For 30 years, Ani DiFranco’s political and social activism have been embedded in her music.
Since the 1990 release of her self-titled album, the Buffalo-born alternative folk singer and songwriter has released more than 250 songs on a wide diversity of topics ranging from equal, reproductive and LGBTQ rights to anti-war and protest songs.
The day after she performs at the Danforth Music Hall on Nov. 7 to promote her latest album “Revolution Love,” Americans will be headed to polls for the midterm elections.
Considering that there’s a number of recently made threats to democracy, including the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade and criminalizing abortion in many States, there seems to be more unrest than ever on the U.S. political scene.
Did DiFranco see this coming?
“No, I don’t imagine I did — any more than many. Yeah, I thought we’d gotten about as bad as we could get under George W. (U.S. President George W. Bush), you know? Now, for me, my best moments are levity and humour where I can look at (ex-President Donald) Trump as the great uniter. Now even George W. is on our side: He saw the most formidable enemy possible and the deepest political regression possible.
“With this new guard of fascists — let’s just say it for what it is in America — maybe the tiny silver lining is the way it unites so many more on ‘the other side,’” she said in a phone interview Monday.
Although deeply invested in the outcome, DiFranco said she has no idea which side will be victorious come Tuesday night. Referring to the title of one of her songs, does America need a “Life Boat?”
“I think a lot of how we got here was disengagement on the majority of American voters,” she theorized from her home in New Orleans, where she’s resided for almost two decades.
“I’ve been stomping around for I don’t know how many decades now just repeating the mantra, ‘Vote! Vote! Vote!’ to any young person who would listen. I think disillusionment here and disengagement has really given free reign to a very radical minority. Because democracy has slipped so far in America, I feel, ironically, that it’s a reinvestment in a belief in democracy that’s going to get us out of here.
“Just when things looked about as bleak and far gone and hopeless as ever, we have to find hope — enough to activate ourselves, enough to re-engage, enough to get out between now and (Nov. 8) and vote first and foremost.
“You do see a groundswell that is bona fide hopeful of young, progressive, diverse people not only voting and helping to get the vote out amongst others in their community, but running for office. There are a lot of new people stepping up to the plate.”
DiFranco has been doing her part on this tour, which has been focused mainly on the U.S.
“I was one of the millions who was blindsided in 2016 (by Trump’s victory.) I couldn’t fathom that that was going to happen and so I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen with this election.
“I’ve had people who are running campaigns all over the South where I’m playing coming in and talking to my audience. There are all kinds of organizations I bring to the show that not only engage people in the lobby but and I talk onstage about passing the ERA, about all these efforts that are occurring out there and all these people that we can get behind and help. So, I’m doing the best that I can do.”
When I last spoke with DiFranco 10 years ago, she was a parent of one and has since had a son. But surprisingly, she said that parenthood has not increased her urgency about singing and rallying for political issues.
“The level of urgency that I had towards making political change and ensuring a better future before kids I couldn’t surpass,” DiFranco explained. “I do understand that that happens for a lot of people: when they become parents, suddenly they start really worrying about the future of the planet, the government, of women, of people of colour and the future of their kids.
“But for me, it was almost the opposite: having kids was a way of achieving a little bit of balance between being a political warrior and breathing. The kids brought to me a little bit of patience to put this (career) down for a few minutes … and just play a game and watch the grass grow with them,” she explained.
Her new album “Revolutionary Love” is inspired by her friend and civil rights leader Valarie Kaur.
“I think that it’s been the whole goal of my career, if not my life, of achieving ‘Revolutionary Love,’” she explained. “However, I might be falling short in any moment — I didn’t have all the language to articulate it the way I did in that song until more recently.
“My friendship with an activist and writer named Valarie Kaur , who wrote a book about revolutionary love — that song is a direct commission from her. She called me up and said, ‘Ani, I need songs,’ — so I wrote three songs just to put her words and wisdom into song and help it connect with people. ‘Revolution Love,’ in particular, I realized, really articulates what I am trying to do in my life and in my art, so I asked her if I can put it on my record … We inspire each other and what goes around comes around.”
While she was growing up across the Fort Erie border, DiFranco forged plenty of ties with Toronto, and ended up working with several of the city’s musicians including Kurt Swinghammer, Jason Mercer and Andy Stochansky.
“Of course, growing up in Buffalo for many years, Toronto was the shining metropolis just to the north where us little Buffalonians would go to see shows and buy fancy things and make friends and musical collaborators,” DiFranco recalled. “My first husband, Andrew Gilchrist, lived in Toronto, so it gave me a deeper connection with the city.”
DiFranco said she’s excited about coming back if only for one night, and is bringing along the Righteous Babes Revue, named after her indie label. While four acts are listed on the marquee — Gracie and Rachel, Jocelyn Mackenzie and Holly Miranda — DiFranco said they will all be part of one big band as the opening act.
“A handful of them that answered the call to learn each other’s music and form a band for the purpose of coming out and being a part of this Righteous Babe revue concept,” said DiFranco. “It’s neat to see these beautiful women musicians who are songwriters in their own right, get together, get behind each other’s work and form an even deeper community around the label.”
While DiFranco has released a number of stellar albums over the years — 1995’s “Not A Pretty Girl,” 1998’s “Little Plastic Castle,” 2004’s “Educated Guess” and 2008’s “Red Letter Year” to name a few — she has regrets and wonders how differently life would have been had she been signed to a major label and reached a wider audience.
“Having my own label has given me autonomy and freedom — but that includes the freedom to make all my own mistakes,” she said. “Some days I can’t help but look at the road not taken and wonder and regret things … like, not having that team of professionals to help me get it ‘right’ along the way.
“A lot of my recordings — I’d do so many things differently. I can’t listen to my own records. I have a very tortured relationship with my own work.
“I feel like I’ve done my songs injustice along the way, a lot of times. So, that sucks. I will never know, so I have to tell myself that the road that I chose had a great, liberating influence on a lot of others beyond the songs. The fact that I paved this sort of independent path even -pre-Internet, which is I think is significant — and proved some things possible, was really instigating for a lot of people. So, why not?
“Maybe I could have made more polished, palatable-sounding recordings along the way that would connect with a broader audience, but I keep telling myself that’s not the point, apparently, for me. I just decided right at the beginning that the point was not to sell as many records as possible, or have the biggest audience. It was something else … and so in my records, you will find, they are really specifically me. They’re really authentic, if not for everyone.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION