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Punkette poet

Ani DiFranco writes -- and laughs -- evocatively

by Amy Finch

["Ani In her nose ring, neon-orange braids, and clompy boots, Ani DiFranco could not be mistaken for a dainty lass. She could, however, be mistaken for a punkette who spits out sermons of rage and resentment to a jackhammer beat. Until you listen to her, that is. Then it's clear: she just likes to muss up preconceptions and rigid categories. Even as her acoustic guitar and poetic/intimate bent land her someplace near the folk axis, she's attacking songs with a jazzy style and the soul of a true malcontent. If anybody could unite cocktail loungers, folkies, and moshers, it would be Ani.

Her eighth album, Dilate (all are on her own Righteous Babe label), is due in stores on Tuesday, but much of it is already familiar to Ani fans, who've heard her perform songs from it for months now. More than her previous recordings, Dilate is a somber affair. Most of it speaks of a dissatisfaction unleavened by her trademark whimsy or sarcasm. It also includes her loudest, most venomous song yet, "Outta Me, Onto You," a snarling "Watch it!" aimed at an exasperating lover. Over the phone from her native Buffalo, Ani explains that the song's fury stems from "people fuckin' with me. Like any other inspiration, it's usually thanks to the people in my life."

Her scruffy candor, in song and in person, is one reason fans have christened her "The Goddess" on the Internet. In a big-business-swamped world, DiFranco is an unaffected, organic force who sneaked in through the basement. She launched Righteous Babe six years ago to release her debut, and she hasn't stopped touring or writing since. Now she's 26, and on a collision course with semi-famousness. When someone yelled "Sellout!" at her on stage at Mechanics Hall in Worcester last month, she felt so pathetic and thin-skinned she wanted to quit.

Maybe that person was only trying to rile her, because Dilate is not the work of an artist bent on wealth and living high on the hog. A sellout doesn't go and record an assortment of songs so emotionally complex and heartfelt. Still, even when she's at her most serious, there's usually a twinge of irreverence -- no holier-than-thou attitude problem here. Amid the solemn air of Dilate, her self-mockery nudges against the poetry in her words. "Untouchable Face" starts off with a gentle, wobbly guitar line and her dulcet voice telling the old, odd-man-out tale of romance. She admires the happy couple: "I have to admit, you're perfect together . . . so fuck you." As she's done since her debut, she paints a delicate, detailed picture: "Two-thirty in the morning . . . nearly out of gas . . . neon sign on the horizon . . . rubbing elbows with the moon . . . out on the porch a fly strip waving like a flag in the wind . . . "

The most wrenching number here is the title track. DiFranco sings it as if her heart were truly collapsing. "Dilate" finds her in some faceless town in the middle of the night, tormented by loneliness and the sensation that life has become something unreal, something "more like show biz." The song tingles with an urgency but stutters just short of detonating. Six years of non-stop touring is tough on a psyche, to judge from the anguish in her voice. What's sad is how unconvinced she sounds as she wails, "I know that I'm better off alone."

Indeed, failed coupledom is what Dilate is mostly about. "It's a lot of songs about a relationship," she says. "There are some exceptions, but largely the album has to do with looking at that one thing from a whole lot of different sides. So it's this journey through the classic levels of bliss and denial and anger and sadness and grief and redemption. It's this almost spiritual journey into and back out of myself due to the experience of being madly in love and having it just not be a good thing."

In keeping with that spirit of redemption, Ani's included her version of "Amazing Grace" on Dilate. It finds her repeating the lyrics as relayed by an elderly woman speaking into what sounds like a telephone. The song's classic beauty is freshened by a shuffling drum beat and softly ringing bells that sound like a rainy Sunday morning.

How that doleful morning might turn out for DiFranco in real life is uncertain. She has resolutely ignored the siren song of major-label interest. At this point in her career, is she never tempted by the Big League guys sniffing around (according to a spokeswoman, her eight albums have sold a total of 300,000 copies)? "No. I mean yes, of course, everyday, all the time. Life could be a lot easier. But no, because I have other priorities. It just won't happen."

