Ani DiFranco: My Life in 18 Songs (2024)

Storyteller

The singer-songwriter shares the stories behind her songs, from classics like "Both Hands" and "Untouchable Face" up to her new album, Unprecedented sh*t

For a lot of people, Ani DiFranco’s music might be emblematic of a certain time — of clove cigarettes and coffee shops, dorm rooms and Doc Martens. But that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to develop herself and her sound. “Sometimes it bums me out to hear on repeat from people’s faces, like, ‘Oh, I loved you in the Nineties.’ ‘Oh, you got me through high school,’” DiFranco says. “I think that’s awesome, but also, I’ve been writing songs and making albums since then, and I think my new ones are some of my best.” Adds the singer-songwriter, whose 23rd album, Unprecedented sh*t, is out May 17: “I’m not the It Girl anymore, but I still have a job.”

In fact, she has several jobs. Aside from her new album — which she recorded with BJ Burton, making this only the second record in almost 35 years that she didn’t self-produce — she’s currently starring on Broadway as the goddess Persephone in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. (It’s a role that DiFranco originated on Mitchell’s 2010 concept album of the same name, which she put out on her label, Righteous Babe Records.) She’s got a documentary about her career premiering this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival. She’s got her second children’s book, Show Up and Vote, coming this August. She is still a ball of energy at 53, her eyes as piercing as they were on the cover of her 1990 debut — even if her head isn’t quite as shaved.

Earlier this spring, DiFranco stopped by Rolling Stone’s offices to walk through her career by way of 18 songs, from her earliest compositions she sang at open mics in Buffalo, to the songs she wrote after moving to New York City as a teen, to collaborations with folk visionaries like Utah Phillips, to her later work, written as a wife and a mother living in New Orleans. “I was an outsider, for sure. I was this shaved-headed, jack-booted, pierced girl in a field of not-that,” DiFranco says of her early years on the folk circuit — but it wasn’t all bad. “The parties at night at those festivals were some of my fondest music memories in this life, of just jamming with people from all over the world.”

  • “Both Hands” (1990)

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    That’s album one, side one, take one of my journey. It’s a song that I feel like I’ve heard more than any other, like, “I learned how to play guitar to play that song.” It’s one that people hold dear, and it just is emblematic of my state of being at the time. I recorded it in front of two microphones to tape — really simple, just young, dumb, full of cum, not overthinking.

    I remember the window I was looking out of [when I wrote it], on 11th Street between First and A where I lived. I used to sit in the window frame. The guy across the street used to blow bubbles. I can picture sitting there looking at the bubbles blowing down the street.

    Back in my folkie-folk, lefty dyke promoters world that I grew up in, there were a lot of sign language interpreters at my shows. I used to have these really funny interactions with the interpreters before the shows: “What does this song mean? I’m going to try to interpret it for you.” I remember this one day the woman asking me, “So is there a sexual connotation for that song?” I was like, “Well, yeah. Sure.” Then she asked that same thing for all of the songs on the set list, and the answer was, “Well, yeah. Yeah, that’s part of it.”

  • “You Had Time” (1994)

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    Flash-forward a few years. Out of Range, I feel like, was the first album where I got a handle on the studio as a place to document songs, where I started to get my groove on. It feels representative of that, of a song I didn’t slaughter to tape. I was starting to experiment. I played a big long piano intro to that song. I don’t play piano, but that wasn’t stopping me at the time. Back in the day, I would pick up any instrument and play it without worrying whether I was supposed to, or good at it, or whatever. So that, for me, that song and that moment kind of represents that freedom I still possess. There was no expectation of me in the world. I was still just becoming myself, but I was starting to figure out the studio, and how to go a little bit more right than wrong, trying to document my songs.

  • “32 Flavors” (1995)

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    This is when I was hitting my stride in the studio, and maybe in the world, starting to connect outside of my little tiny folk culture. “32 Flavors,” a song that was meaningful for other people at the time. I mean, everything that I have recorded over the years has been kind of just me following my spleen in the moment. There’s definitely a weirdness to it all. It’s a song without a chorus, and it’s a song with a five-minute drum outro. I don’t know. Why not? It felt very renegade at the time. We made a drum loop — Andy [Stochansky], my drummer at the time, and I. It was just a little eight-bar loop, and we thought that was really exciting. So the song, rather than him drumming through, it was recorded to a loop.

