Ani DiFranco Thrives With 20th Album

Folk rocker Ani DiFranco speaks with Michel Martin and performs songs from her 20th album Red Letter Year. The album is filled with politically charged lyrics, which DiFranco fans are accustomed to, but the artist also gets personal with lyrics describing her new role as a mother.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is Tell Me More from NPR News. She is so up to the minute singing about what's happening in the headlines and in her own house, it's hard to believe that Ani DiFranco has been in the music business for close to two decades. She released her first album back in 1990 on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Since then, she's built a career out of smashing stereotypes and defying the music industry, selling millions of albums on her own and inspiring millions of devoted fans who love her tough-minded lyrics as much as her folksy rhythms. And now, she has a new album. It's called "Red Letter Year." It's got the same sharp political messages DiFranco fans are used to, but attentive listeners may notice a new, I'm going to call it sweetness to some of her songs. There's a reason for that and we're going to talk about it. Ani DiFranco joins us now from our New York bureau where she's also brought along her guitar. Thank so much for coming.

Ms. ANI DIFRANCO (Singer): Hello there.

MARTIN: Hello.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You're going to play a little something for us to get us started.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Sure. I'll play you a little something.

MARTIN: OK. What you're going to play?

Ms. DIFRANCO: This is called "All of This."

MARTIN: "All of This," all right. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song "All of This")

Ms. DIFRANCO: (Singing) I will not stand immersed in this ultraviolent curse. I won't let you make a tool of me; I will keep my mind and body free, bye-bye minutia of the day-to-day drama. I'm expanding exponentially; I am consciousness without identity. I am many things made of everything but I will not be your bankroll. I won't idle in your drive-through, I won't watch your electric sideshow. I got way better places to go. I will maintain the truth I knew naturally as a child, I won't forfeit my creativity to a world that's all laid out for me. I'll look at everything around me and I will vow to bear in mind that all of this was just someone's idea; it could just as well be mine. I won't rent you my time. I won't sell you my brain. I won't pray to a male God because you know that would be insane, and you know, I, I can't support the troops because every last one of them is being duped, yeah, and I will not rest a wink until the women have regrouped, I, I am many things made of everything but I will not be your bankroll. I won't idle in your drive-through. I won't watch your electric sideshow. I got way better places to go.

MARTIN: That was "All of This." Thank you.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. Your 20th album. What do you think about your music has evolved the most? And what do you think stayed the same?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm. Geez, I don't know. It seems like everything has kind of evolved and devolved. (Laughs) And evolved again. Maybe one of the things that's - really stands out is my ability to make records. You know it's one thing to write songs and sing them for people. It's another thing to document them well. So I think it took me most of those 20 records just to learn how.

Yeah. And you know...

MARTIN: Is it still fun? You're still enjoying?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yes. It's more fun now, I think that I have a good team, you know and a little bit of experience under my belt in the studio. And you know, the studio is a whole world unto itself, and it's been getting more fun to explore it production wise.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons I ask is that you've got so much riding on you. I mentioned that you have your own label, which is one of the things that a lot of people respect and appreciate about you...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: But tough being the boss, you know...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Having a lot of people's livelihoods depending on you.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yes.

MARTIN: I wonder if that makes it - how does that affect the creativity, I noticed, you talk about that in the song you just played, you said...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Look, I'm not renting you my...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: I'm not going be sort of a tool of - but that means it's all on you.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Right, right, well, that's why I'm writing the radio hits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah, that's it.

I mean, you know, I can't get too hung up on all of that, you know, I just try to stay focused on my work and you know, being as honest, being as present as I can, you know and - you know, not thinking about the bottom line, just thinking about a sort of a bigger purpose. And it's great being your own boss, but then, you know, you make your own mistakes, you know, and you own them. You know, so it's empowering, and it's also humbling along the way.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you had a major new project in the last couple of years, but this one didn't come in a flat, plastic sleeve, at least we hope not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIFRANCO: No. If only.

