn't made for you.'" He adds with a laugh, "Sometimes it's hard for people to believe that there's something in the world that wasn't made for them." The stories collected on 'The Past Didn't Go Anywhere' are amazing creations--folksy and literary at the same time, alternatively playful, piercing, mischievous, and nostalgic. A true wordsmith, Phillips is always up to more than he lets on. "I always believed that what happened between the songs was as important as the songs," he says. "I put a lot of time into the stories, so that people would laugh and we would share absurdities together; and I would create this little, narrow window where I could deal with the labor movement, where I could deal with pacifism, whatever it was that I was there to do--my agenda--without being ghettoized as a political performer. "You talked to me in one of your letters about it," he says to DiFranco. "You said, 'I understand the use of humor in performance. You've got to get people laughing so their throats open up wide enough to be able to swallow something bigger.' That struck me. First of all, it's funny, and it's a very true thing to say." The process by which DiFranco married Phillips' words with music was entirely improvisational. "I would start with the story," she says, "I would find the BPM [beats per minute] of the story and try to negotiate a rhythm track to it, and then I would usually start with the bass. I've got an old Fender P. [Precision] bass. I would come up with a bass line and then build on top of that." From story to story, DiFranco's music varies to match the mood. For the lighthearted satire of "Nevada City, California," she set up Phillips' punch lines with stop-and-start funk rhythms, as in an old 'Laugh-In' sketch. In the elegiac "Half a Ghost Town," the music pares down to a slow, sad melody played on a tenor guitar. One of the most haunting moments comes in "Korea," when the sound of Phillips tuning his guitar--one of the few appearances of his guitar on the record--becomes a ghostly melody floating above the looping beat. "The sound of him tuning the guitar became this kind of trance to me," says DiFranco. "I sampled that bit of tuning and sort of made the melodic structure around that." _______________ It's impossible to listen to the words of Utah Phillips without conjuring an image of him on stage: the raconteur and folk historian, singing and strumming and spinning yarns for an audience. The tradition of folk music he carries on has a clear public purpose--it's really inconceivable without an audience. This would seem to be a major difference between him and DiFranco, who was born into the singer-songwriter age, which values introspection over social commentary and writing your own songs over learning any tradition. But here, again, appearances are deceiving. "I don't think with either one of us it's either/or," says Phillips of the contrast between outward-looking and inward-looking music. "It flows back and forth as a pulse, as a sensibility. Woody Guthrie wrote, 'When I was walking that endless highway'--there's a lot of 'I' in Woody. Even when he was writing about someone else, he would still transpose it into the first person, as he took these journeys into himself. I can't fault that and say that's primarily ego-driven. What I think you're talking about is music which *is* ego-driven, what you would call journal-entry songwriting. That's not what Ani does, the way that I hear it. I know that's not what I do, [which is to] let people know that I'm alive and present, and this is how I'm authentically perceiving and thinking, but to expand it to the point where it can take in a lot of what other people are experiencing." "That whole introspective singer-songwriter thing has been kind of foisted on me," DiFranco adds. "Some people perceive what I do in that way because I write songs through my own experience. But whenever people say, 'Well, your work is very confessional,' I say, 'It's no confessional. I'm not confessing anything. I haven't sinned. These are not my secrets. This is just my life; this is the stuff I've seen, the stuff I did, and what I thought about.' There are different ways of speaking your political perceptions, and it may be [talking about] an event that occurred in your life or an event that occurred in your town... but each is a valid path to a certain realization. I think that what we both do is very much about our small, little epiphanies along the way, moments of connection between things." The introspective tag, DiFranco feels, is often mistakenly applied to the work of women songwriters. "Women have not been all that instrumental in making and running governments and business," she says, "and when we sing our labor songs, it's like, we're at home. In a historical perspective, women's politics exist more in terms of human interrelationships, which is what we've been assigned to take care of in society. People look at a chick singing about her abortion or her relationships and think, 'Oh, that's hyperconfessional, personal,' but to me it's all political. It's all related." To DiFranco and Phillips, performing music is all about making that connection between the individual and the group. "When Utah's singing a labor song," she says, "the people who work in that town are coming up and saying, 'Yeah, me too. I can't believe you said that.'" "Yeah, you get that too," Phillips responds. "Absolutely," says DiFranco. "Except for me, I'm up there singing my songs, and who comes up? It's young women in droves: 'Yeah, I can't believe you said that.' It's the same thing: giving voice to different groups of people." _______________ Utah Phillips takes his role as a community voice very seriously. In fact, he's made a life's work of learning music and stories from people, starting back in the early '50s with a job on a road crew and some songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow. "The guys on the road crew were the ones who taught me to play the guitar and sing those songs," he says. "But it turned out that the songs weren't the important part--the people who taught them to me were the important part. I can't remember those songs, but I can remember those people." When DiFranco was first delving into music as a kid in the '70s, the typical way to learn was through recordings, copping songs and licks from pop LPs. Was this her experience? Not at all, she says. "I definitely learned how to play guitar from people. My parents didn't have a record player, so my whole experience with music was made by people in the room for most of my formative years. Luckily for me, there were always a lot of people around playing guitar, and so [music] has always been something you *did*, not something you *bought*. I didn't idolize rock stars; I just had friends who were teaching me songs. Perhaps because of her record-free childhood, DiFranco also never adopted the common belief that recording is the most important work of a professional musician, and that performing is a secondary consideration. Phillips notes, "Too many young people are getting that backwards, that somehow a recording history is going to make a living for you. It's not. What would