    I remember I was starting to get more traction as a musician in the world, so therefore I was running up against more of that culture of competition, especially amongst women, and especially in a culture where there’s only one girl that’s going to be on the bill. Just the way patriarchy sets us up to compete with each other for the scraps, and that just bummed me the f*ck out. I was craving allies, and instead finding saboteurs. I think it’s kind of about that.

  • “Shy” (1995)

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    Another thing about Not a Pretty Girl was I played bass on the whole record. I was touring with just Andy. It was me and a drummer for a lot of years, but in a studio, I was going to get fancy and add a bass player, fill out the low end a little more, though I was in the business of cranking the low end on my guitar. But I remember with Not a Pretty Girl, I was talking to Andy and saying, “So, do you know any bass players?” He was like, “How about you?” I really appreciated that he said that, and I didn’t need to be asked twice, because I’m way into trying to do sh*t.

    I had never played bass. So I went and I bought a bass, which is still one of the best instruments I have. And “Shy” is sort of an example of what happens when you put a bass in this guitar player’s hands. To me, it represents like, “No, I’m not a bass player, but f*ck it.” It’s cool. It’s different. It’s a weird approach, but it’s different than probably a typical bass player would approach the song. I just appreciate that era of intrepid, “f*ck it, dude” that I was in. I wasn’t worried that I wasn’t a bass player.

  • “Untouchable Face” (1996)

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    After touring for whatever, six years with just me and Andy in a minivan — with Dilate I was starting to hit the mainstream radar, but it was a very shoestring operation that I was running. I just got enough means to hire a third person [Andrew Gilchrist, nicknamed Goat,] to go on the road with me and Andy, so it was all-around, sound guy, crew, road manager. Me and that person sort of fell in love out there, and it was a big crime because he had a girl that he lived with back home, and I had whatever I had. A lot of songs on that record, like “Untouchable Face,” are about love that’s a no-no according to the world. It sort of just represents that era of my life.

    I remember we toured through Toronto around the time of the writing of that song, and I went ahead and played it, and my sound guy’s lady was in the audience going, “Oh, yeah, that’s the vibe I was picking up on here.” That was my way of outing the whole thing. Many apologies to her in retrospect. I never wanted to hide in my art at whatever cost.

  • “Korea” (1996)

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    Utah Phillips was a crazy, radical, anarchist folk singer that I met out there on the circuit, and he and I just really hit it off. He was one of the old guard that recognized himself in me, like, “Oh, this is the new generation. She’s going to take the baton from us, so let’s be nice to her.” Watching him on stage, I felt like his performances really hinged on his storytelling. The folk songs, which is what would get recorded on records, were, like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and whatever. But the thing that would make you laugh hysterically, and cry, and think for weeks and months afterwards, were the stories that he told in between the songs. So I got this idea to make a record of his stories while he was around, because that was a lot of American history, there was a lot of teaching, a lot of inspiration in his stories.

    He trusted me enough to send me a box, about the size of a toaster oven, full of cassettes that people had recorded along the way of his life and performance. It was his life’s work, so I transferred them all to DAT tape, and I started combing for stories, and I set them to music.

    I used drum loops off of a drum-loop CD. I didn’t even have a sampler. I had an Eventide H3000, which is a multi-effects outboard thing, where there was one patch of 10-second sampling, and I had to trigger it manually. It was so lo-fi. But that’s how I made that record. And then I played the bass, and then the guitar on that song is Utah tuning up on stage. You can hear it, which I think is kind of cool. He’s telling the story, and he’s getting ready to play the next song, so he’s sort of checking the tuning on his guitar, which becomes the riff. But anyway, yeah, it was just me on my own in a studio in Austin, Texas, building a record around these cassettes that he sent me.

  • “Joyful Girl” (Live) (1997)

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    Living in Clip was a record that I could feel opened up the world more to my music. I was very much siloed by the media, which was just middle-aged, straight white men who were of a different planet than me. Generally what was written was, “She’s a scary, angry dyke who makes songs for scary, angry dykes.” That’s how it was defined, and so I think unless you felt included because you were a scary, angry dyke, you didn’t dare come to a show. From everything you’d heard, you will get your balls bitten off.

