"I just have an overarching disrespect for business in general, for the forces of capitalism and how they contradict the needs of the people and the interests of art."
"Sorry, I should finish my sentences. They don't look very good on paper."
Ani DiFranco, the dynamic singer-songwriter and also CEO of Righteous Babe Records is apologizing for her tendency to veer off on illuminating tangents. I reassure her that I can tidy up her quotes in the editing process.
"Good," she laughs. "You can make me articulate! Feel free to paraphrase anything."
Far be it from me to improve on the wordings of Ani DiFranco.
At age 26, she has garnered critical accolades and rabidly-enthusiastic audiences across North America for the fierce integrity and jaw-dropping brilliance of her lyrics. She tackles topics both political and personal with deadly aim and uncompromising directness, twisting deceptively simple language into boldly empowering aphorisms or withering castigation.
Lest you think she is all rage and confrontation, DiFranco is also a writer of intense vulnerability and poignancy. On her latest album, Dilate, she chronicles the complexities of a romantic relationship with emotional honesty and humility. She sings that she "used to be a superhero" but falling in love has left her "just like everybody else."
DiFranco backs up her words with a flexible, rubber-ball voice and her unique and distinctive acoustic guitar attack. Although her writing follows in the storytelling tradition of folk music, her guitar playing has more in common with the aggression of punk and the virtuosity of bluegrass, mixing equal parts blitzkrieg strumming and furious fingerpicking. If I were her poor battered guitar, I would have applied for worker's compensation long ago.
i am matching the big boys one for one
and i must admit i am having myself some fun
"Make Them Apologize"
DiFranco also happens to be the queen of the indies.
Sales of her eight records total over 500,000. Dilate alone has sold over 80,000. And American touring industry magazine Pollstar lists her as one of the top 50 grossing live acts in North America.
Initially, going the independent route was simply a means of getting her songs out to her fans. "I didn't 'go' indie," emphasizes DiFranco. "I just started making recordings. At that point in my life, when I was 18 playing bars in Buffalo, it was ludicrous for me to think of sitting around and waiting for a record company to record my music."
So in 1990, DiFranco founded the Buffalo-based Righteous Babe Records, selling her tapes primarily at gigs and through mail-order. From these humble beginnings, Righteous Babe has grown into a successful label, employing seven full-time staff and a number of part-time personnel. In addition to DiFranco's albums, Righteous Babe has also released the spoken-word recordings of Utah Phillips and has a number of other projects in the works. Distribution is now handled by Koch International, and in Canada through Festival.
As an idea, Righteous Babe also shifted from simply being a means to an end into something with more focused ideals. "Over the years, a lot of people asked me 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'," recalls DiFranco. "So I had to explain it to myself and home in on my own ideologies. Now it is a much more conscious effort. I find myself on a path to deliberately thwart the standard industry process."
but i'd rather pay my dues
to the six people sitting at the bar
than to all those men in their business suits
who say i''ll take you away from this
if you'll just get in the car'
"The Next Big Thing"
DiFranco points out that the music industry is primarily motivated by the drive to make money, not music. And these are not her priorities. "Music is not for shopping," states DiFranco. "It's a shame that when somebody does something that is a good thing, there are plenty of people around who can modify it, commercialize it, package it, and try to milk it.
"I don't think that the music business is some kind of evil empire or anything," she continues. "I just have an overarching disrespect for business in general, for the forces of capitalism and how they contradict the needs of the people and the interests of art."
Despite her concerns about the "forces of capitalism," DiFranco has gradually phased in merchandising and advertising components to the workings of Righteous Babe. "I started out with the stance of 'no advertising' because the product should sell itself," she explains. "It's the fucking socialist in me. You make music; people like it; they'll tell their friends. Why take out an ad? And T-shirts just feed that cult of personality thing."
But DiFranco also found that preserving her sanity involved a certain financial reality. "I couldn't afford any help on the road," she remembers. "I was my own roadie, guitar tech, road manager, and driver. You can only do that for so many years at the kind of pace that I was doing it at, and then you start to go nuts.
"I was given point-blank financial advice from my manager: 'If you make and sell T-shirts, you can afford to have help on the road.' So we had to do it. But not my name; I wasn't going to put my name or face on them. Those are my rules. So I thought I'd just print some poetry on them."
Advertising has also been a hotly-debated issue between DiFranco and her manager Scot Fisher, who is also Righteous Babe's president. "We have all kinds of discussions about advertising," says DiFranco. "What if you take out an advertisement in a political periodical that you want to support? Buying an ad in The Advocate or The Nation is a way of giving money to that publication. It's a way of showing your support."
Ultimately, DiFranco is comfortable with the idea of making a business out of her music, albeit by her rules. "I don't think that making albums and selling them to people is an evil thing," she explains. "There must be a way of running a business and employing people and making things that are useful. There must be a way of doing that well and with a conscience."
and no i don't prefer obscurity
but i'm an idealistic girl
and i wouldn't work for you
no matter what you paid
"The Million You Never Made"
In order to ensure that Righteous Babe continues to do business with a conscience, DiFranco has taken pains to not let her success grow too quickly. Just because she can become more popular, doesn't mean she necessarily wants to be.
"I don't need to sell millions of records," she emphasizes. "I like my job and I don't need to conquer the world to be happy. So, how fast and big can we at Righteous Babe grow and still be able to sit down, hands-on, and think about every step along the way? How can we stay in control of the mechanisms and do the things the way we want to do them?"
One advantage DiFranco has is she doesn't need huge sales in order to make a reasonable living.
