A jam-packed venue greeted folk singer Ani DiFranco when she took the stage in Boston during a recent tour. The enthusiastic audience included the usual independent women who identify with Ms. DiFranco's intelligent, personal brand of folk-punk. But they are hardly the only ones cheering the progressive singer, who infuses humor and energy into every performance.
In the past decade, the venues have gotten bigger and DiFranco's hair has passed through various hues - or sometimes no hair at all - to her current pulled-back brown dreadlocks. She's also added a horn section and more funk to her music.
But the petite, spunky folk singer is still lighting up the stage with hard-edged lyrics and distinctive, percussive guitar playing. Her music has matured and softened, with a reflective irony that replaces some of her earlier me-against-the-world righteousness. But DiFranco's commitment to political and personal values has remained rock solid.
"The fact that you can be independent and political and try and live your ideals, and that maybe you don't have to be utterly poor and obscure and hurting is true," she said in a recent phone interview.
When she recorded her first album at age 20, DiFranco rejected conventional wisdom, turned down record-company offers, and started her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Ten years and 13 solo albums later, she regularly sells out concert halls, has garnered two Grammy nominations, has sold more than 2 million copies of her albums, and has released six albums by other artists on Righteous Babe.
For DiFranco, the path to success has not been typical. She describes the growth as "organic," and emphasizes: "Anybody who knows what I'm doing, knows that I'm doing the same thing I was 10 years ago." Indeed, she uses the same independent concert promoters, distributors, and local manufacturers with whom she launched her career, and funnels some profits into political causes.
In many other respects, though, life has changed for DiFranco. "When I first started touring, a lot of shows were organized by the women's center at a college," she says. "A couple of the gals would get together a few hundred bucks, and I'd get on a bus. Now the audience has diversified in terms of gender and age."
She's also added a band and horn section to her once-solo performances, and her style these days often has more funk than folk. "I was never really a 'Kum Ba Yah' kind of gal," DiFranco laughs, but she says the folk label means more than just a penchant for traditional guitar strumming. "I've always looked at folk music as a sub-corporate form of music. A politically oriented form of music. A community-based music. All of those things are still what I do."
The decision to start her own record label stems from the same ideals. "A lot of people assume that my primary motivation [for starting Righteous Babe] was artistic control," says DiFranco. "And that's definitely a plus. But it's actually bigger than me. It's part of my political philosophy. I'm loathe to accept or participate in the corporate takeover of our country and our culture and our world.... What I wanted to do politically and musically - there was no way I could be on a major label."
Her lyrics, which draw heavily on her life and the world around her, often take on controversial topics, from abortion and gun control to a plea for more activism. These days, DiFranco says, the "criminal injustice system" is on her mind.
"It's hard to talk in terms of issues, because I don't really see the world that way," she says. "I see the world in terms of people.... I think that when I'm writing songs, generally, I'm talking about connections."
The highly charged subject matter of her songs had often pigeonholed DiFranco as an angry man-hater, or as a poster child for feminism and gay rights. "It's been a struggle to just try and be me through it all," she says.
"I've found that every album I put out, there's this kind of demoralizing, oversimplification of the songs, the meaning - they try to turn me into a stereotype of myself, and a song into a soccer chant." But lately, she says, that tendency to label her has died down.
That may be, in part, because her lyrics have also softened. She still hits tough topics, but a humbler, more inward-looking element surfaces in much of her new material. "I think life on the planet is kind of a humbling process," says DiFranco, when asked about the shift. "As the years go by, I have to question myself more and more, and I have to question the world more and more."
At the same time, DiFranco shows no sign of easing up. She's currently on her fourth tour this year, and busy recording her 14th solo album.
She also sees a more driving purpose to her work. "Being an artist is just an opportunity to try and make some change around myself. I have a stage to stand on, and a microphone, which are just opportunities," she says.
"But the way I look at the world, we all have a responsibility to make it a better, more humane, more respectful place. In that sense, I'm lucky that I like my job, and get a certain amount of appreciation for what I do."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society