    I was only just starting to be talked about in the mainstream media at all, and I went right to making a double live album, for logic that I have no idea why. But as it happens, people heard it, and they could vibe what it’s like to be at one of my shows, and they were like, “Oh, I could go there. That sounds fun. That’s just music.” I think it helped people make a connection, even though I was in the “womyn” section in the record store, in the back corner. That album helped people get all the way back to that corner, and show up to a show, take a chance.

    “Joyful Girl” is on that record, the live version. I believe on the recording it’s just me and Andy on drums, but we’d do whatever we could with two sticks to make a fire. We were very experimental. In “Joyful Girl,” he got in the habit of coming out from behind his drums and standing next to me, and drumming on the body of my guitar. So I’m playing the song, and he’s just standing very close to me and drumming on my guitar with his fingertips, and it was a vibe. It was very intimate. That’s probably why I picked “Joyful Girl” from that record, to represent that moment of how we would do a lot with very little.

  • “As Is” (1998)

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    Little Plastic Castle was probably the Ani-hits-the-radar moment. “As Is” was one take, or a couple of takes. It’s really basic, we’re just live recording. For me, that’s a moment because I had played this little f*cking dive bar in Miami, and that day, driving in, we had seen this vintage car lot. It was kind of a car museum, there was a car that went in water, and all this crazy sh*t. I fell in love with a ’69 Mustang Cobra Turbojet 428, and I bought the f*cking car [with our merch money]. I used to live in Austin, Texas, as much as anywhere, because there was a recording studio that I started working at, the Congress House. I had my Mustang delivered there. While recording this song, the car was delivered. You can’t hear it on the recording, but I could hear “beep, beep, beep.” So for me, this recording was when my car got dropped off. Then all kinds of drag racing out in Texas occurred after that.

    [Little Plastic Castle’s popularity was] a blessing and a curse. Goat and I were learning how to make records, and we made a decent record that didn’t sound like it was carved out of a block of wood, and so people were like, “Sell-out. I knew it.” I was going through this phase of makeup and dresses, whatever. [My bandmates] Andy and Sarah [Lee], they started glamming out, so I started glamming out with them. It was just a big backlash of my ruffian revolutionary subculture. So it kind of hurt, but that’s … whatever. It was also amazing to be legitimized by the powers that be.

  • “Grey” (2001)

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    So flash-forward a bunch of years, my marriage [to Goat] fell apart, my life fell apart. I struggled, I flailed, and I didn’t step off the stage, and I didn’t step back from public view, unfortunately. In retrospect, I struggled on stage, struggled in the public eye, which is extra sucky. But a lot of those moments, as they were recorded, they connect with other people who are struggling, and “Grey” is one of those songs from that era of my deconstruction, and then reconstruction as a human being. “Grey” is the song I chose from that record mostly because of Sekou Sundiata, who was a poetry teacher of mine at the New School in New York, and my friend and mentor, a special person in my life. He died. He always loved that song. I respected him as much as one human can another.

    I went to a show he created called Blessing the Boats, which is a title taken from a Lucille Clifton poem, which was a poet that I turned him onto, and somebody started singing “Grey,” and I was like, “Whoa.” Then again, at his memorial, somebody sang “Grey,” so I think of him when I think of that song.

  • “Bliss Like This” (2004)

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    I’ve completely imploded [by this time]. Everyone in my life has exited. I showed them all the exits, and waved and said, “Thanks, sorry!” So I’m very much alone by choice, and by necessity. I have a pile of songs, like I do every few weeks, so I got a real eight-track, like an old TASCAM, because I thought, this is a simple enough machine that I can do this. I made a record alone in my house while thinking about what I’d done. “Bliss Like This,” I just like that recording. I mean, I don’t know, I kind of like that record. I don’t know if anybody else does, but I kind of feel like it was the right idea to just go off by myself.

    It’s very simple. I only had eight tracks, and I just overdubbed a couple of things, maybe or maybe not. Unfortunately, then I went from that eight-track machine to this format called MasterLink, which was very short-lived. So not great sound quality on that record, but I don’t know, it’s representative of that moment in my life where I crawled into my little cave, and took the time that I should have taken long before that.