"I make a lot more than people on major labels, per unit," she acknowledges. "One can sell a lot fewer albums and still pay the rent if you don't have some kind of massive corporate overhead to answer to. So Ani says, 'The way to your fortune is independent.'"
when you're a big star
will you miss the earth
Another way in which Righteous Babe operates with a conscience is to stick with local Buffalo businesses, smaller promoters and a few smaller distributors.
"There are people who I've worked with for a lot of years," explains DiFranco, "that we try to retain a relationship with, on the basis of principle; to try to grow together. There's a lot of frustration that comes with trying to work with smaller businesses. If you want to go to your corner drug store and get your prescription filled, it's probably going to cost more than if you go to Wal-Mart. But, there is a reason why there is some value in going to the independent corner drug store."
Thus, staying independent is also a means to maintaining a connection to one's community and one's roots. "In the transition from obscure artist to rock star, there are some things that are often lost by people," observes DiFranco. "It's very hard for people to stay you know, it's the old clichι in touch with what made them make noise in the first place. Once your life has become this sort of parade, this circus of media manoeuvres and in-store album signings and photo shoots, it's a lot different than when you're just a tortured obsessive person, sitting with your little axe in your room, drinking yourself into a song."
Consequently, DiFranco assiduously avoids certain mainstays of music industry promotion. "I don't do in-stores," she stresses. "It's such an inherently heinous scenario: sit in a fucking chain record store so you can sign autographs. Autographs are something I've never understood. I've never wanted an autograph and I don't feel that autographs are very useful."
However, she has no difficulty with making use of exposure through the various bastions of the music industry media. "There's not something any more wrong in talking to somebody at Rolling Stone than talking to somebody at Chart or The Podunk Weekly," DiFranco points out. "I think to try to talk to anyone in a genuine manner has got to weigh an ounce at least.
"I remember the first time that MTV did a news story on me," she recalls. "People were showing up to my shows yelling 'MTV sucks!' Yeah, duhhh. Let's go beyond that."
"Basically, we are given the option in life of staying at home, drawing the curtains and sitting on our couches, complaining about everything or getting out there and trying to change it. It's one thing to point at something and say 'That sucks.' It's another thing to try to fix it, pick it up and work with it."
i'm no heroine
least not last time i checked
i'm too easy to roll over
i'm too easy to wreck
i just write about what i should have done
i sing what i wish i could say
and i hope somewhere some woman hears my music
and it helps her through her day
"I'm No Heroine"
In spite of her best efforts to thwart the standard star-making process of the music industry, DiFranco has become a bit of "an icon for her generation," as a recent Ms. cover story dubbed her. DiFranco feels ambivalent about such labels. "It doesn't really inspire me emotionally either way," she reveals. "Honestly, what is said about me in the media is not my greatest concern. That's part of the job; people you don't even know, never ever will know, stating definitively who and what you are, what you are doing and what it means."
When Chart interviewed DiFranco in 1995, she expressed discomfort with her involuntary elevation to status of spokesperson. "I'm appreciative of the people who listen to my music, who get something out of it," she stated. "But I think it is so much more useful to have a relationship of equals. It scares me to see people wanting me to speak for them, because I can't. I can only speak for myself. I may be an inspiration for someone to go speak for themselves, but that's pretty much all I want to do. That's all I'm willing to do. I don't want to be an icon or a symbol. I'm so human."
Now DiFranco seems more resigned to her appointed role. "It's part of the job," she says. "But sometimes people seem to be very unaware of the actuality of the situation. They don't seem to see a performer on the stage. Instead, they seem to see a direct, personal, intense relationship between me and them."
Some of these people become so wrapped up in their perceptions of DiFranco, that they become incensed with any change in direction that she makes. "When people invest so much emotionally in somebody's work, it can turn in an instant," she agrees. "It's not a relationship between people. It's just a lot of projection in that kind of situation. So of course it can turn from intense love and admiration to rage. I'm aware of the fact that I'm a symbol when I'm doing my job. I'm not so much a person in my public life. I'm an object for people to project things on."
In some cases, it seems as if DiFranco plays a more integral role, contributing some missing quality or voice that helps these people feel more empowered. And the more that DiFranco asserts her own individuality, the more she threatens the stability of that role for these people. "Any part of my identity that doesn't affirm or re-confirm their identity is wrong," she says. "It's just wrong. I get that from a billion different sources every day."
As evinced by her frequent replies to her audience in her songs, DiFranco has difficulty escaping the perceptions of her fans during the writing process. "It's kind of a drag to find that I keep reacting in my work to the reaction to my work," she admits. "I wish I could just be way above it all, but I'm not. The misconceptions, misinformation, comments and criticisms all of that I want to respond to. Because I put myself out there so much and then everyone has an opinion. But that's where the dialogue ends."
Despite her misgivings about the process, DiFranco does agree that creating icons is natural. "We all need to have our identities affirmed in our culture," she states. "We all want heroes to inspire us. So I don't think there's anything wrong with any of that. Oftentimes, that becomes distorted because of a lack of something in our own lives, like you were saying earlier. But as a basic premise, it's not a bad thing to have a hero."
While DiFranco continues to grapple with the problems of being a public figure, she has not become jaded or disillusioned with her life as an artist. "No job is without its downsides," she concedes. "But there's a lot of perks to this job. I get to make art for a living. Go figure. And I get to travel around and meet a lot of different people and see a lot of different stuff.
"I try to shut out the rest of it. I try to negotiate what I think is a do-able balance between all the bullshit I wish I didn't have to devote so much of my time and energy to, and to the stuff I want to do."