Ani DiFranco: We could have stayed more complacent with Hillary Clinton in office
'There is a groundswell of resistance and awakening in the citizenry of America right now'
It is true that in one sense, these feel like very hopeful times. I mean, I’ve never felt less alone in my will to resist
If anyone can “kick ass and take names”, as a line in the press release for her latest album reads – or “call people on their bullsh*t”, as someone else once succinctly put it – it’s Ani DiFranco. The singer-songwriter, social activist, poet and all-round general badass has spent the best part of three decades doing just that. There’s just one problem, as she explains when she answers the phone in her New Orleans home: “It’s becoming an easier and easier job – in America, anyway,” she says with a weary chuckle.
At 46, DiFranco’s legacy as a musician who is not afraid to speak out for the causes she believes in is assured – but she says there is still work to be done.
“I feel like I’m in the beginning of a new era,” she says ahead of the release of Binary, her 20th album since her eponymous debut in 1990.
“I have a whole new team that I’m working with, professionally, so there was an incredible feeling of renewal for me in my career. And one of the things that happened was my new manager encouraged me, on this 20th record, to get some of my friends involved. I’ve made a lot of music in solitude over the course of my life and the record before this one was made very much on my own. [But] this time, my manager said ‘God, you have so many awesome friends in this world – why don’t you call them up?’.”
So up pop Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, David Bowie’s long-time bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and saxophonist Maceo Parker, best known for his work with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic. Zizzing, the track that features Vernon, is a highlight on a record that swings loosely from folk to jazz to funk and pop. She first encountered Vernon via a record by their mutual friend Anais Mitchell.
I think it’s because it’s album 20 – I’ve made enough frickin’ albums now that I don’t need to be in control of anything any more,”
“We still have not met in person; I think he’s seen me play and we corresponded over Anais’ Hadestown project and he told me that he’d been a fan of mine since way back, so we just sort of became pen-pal friends,” she says. “Zizzing seemed like something I naturally would have done myself – but again, with the encouragement of my new manager, I said ‘Hey. . . it doesn’t hurt to ask – I’ll just write Justin and see’. I wrote him and I said, ‘Y’know, it seems like it needs a string section, except the strings are your voice – whaddya got?’ and he said ‘I’m on it’. It was as easy as that.”
DiFranco says that it wasn’t hard to relinquish control this time around. “I think it’s because it’s album 20 – I’ve made enough frickin’ albums now that I don’t need to be in control of anything any more,” she says, laughing. “I think I’ve proven myself for whatever it is I am, many times over. I had a lot of fun just sending tracks to people and seeing what they came up with. I’m of an age now, in my life and career in music, where I don’t tell anyone to do any more. I only associate with people who are more brilliant than I am, and they do whatever you hear.”
Binary was written before Donald Trump was elected US president last November, and that finds its way in via tracks such as Pacifist’s Lament. She spent much of last November on her Vote, Dammit! tour, campaigning to encourage people to have their say – as well as being vocal in her support for Hillary Clinton. “But my optimistic mind is already hard at work trying to spin this into a positive situation,” she says. “It could very well be true that this lowest common denominator that we have hit here in American political history is the place from which we really evolve, now. It is true that in one sense, these feel like very hopeful times.
“I mean, I’ve never felt less alone in my will to resist. I felt a lot like this when George Dubya was president; f**kin’ Bill Clinton enacted all these laws that led to mass incarceration that was just insane modern day bondage of black men in this country. There is always terrible f**king shit going on, but now – it’s not just me who knows.
“There is a groundswell of resistance and awakening in the citizenry of America right now that I hope will be more lasting and more powerful than the trigger of that awakening. So maybe this is what it’s meant to be, in that we could have stayed more complacent and more tacit with Hillary Clinton in office. In this way, now that fascism has visited our shores, we have to wake the f**k up. So maybe that is what will happen. It is happening, in many ways.”
In a nutshell, I feel like fascism, for instance, is just the patriarchy run amok. ”
Other songs, like Play God, tackle subjects like women’s reproductive rights – an issue that she is aware is a hop topic in Ireland. “In a nutshell, I feel like fascism, for instance, is just the patriarchy run amok. At some point recently, I realised that trying to create more balance between gender in all of human society around the globe is a prerequisite to dealing with racism, with the destruction of the environment, with perpetual war and all of these things. And the prerequisite to the empowerment and the emancipation of women is reproductive freedom. . . . We get mired in patriarchal metaphors of god and religion and morality, and I believe that reproductive freedom is simply a civil right, and it f**king needs to be free.”
Binary is not an entirely political record, with upbeat love songs like Even More finding their way into the mix. Yet DiFranco says that being one of the lone political voices in music has been frustrating.
“There have been moments where I’ve felt like a voice in the wilderness – like ‘Why am I the only one writing political songs, or being accountable in my art? What the hell?’. But I’m hoping that I’ll be less and less alone in that [as time goes on].
“I do kind of smell around me more of a will amongst artists to be accountable in this political moment and I definitely ache for more company in that pursuit. But no, generally, it’s been a privilege to have been so. . . I dunno. . . appreciated, empowered, supported. I think I’ve been much more supported than I have been smacked down for the things that I’ve expressed, or the ways that I’ve gone out on limbs for what I believe in.”
“Binary” is out now on Righteous Babe Records. Ani DiFranco plays Vicar Street on June 27th