  • “Parameters” (2005)

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    I’ve had a lot of stalkers. I’ve had a lot of weirdos. I’ve had a lot of weirdness, but this one took the cake. It was a dude that was upstairs in my bedroom, in the dark, waiting for me when I got home one night. I was living in Buffalo, so that was a real come to Jesus for me. I thought I was OK because all’s well that ends well, I’m moving on, “Ha! See, I am invincible.” But meanwhile, I started having panic attacks, and it had become too overwhelming. I guess I picked that because I’d always done poems just as poems in my shows, I’d throw a poem at people now and then, or on a record there’s usually a poem that came in between songs. So that’s a poem.

    Knuckle Down was the first time I went to L.A. and I made a record. It was sort of me crawling out of my hole like, “OK, who will be my friend now?” I asked Todd Sickafoose to play bass on it, and he’s been my bass player ever since. I brought in a producer, Joe Henry, and he brought in some people, so I worked with new people for a change. I was trying to reinvent my game. That record is that transition into this new era.

  • “The Atom” (2008)

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    Red Letter Yearso now I’ve met my second and last husband [Mike Napolitano], who’s an amazing studio producer. I feel like this is the beginning of my modern recordings, the era that I’m in now, still. I never sort of fall beneath; I’m just surrounded by enough badasses that I can’t go too wrong. So Red Letter Year sounds great because Nappy, my fella, recorded it and mixed it.

    There are songs on this record where I got a string section, and Todd did the string arrangements, so it’s me deepening in my relationship with Todd. Funny enough, now I’m doing Hadestown every night on stage, and Todd, of course, won a Tony for arranging [that show]. Todd, who I introduced to Anaïs [Mitchell]. Two of the women in the band most nights, Marika Hughes and Megan Gould, played on “The Atom,” so it’s like all these interlocking circles of what is now my life and community. That song represented the beginning of this life I’m now living.

  • “Albacore” (2012)

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    Again, I’m working with Nappy, and “Albacore” is a song I wrote about him, and about this enduring love of my life. Maybe that’s all there is to that. I wrote it when we were on our honeymoon. I mean, we had a kid — oops! We were living the rock & roll life, and then oops, f*ck, now there’s a f*cking baby. When the kid was about two, we decided, “OK, let’s get married.” So we went to Hawaii for a week before my Australian tour. We got married at the justice of the peace and spent a week in Hawaii. I remember sitting in the ocean and writing that song, when it really seemed so deeply right. Of course, we’ve been married for 20 years, so there’s a lot of ups and downs since then. But that was when I did a big exhale.

  • “Happy All the Time” (2014)

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    Nappy and I were struggling at the time, so Allergic to Water was an album where I ended up on my own again, trying to put it together. “Happy All the Time” is a song, well, first of all, it might be the only song on this list where I played one of my favorite guitars, my tenor guitar that I’ve had since the beginning, since Buffalo days. I don’t know what people make of that song, if anything, but it’s a song about white privilege, a song about how I have things to give to this world, but I can only give so much because I’ve only suffered so much. The people who endure the most, I believe that when they find the path to transcendence and back to their own power, it’s the most powerful sound in the world that uplifts everyone along with it. So it was just this sort of expression of humility, whatever.

  • “Binary” (2017)

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    Flash-forward again a couple years. I had been canceled on social media. I had this very brutal takedown, which really affected my life. I had agreed to do a songwriting workshop over the course of a weekend, and it was at this venue outside of New Orleans, where I lived. I was struggling in my marriage because my job is to travel, and now I’ve got kids, and I’ve got a husband, there’s tension. It just was so hard, so hard. So I got offered this gig, you can basically make a couple weeks’ worth of money in a weekend, and it’ll be right near your house, and you could go home at night, so I was like, “Yes. Whatever that is, yes.” Well, that happened to be at a hotel that was formerly a plantation, and so there was a big hubbub on social media. I didn’t even know about it until it was way too late. It doesn’t take long for things to turn into much bigger things. Anyway, suffice it to say being canceled is really devastating.