MARTIN: And her name is...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Petah.

MARTIN: Petah.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: How old is she?

Ms. DIFRANCO: She's 20 months now, yeah.

MARTIN: You know, it's such a cliche that motherhood changes everything, but it does.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: How do you think it's changed you?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Well, my boobs are saggier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Welcome to our world. Tell me about it.

Ms. DIFRANCO: I'll tell you, of all the things I thought I'd have to worry about with motherhood, that was not on the list, but lo and behold.

MARTIN: Isn't that irritating?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Don't you just look in the mirror and think, whose are those, because those aren't mine.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah, really. I remember right after she was born, I looked in the mirror, and I saw my mother for the first time and I was like, aah! I guess this is how it works, but she definitely interrupts my obsessive process.

You know, I can't spend as much time writing as I am used to these days, and/or, you know, doing my thing, whatever it is, working on my craft, but I think that that's good for me, you know, I think if I was guilty of anything along the way, it was probably putting out too much, too fast, you know, so she slows me up, and I think that's cool.

MARTIN: It's another cliche, but I want to run it past you that being a parent mellows you out in some ways...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: It just - I call this kind of a sweetness to the work.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm-hm.

MARTIN: Brings kind of a sweetness to your life.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Everybody doesn't love that.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Everyone doesn't love that there is that dimension and I'm just - wondered if any of your fans have ever said that to you. Oh, now you're going to be all about Mother Earth and pie and...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Right, right. Sure.

MARTIN: Milk...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah, a lot of people have inquired, you know, in whatever way lately about, you know, are you going to lose your edge? Does this mean you're done? You know, now that you're all content and you know, happy mom, and - I think really the opposite. I feel for myself that happiness is a very motivating, energizing, propelling force.

You know, and I think that it's a great place to sing from, you know. I really have been enjoying performing more lately than I have in a long time and you know, it's all about that sort of centered feeling that I have now. You know, thanks to, not just my kid, but her father before her. You know, I have a kind of a grounding through them that I really relish, and I think is also good for my work, you know.

MARTIN: Will you play "Present Infant" for us?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Sure. I sure will.

(Soundbite of song "Present Infant")

Ms. DIFRANCO: (Singing) Lately I've been glaring into mirrors, picking myself apart. You'd think at my age I'd thought of something better to do Than make insecurity into a full-time job, make insecurity into an art. And I fear my life will be over, and I will have never lived it unfettered. Always glaring into mirrors, mad I don't look better. But now here's this tiny baby and they say she looks just like me. And she is smiling at me with that present infant glee. Yes, and I would defend to the ends of the earth her perfect right to be here. Be here. Be here. Be here. ..TEXT: So I'm beginning to see some problems with the ongoing work of my mind And I've got myself in a new mantra, it says, don't forget to have a good time. Don't let the sellers of stuff power enough to rob you of your grace, Love is all over the place. There's nothing wrong with your face. Love is all over the place. There's nothing wrong with your face.

MARTIN: And that was "Present Infant." Thank you.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: What are you telling us here, Ani. You're telling us something here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIFRANCO: I know, I'm telling it all if you stop to listen long enough. Oh, you know, I mean, being a parent has taught me a lot of things already, you know, though it's only been a year and half, and has made me address parts of myself that I would otherwise live in comfortable denial of, or you know and - you know, for instance, my self-loathing, you know, that's kind of a song about, you know, suddenly holding my baby in my hands and going, oh no, she looks like me, yuck, I hate the way I look.

And then realizing, oof, that's not something I want to teach. You know, I don't want to teach her that self-loathing, so I'd better deal with it.

MARTIN: I'm surprised to hear you say that. I mean, honestly forgive me, but this is just - you're the last person I would have thought would have kind of bought into that...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Hyper-critical female, or I hate my nose...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Right.