Bob Feldman from Red House Records tell you, or Ken [Irwin] from Rounder? They'd say, 'For us to put out a record of you, you've got to be doing at least 100 dates a year. Otherwise it's not worth it." DiFranco says, "Kids come up to me, and they want advice about what's the magic formula to get the national tours and the distribution. You can see they want, want, want all these things. And I think, 'Maybe you should just try to get a *gig*. And then maybe you should do that every weekend for ten years, and then see if you're not on a haphazard national tour that grew organically and if you don't have some recordings that you made along the way that are distributed through the people you encountered along the way." "What's the work of a poet?" Phillips adds. "To write poetry. What's the work of an artist? To paint. What's the work of a singer? To sing. I tell them, 'Fasten totally on the work. Give yourself completely to the work, till you can do it as well as it can be done, and then people will come looking for you. But forget the rest of it. That will happen if you're completely fixed on the work.'" There's a rich irony behind this whole discussion of recording: Difranco's and Phillips' collaboration would never have happened without it. 'The Past Didn't Go Anywhere' is a studio-created illusion, a technological bridge between far-distant musical styles. Only once have they tried to perform together, on the public-radio show E-Town, and they have spent much less time together than a spin of their record might suggest. Plus, individually, they *are* recording artists; DiFranco in particular has been making records at a breakneck pace--ten solo releases in seven years. If, as she suggests, the fixation on recordings and product is one of the main characteristics of commerical music that distinguish it from folk music like hers and Phillips', how do these two deal in the record business without losing touch with the wellsprings of their music? The answer is unanimous: by maintaining a fiercely independent stance vis-a-vis the corporate music business. That's a serious understatement when referring to a man who is fond of saying things like, "Capitalism is a criminal conspiracy to divest those who do the work of the wealth that they create," and a woman who sings (no, *screams*), "I'm the million you never made" and has become the poster child for DIY musicians. Still, I decide to play devil's advocate and ask them: couldn't you deliver the same messages that you put out there as a performer now while being part of the corporate music world? "Not a chance," says Phillips. "It would destroy your soul. I would rather sleep under a railroad bridge than work for these assholes. No, sir, you've got to own the means of production. You've got to own what you do.
"If you create it, you're not going to wait around for some big company to sign you to a label. [To DiFranco] You created a label. Kate Wolf did that when she created Owl Records. She didn't wait around to be invited to a folk festival, she created one--the Sonoma Folk Festival. You don't wait around for these people to acknowledge you. Meanwhile, sure, you make less, you learn to live cheap, you really learn to find your wants and needs in a sensible fashion. It's like an indentured servant buying himself out from indenture, from capitalism. *But*, at a subindustrial level, you make all the artistic decisions--not the people in the front office who try to shape your image--and that's what keeps the material flowing and fresh. When you give into their system, when you become a bought person and they're going to give you wealth, power, and fame, and the creative decisions are being made more and more by the people in the front office, all you can write about is your personal sense of alienation. You think over the careers of the singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s, and that's what you hear." "And what you have to say will become, without a doubt, systematically watered down to be more radio-friendly and to be more accessible," DiFranco adds. "They come up with all kinds of convincing arguments about why you should adjust your image or why you should play *this* song every time you appear on TV and water down any kind of political implications in your music, so that you can be accessible and make the biggest buck." Take control and take responsibility: this credo runs deep in DiFranco and Phillips, guiding much more than just their careers. It's a philosophy of life that Phillips traces to his mentor Ammon Hennacy, described on 'The Past Didn't Go Anywhere' as a "Catholic, anarchist, pacifist, draft dodger of two world wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America." Phillips says, "My body is my ballot, and I try to cast it on behalf of the people around me every day of my life. I don't assign responsibility to do things to other people; I accept the responsibility to make sure that things get done. I love to tell that to people who are frustrated with the ballot box. How many people do I know who have never voted for anyone who won, ever in their lives, and are really frustrated? It's not the end of the road. There's another way to go, and that's with your own labor, your own sweat, your own body. I think there' a lot of hope in that." _______________ In the liner notes to 'The Long Memory' the 1996 album by Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels, he wrote, "The long memory is the most radical idea in the country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going but where we want to go." As a performer, Phillips' mission is to be a vehicle for that memory, a means by which important ideas, stories, and aspirations are passed from generation to generation. "I'm just a folksinger," he says, "but I have a real thorough understanding of what that means. Growing up, really growing up, means at some point in your life discovering what you authentically inherit, what you culturally inherit. You finally recognize that, and that's what you try to put in the world. And that's what I do now. I find that my inheritance is a wealth of song and story and poem from my elders--especially the radical elders, who never had that wide a voice in their lives." In creating 'The Past Didn't Go Anywhere,' DiFranco aims to be another link in that chain. "The pop music realm has a huge disrespect for our elders," she says. "It's all about worshipping youth. Youth has a lot of energy, and there's a lot of important shit that goes down in youth culture, but I don't think that means you ignore your elders or where you come from. People may constantly want to be inventing the new alternative, which so quickly gets co-opted and turned into just a cookie-cutter formula, with just a slightly more distorted guitar or something, whereas they might be ignoring the fact that they could take the same old tools--an acoustic guitar--and be working in an old, crusty medium like folk music, and do something totally new. "Like Utah would say, 'Shut up and listen to what came before you and see what use it has.'"
Special thanx to Gary for typin this all up!
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