After 20 years in the music biz, self-described “Little Folksinger” Ani DiFranco is still technically little, although her influence on fellow musicians, activists, and indie-minded people the world over has been huge. She still proudly identifies as a folksinger, too, but her understanding of that term has always been far more expansive than a bin at the record store or a category on iTunes, with ample room for soul, funk, jazz, electronic music, spoken word, and a marching band or two. Over the course of more than 20 albums, including the live double CD Living in Clip (1997) and the two-disc career retrospective Canon (2007), as well as the latest one, ¿Which Side are You On? (2012), Ani has never stopped evolving, experimenting, testing the limits of what can be said and sung. Her lifelong tribe of co-conspirators includes everyone from Pete Seeger and the late Utah Phillips to a new generation of twentysomething singer-songwriters who grew up with her songs and shows — and then there’s the motley crew of folks like Prince, Maceo Parker, Andrew Bird, Dr. John, Arto Lindsay, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck D, the Buffalo Philharmonic, Gillian Welch, Cyndi Lauper, and even Burmese activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom she has crossed paths in a myriad of ways.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1970, Ani spent part of her twenties in New York City, then returned to her hometown where she established first a business office and then a performance venue called Babeville as the twentieth century ground to a halt and the twenty-first one revved up. For much of the last decade she’s been based in New Orleans — but at her core she’s always seen herself as “a traveler,” covering pretty much the four corners of the earth by now, both solo and with her band. (There’s less corner-covering these days, now that she’s consciously slowing down a bit and raising a daughter with partner and co-producer Mike Napolitano, but she still gets around just fine, playing venues like Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday bash and another star-studded lineup at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan for Wavy Gravy’s seventy-fifth.)
Early in her career, Ani made a choice that is now so obvious to so many people that it’s hard to remember it was once considered brazen: to say no to every record label deal that came her way, and yes to being her own boss. That decision has earned her plenty of attention over the years, but it has never been what brought sold-out crowds to her shows around the world, fans debating every nuance of her lyrics, and fellow performers clamoring to work with her. No, all that has more to do with another choice she made early in life: To use her voice and her guitar as honestly and unflinchingly as she could, writing and playing songs that came straight from her own experience, her boundless imagination, her sharp wit, and her ever-more-nuanced understanding of how the world works. She did it in noisy bars with nothing but a shaved head and a lone guitar in 1990, and she’s doing it with renewed intensity today.
Photos © 2005 by: Beth Shandles