MARTIN: I hate my thighs thing, was it a surprise to you that you had those feelings?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Oh, no. I had them vehemently my whole life. I mean, why do you think I write these feminist songs, to try and teach myself to respect myself. You know, it's not because I'm a hero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIFRANCO: I'm just - you know, I'm trying to get there myself.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR news. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm visiting with Ani Difranco, and we're talking about her latest album "Red Letter Year," and also other stuff going on in her life. You mentioned that - we were talking earlier, you just had a stop in Denver during the Democratic National Convention...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: How was it? How did it strike you? It's kind of a scene, wasn't it?

Ms. DIFRANCO: It's great. Yeah, yeah. I really caught the bug while I was there, I got very excited, very hopeful, you know, the energy on the street. I just - I love seeing all the people outside the Convention Center, of all makes and models selling their bootleg Obama wares, you know. It's just a good feeling, and all kinds of really cool people in town and you know, just grooving on the hope vibe.

MARTIN: You were quoted in an article earlier this year though, saying that Barack Obama is not progressive enough for you to campaign for him.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Were you quoted accurately, or have you changed your mind?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Well, yeah, I mean, I - my politics are somewhat more radical than his in certain areas. So, you know, I'm not out stumping for him, but I am voting for him though, and very happily, you know. I'm very impressed by him, you know. I think he's a very thoughtful, intelligent person and capable of listening, and changing, and growing, so you know, I don't expect perfection from people, I just - you know, just presence and accountability, and I think that he is that type of person.

MARTIN: Politics is so central to your work.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Tough messages that a lot of artists are not giving out right now, I'm thinking that song you played at the beginning of our conversation, where you say, you know, I can't support the troops, every last one of them is being duped...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm.

MARTIN: Some artists have paid a price for those kinds of statements. I mean, they've been sort of vilified publicly...

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm-hm.

MARTIN: Have, you know, their records burned and things like that, sort of been denounced by talk-show hosts and things of that sort. Are you ever scared?

Ms. DIFRANCO: No. No, ma'am. I mean, you know, it's one of the great things about this country is I'm not facing violence, or death, or life in prison, for speaking my mind, nor are any of us, really. I mean there's some political prison hitch in this country, but by and large we have incredible freedoms and I think we should use them.

I think we should respect them, and if somebody's going to burn your records because they don't like free speech, well, that's a very telling dynamic in our society, and I think we should address that not by apologizing. You know, I think that, that's the only thing that really kills me, is the self-censorship that we involve ourselves in.

MARTIN: There have been times, though, that artists have been essentially blackballed from commercial airplay.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Mm-hm.

MARTIN: It's happened.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Yeah. Well, it's - you know, it means you're doing the right thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIFRANCO: It's not easy. You know, it's not easy to make change in this world, and I think, you know, my contribution as an artist to just try to use the platform that I have to help or inspire some change. It's a simple gift, you know. Others are facing much more complicated things, you know. Democracy only exists if we all make it every day. You know, so...

MARTIN: Ani Difranco, thank you so much for visiting with us.

Ms. DIFRANCO: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.

MARTIN: Will you play one more for us?

Ms. DIFRANCO: Sure.

MARTIN: Will you play something classic? How about "Subdivision?"

Ms. DIFRANCO: Sure, sure.

(Soundbite of song "Subdivision")

Ms. DIFRANCO: (Singing) White people are so scared of black people. They bulldoze out to the country, and put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets. And America got its heart cut right out of its chest. And the Berlin Wall still runs down Main Street Separating east side from west. And nothing is stirring, not even a mouse. In the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses. So they hang colorful...

MARTIN: You're listening to the Grammy Award winning performer, Ani Difranco, playing "Subdivision." She joined us from our New York bureau. Her latest album is "Red Letter Year," it will be available tomorrow. That's our program for today, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR news. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "Subdivision")

Ms. DIFRANCO: (Singing) The ghost of old buildings are haunting parking lots. In the city of good neighbors that history forgot.

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