TWO FOLK ARTISTS WHO LAUNCHED LABELS TALK ON THE RECORD
John Prine, 50, and Ani DiFranco, 26, took different routes to get to
the same place: They are folk singers who run their own record labels.
And if that sounds like an unpromising career choice in these
post-grunge, trip-hop-happy times, guess again. In the summer of '97,
life is sweet for Prine, experiencing a midcareer renaissance, and for
DiFranco, acclaimed as one of the defining voices of the decade with her
acerbic, postfeminist songs and cathartic concerts.
After releasing a series of instant-classic folk songs such as "Sam
Stone" and "Hello in the There" as part of the Old Town folk scene in
early-'70s Chicago, Prine was a seemingly past-his-prime artist when he
inaugurated his Nashville-based Oh Boy record label in 1983. A decade
later, he was picking up his first Grammy Award for his 1991 release
"The Missing Years," now approaching 500,000 in sales. The former mail
carrier from Maywood now does his rounds in sold-out concert halls,
including shows Monday and Tuesday on the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier.
DiFranco was a 19-year-old no-name in 1989 when she began shopping
for a way to release her songs and finally decided to just do it
herself. She kick-started the Righteous Babe label in Buffalo and since
then has released nine of her albums, with sales of more than 700,000
without commercial radio or video airplay. A recent concert tour hauled
in $2 million in gross receipts, and she is scheduled to hook up with
Bob Dylan later in the summer for a swing through amphitheaters.
Though well aware of each other's work, DiFranco and Prine had never
met. But with both artists recently issuing excellent concert albums --
Prine's "Live on Tour" and DiFranco's "Living in Clip" -- the time
seemed ripe to bring together these two mavericks from different
generations for a long-distance chat.
Prine: You had Righteous Babe from the get-go, didn't you?
DiFranco: Out of youthful ignorance. I didn't have the experience you
had when you started your label. I had real " 'tude" as a youngster
thinking I could be my own record company. I really wasn't aware of
other examples like yourself. I was just looking for a path without the
industry machine. I would have done well to study up beforehand.
Kot: What would you tell artists who want to follow the same path?
DiFranco: Getting out and playing is the first step. John and I both
had a live thing going, an audience. You want international distribution
and an office with curtains in the window, but you have to go out and
Kot: John, you've been on a couple of major labels and had some
success there before forming your own label. What would you tell someone
like Ani, who is being actively courted by the major labels, who tell
her that she could sell several times more records with them than she
could on her own?
DiFranco: Please, John, tell me what I should do.
Prine: Don't do it. There's a lot more you'd have to give up. It's
harder in some respects doing it yourself, but a lot more rewarding. And
while they may sell more of your records, you wouldn't see more cash.
They pull the royalty rate from under your fingernails.
DiFranco: I just couldn't fathom how frustrating it would be to write
songs with people around you whose mission is to move units. The
pressure to be a commercial success. . . that sounds like a very
claustrophobic environment to me.
Prine: It's frustrating to be in a situation where one record does
good and the next one doesn't do so good, and people want to know why.
You feel like a kid getting bopped on the head because you screwed up.
Kot: Does overseeing the business side of the label interfere with
the artistic side?
Prine: You wear two hats, one to do the business and the other where
you write, and I sort of enjoy separating the two. Being on the business
side, I think you see things a lot clearer. You have more of a grasp of
what's going on in your life.
DiFranco: At a major label, you're always getting advice and
suggestions on what to wear, what the single should be, where to be. And
there's not enough people stopping to ask why. At your own label, the
responsibility is all yours, and you think everything through every day.
There's a lot of time spent on minute decisions, and you realize what a
luxury it is to be in a position where those kinds of decisions are made
for you, to be a cloistered artist. But 99 percent of the people in the
world live without that luxury, and I kind of like it there.
Kot: It doesn't sound like you two are going to be entertaining any
major-label offers anytime soon.
DiFranco: (laughs) John and I are going to build a fort. "Come in and
Kot: For better or worse, you two are characterized as folk artists.
How do you feel about that?
Prine: It all started with folk music for me, and it still is. I
think a good rule of thumb is that the more records you sell, the less
folk it is.
DiFranco: I think that is so cool, John, to hear you say that. There
are a lot of folk singers I know who would leap in front of traffic to
get rid of that tag. Folk has become like this evil taboo term. I
started out in folk music too, playing in festivals and clubs, just me
and my guitar. And I still consider myself a folk musician. To me what
it says is that this is not corporate music, that it is
cottage-industry, down-home, put-out-your-own-damn-music music.
Kot: What about the songwriting? With both of you, listeners tend to
focus on the words before anything else. But you both write interesting
melodies and have distinctive approaches to the guitar. So how important
are the words in shaping the song?
