Q&A: Grammy-Winning Rocker Ani DiFranco

DiFranco discusses her turbulent childhood, being inspired by the next generation, and an upcoming Tarrytown performance.

With 19 studio albums, two Grammys, and more than three decades of touring under her belt, it seems Ani DiFranco has always been synonymous with contemporary music. But lately, the singer-songwriter’s mind has been wandering.

“I haven’t written a song since Binary,” says DiFranco of her most recent album, which was released June of last year. “This is really unusual for me, but all my writing now is in complete sentences. [Binary] is the last record I may ever make. It feels strange to be so far from songwriting, because I’m so deep in this book.”

DiFranco is referring to a memoir she has been penning full-time for more than a year. According to the lauded performer, the book is just about finished. “I see a light at the end of the tunnel for this book,” says DiFranco. “I’m actually getting there, but my songwriting muscle, meanwhile, is atrophying.”

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All this makes DiFranco’s May 6 performance at the Tarrytown Music Hall that much more special. For the musician, getting onstage is still intimately linked to producing the songs themselves. “Performing is part of my creative process,” says DiFranco. “For many years now, my writing time, my fruitful, creative time, is after shows in a dressing room or in the bowels of some theater or club.”

Considering the news these days,  it would appear that DiFranco has plenty to write about. Since the first Gulf War, DiFranco has been intimately involved with social activism. She even founded her own organization, The Righteous Babe Foundation, which supports causes ranging from reproductive rights to voting rights. However, when asked about the current state of the world, the activist and avowed feminist is almost preternaturally upbeat.

“Maybe it’s a survival technique, but I feel hopeful despite this very regressive political moment. It seems like there is a critical mass of youth in America who know what’s up,” says DiFranco. “I have been thinking about [2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner] Malala [Yousafzai] and [Stoneman Douglas High School student] Emma Gonzalez in Florida — these young women and men who are just incredible energies, incredible minds, incredible revolutionaries. I feel like I just need to refocus my life on supporting these young people, who are going to help us out of here. I really feel like a lot of my energy and hope and belief, all this work that I’ve been dedicating my life to for decades and decades, has a future — and there they are. They are going to be our teachers.”

One reason DiFranco may put so much stock in the next generation is that she is currently raising two kids of her own — 11-year-old Petah and 6-year-old Dante. “It’s pretty life-affirming stuff, hanging out with kids,” says DiFranco. “You really see that the baseline of human nature is community. Kids sometimes hate sharing, but it’s really happening all day long with them. Our will is to love and bond with each other.”

For DiFranco, who longed for a more stable life as a child, bonding with family always takes precedence — even over her music. “My family kind of exploded when I was a kid. I lived with my mom until I was 15, then I was on my own,” she shares. “So I think that music, something I discovered at 9 years old, was a way I could find that connection. I could bond with people because my family was not very well bonded. For me, music was about building family.”

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When she isn’t fomenting solidarity through song, DiFranco is toiling on a number of other worthy projects. “I’ve been working for three years on a record. It’s called the Prison Music Project,” says DiFranco. “Basically, it’s all songs written by men in prison and then manifested by all kinds of people: singers, musicians, producers who we brought in. Mass incarceration is a huge issue in America that needs to be addressed and fixed, and hopefully this record is a tool we can use to re-spark that conversation.”

Ahead, DiFranco intends to double down on her commitment to work with others and to create music that reflects this amity. “If anything, I think my oblique strategy is going to be more collaboration,” she says. “I spent most of my artistic life being this singer-songwriter-folk singer who, at heart, saw it as a solitary endeavor. When people ask me to work on a project now, my new answer is ‘Yes!’ I want to try everything. I’m not sure what’s next, but it’s going to be a little different than what came before.”

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