Is she doing well enough that money concerns don't cut into her creativity? "They cut into all kinds of things. It's not easy. Right now I'm still struggling with having help on the road, for instance. It costs a lot of money to have a road manager and a sound man. So it's tough. It does affect my life in concrete ways."

Something else that affects her life is the intimate connection her fans feel with her. She has encouraged this response by jumbling the boundaries of gender with a humanity that says it's okay if you're a girl who likes girls, or a girl who refuses to play the helpless-kitten role, or a girl who is not pretty. As she sang on last year's Not a Pretty Girl, she doesn't want to be one, she wants to be more than that. While she's at it, she'd also like to be regarded as something more than perfection on a pedestal. She says being worshipped and hailed as the Goddess "can be a bit of a drag. People get very, very fervent. In their excitement sometimes they forget that I'm a person and they tend to trample. They forget I have my own life, my own needs."

Fame, she adds, "is not really my thing. I think a lot of people get off on that, and I think that's maybe why they get into this line of work, but I'm just not one of them. Which is kinda unfortunate, because I've been confronted with it more and more. I don't know what I'm gonna do, 'cause I really wish people would chill out and I'm not into that adoration thing. It doesn't seem like a dynamic sort of relationship to have with people."

Well, the world is not teeming with iconoclastic females who play folk/punk/jazz as if they'd die if they didn't. Because of her open bisexuality, you're likely to see more public displays of affection among young female couples at an Ani show than at shows by other heroines-of-the-moment like Alanis, Tori, and Courtney. So young women, especially, adore her. It helps that in her live shows she oozes self-depreciating charm and a staccato kind of wit that's a mirror to her stop-start style of guitar playing; it makes her more personally accessible than the Big Three of female pop. She's an approachable Goddess.

In Worcester, before she began "Untouchable Face," she asked that the audience please not sing, even if "we're supposed to have a `moment.' " Then she smiled and joked, "I'm gonna tell you what to do all night." (Nobody did sing.) She ragged on a huge George Washington portrait on the wall. There he stood, alongside a rear-view shot of his mount. "Founding Father, horse's ass," she quipped in a way that would have made Christine Lavin proud.

On stage she radiates a nervous, comic energy that only intermittently comes through on her recordings. So audiences get thrown for a loop if they expect her to be all militant and mad. The anger in her songs does tend to be the dominant force to some ears. "People forever have been trying to create this stereotype of me. People that have no idea what it is that I am or what it is that I'm trying to do. They'll pick up on the anger in the music out of all the emotions expressed. That's when the red flags go up and everybody gets all nervous -- angry young woman! -- and they try to create this monstrous stereotype of me. And then I show up and I'm having a good time. And they're like, wait, we thought you'd be a bitch.

"It seems a very one-dimensional, almost infantile approach to life, where you're either an angry young woman or a sweet, kind young woman. What if I'm three-dimensional and I have all these experiences, and I want to include my anger in my vocabulary of emotions? I don't want to leave that out of my work, yet I insist on not being reduced to it."

Even a few hipster types with typically wide-open minds have been known to groan at the mere mention of her record-label name. What would she say to those whose dander gets rumpled by the Righteous Babe moniker?

"What would I say to them?" She laughs. " `Here, here's a cup to put your dentures in, and would you like me to push your wheelchair somewhere?' What can you say to people who are turned off by funny things 'cause they're threatened?"

As far as being circumscribed by people's expectations and natural impulse to define, nothing seems to annoy her more. "One thing I've found in the world is there's plenty of people who are gonna define you for you. One of the funny things is that with each different person it'll be a completely different description. There's something that I enjoy about that, because it points out the subjectivity or randomness of it all.

"It's like, this is what I do and I'll just do it; and this is who I am and I'll just be it; and then whatever it is that your impression is, you can have it. So when people ask what kind of music do you play, either I don't answer or I say something ridiculous, like righteous-babe music. Which keeps them guessing."

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