    Then my response to it, instead of saying, “Sorry, I should have been on that,” I tried to justify it — like, first, I didn’t know what the venue was when I said yes to the gig. Second, I play all kinds of f*cked-up [places]. Half the buildings in New Orleans are slave quarters. If you live in the South, these are the buildings [where] all the horror happened. I said all the things that made sense to me, but boy, did that not help. So regret compounded regret, and anger escalated anger, and as a result my whole life imploded. I was sick for years. Longstanding relationships ended. It was a seismic event for me. It really made me want to never, ever sing a song for anyone ever again. Just stay home and shut up. It changed me.

    “Binary” is [where] I’m trying to recover from this trainwreck of an experience, and it’s a song of searching, like the refrain, “Where are my brothers? Where are my sisters? Where is my family? Who takes care of each other? Does anybody believe I’m a good person? And is it OK for me to re-enter the fray of humanity? Am I safe?” I was very scared for the first time in my life. I had fought against so much, and never was I as afraid as I was, and I still am prey to that fear of self-doubt. I learned what that experience is like, that I really didn’t have that deep a connection to, that so many people unfortunately do. So many people would tell me to my face, or in a letter, “Your music help me conquer this fear of being enough, of being OK just as I am, of being good and worthy.”

    I never had been crippled by those fears and self-doubts until that point in my life, so I learned what that is. It’s quite a thing to feel like you’re bad, so for the first time I really connected with that.

  • “Revolutionary Love” (2021)

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    For me personally, it represents an even deeper opening myself up to what is my new and current era of creative existence, which is more collaboration, getting out of my bubble — whatever bubbles I’ve created for myself — bursting them. I met [producer Brad Cook] at the Bon Iver festival in Eau Claire, and he suggested making a record together. Just from hanging with this dude and vibing with him, I was like, “Sure.” So I went to North Carolina and got together with him and a bunch of people he knew, and we made this record in a few days. It was a real leap of faith, and part of this new life that I’ve now fully entered. Just, yeah, sure, mystery. I’ll choose the mystery door. Go into the unknown.

  • “New Bible” (2024)

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    For a bunch of years, I’ve wanted to do more than document my songs, which is kind of what I’ve done in the recording studio. Sometimes I overdub this or that, or I have an idea that is born of the studio, but mostly it’s me and my compadres playing our instruments. In this modern age of recording, people playing instruments is like one ingredient, it’s almost a spice in terms of how people make records. I love people playing instruments, and especially interacting with each other, so I never want to leave that world per se, but I do want to explore and utilize everything that’s available now. I’ve sort of tried on my own over the years, but I don’t know what all this f*cking new gear is.

    So I told my managers, “I want to work with somebody new, who is living in 2023, and has the gear, and the creativity to use the gear in all the ways that I don’t. I want to make a record in a new way.” They sent me this list of 20 names. The top of the list, the name was BJ Burton, and I saw his credits, [Bon Iver’s] 22, A Million, which is a record that I love. I swear to God, I didn’t read any further. I just contacted BJ, and he said, “Yes. Send me some songs.” I would record songs at my house, send them to him, he’d f*ck with them mightily. He created soundscapes using very simple raw materials that I sent him. Some of the songs remain totally raw, voice and guitar, and then there are these moments where he took my voice and guitar to Pluto and back.

    “New Bible” is the only song I ever wrote on ukulele. That’s special to me. Somebody gave me a ukulele and I wrote a song, and then I was like, “No, no, I don’t need to carry one more f*cking instrument around.” So I have to find that ukulele now that this album is coming out, and go play that song in public. “New Bible” is a statement of, enough. You can’t kill the planet without killing yourself. None of us are going to sleep, or breathe, or function, or live healthy lives until we heal it all, and we got to get back to basics to do that. I guess that’s all I’m trying to talk about, the primacy of nature, and reproductive freedom, and just stopping this business of enslaving each other and the planet.

  • “You Forgot To Speak” (2024)

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    “You Forgot To Speak” — I’m challenging myself. I wrote that song for a play that may or may not ever exist in the world, so it’s for a character, it’s from the perspective of a character, but of course, when we write things, we’re always writing about ourselves. The character is this badass woman lawyer in the world who achieves amazing things with the law, but can’t say what she has to say to her partner in her marriage, or finds it hard to speak up in the one-on-one. She can use her words to liberate many people from afar, but how can anyone listen when you forgot to speak? You have to make yourself go there if you want to be heard, and if you want to be whole in your body and in your life.

Ani DiFranco: My Life in 18 Songs (2024)
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