DiFranco: The lyrical structure is where the challenge is. The
playing is very instinctual, the singing is very instinctual, but coming
up with the words is like making license plates -- but it's where the
song is for me.
Prine: I still don't have a real good idea about what the process of
writing a song is. I'm real limited on guitar, and I don't worry about
melodies at all. Steve Goodman had this incredible knowledge of music,
where he could remember the first eight bars of just about any song, and
I think it limited him in a way. I plead ignorance to all that. More and
more, I find that the songs come to me and I think about them so much
that by the time I sit down with the guitar, the song is written. It's
about coming up with a framework. But I must say, it doesn't get any
DiFranco: C'mon, dude, don't tell me that!
Kot: The songs you both write have a real personal bent, and most
people assume that the songs are first-person slices of your lives. Are
you comfortable with that?
DiFranco: Real comfortable.
Prine: I've got my feet up right now.
DiFranco: (laughs) Well, maybe comfortable isn't the right word. But
I assume responsibility for the voice in the song, even if that song is
not literally about me, like if it's a male voice or someone on Death
Row. I was watching (the concert film) "The Last Waltz" the other night,
and Joni Mitchell was on stage saying something like she saw a bit of
herself in everyone through her songs. And those kind of connections are
where the song lies.
Prine: I use first person a lot. At first I was using a lot of
characters, but the songs were becoming like these soap operas. So I
stopped using characters -- it was probably the most self-conscious
thing I've ever done as a songwriter. The only problem was that out in
public, people would be coming up to me saying, "Gee, I hope everything
Kot: Has there ever been a point where you wrote a lyric and thought,
"I don't want to go there"?
Prine: Not anymore. When one of those comes along, I write it down
and figure out later who to blame it on.
DiFranco: I'd think that every day at first. "Oh, no, I can't play
that in front of my fellow homo sapiens." But one day I just realized
that being too worried about what was too private, too personal, what
would make people feel uncomfortable, was an act of cowardice. I began
to realize that we are all freaks of nature, and that maybe if I was
feeling something, there would be other people out there who felt the
Prine: Certain songs, when you first start singing them, you start
thinking you're crazy. Then when you realize you're not the only one
that gets it, you don't feel so crazy.
Kot: Any songs in particular?
Prine: "Sam Stone" was like that. The first part of the song, people
would laugh. Then it would get really heavy, and they'd hold their
breath. At the end, they'd feel like I'd insulted their intelligence. It
took audiences a while to get used to that song.
DiFranco: With me it was "Not a Pretty Girl." At the start it would
be, "Boo, hiss," because I'd be singing about "another pretty girl." But
by the end, it would be, "Oh, I get it. You're not pretty. Pretty
Kot: I've talked to at least one notable singer-songwriter who says
performing his songs to an audience is a hellish experience, that he
wants to smash his guitar after a performance and take out a few
audience members with it. When I asked him why he makes music, he
replied that he didn't know. So what motivates you to keep writing and
Prine: It beats delivering mail.
DiFranco: What he said (laughs).
Prine: For me, music was my only escape. When I learned how to play
guitar, it was easier for me to write a song than to learn a favorite
song. I never expected to be playing those songs to more than two people
at a time. Now I can't imagine doing anything else.
DiFranco: I think just about anyone has a more or less tortured
relationship with whatever it is they do for a living. I've never met
anyone who likes their songs and feels content with them. I hate all my
albums; they're an embarrassment to me. And on stage, it can be like
going from one crisis to another. It can be ridiculously humiliating and
I wonder what I am doing with this microphone in front of me. But at the
end of the night when you're all sweaty and exhausted and the people
have been flailing and screaming in front of you, you get a good
feeling. Not a sense that you've done it -- because you never quite do
it to your satisfaction. But it's all about being on this endless
Kot: You both have live albums out, and they sound more true to what
you're about than some of your studio albums. What's your attitude
toward studio recordings?
Prine: When you play live, you're just going for a performance and it
doesn't matter if there's a mistake or two, because you just play
through it. I very seldom feel comfortable in the studio. It's too long
of a process; too many hairs are split. The quicker it is, the better it
is for me. If I had a studio at my house like some of these guys do, I'd
run away from home.
DiFranco: I can't get into the studio mindset. I exist so much on the
stage, and I can't transfer that to the studio. The stage is a very
random thing, but the studio is supposed to be for posterity. Being on
stage isn't about that; it's about playing for people. The sounds are
motivated by the people who are there. And I think that's another thing
about folk musicians -- they're performers. They're not about twiddling
knobs and studio perfection. It's about being part of this tribe,
driving around from city to city.
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