By Eleni P. Austin
“I’ve had a lack of information, I’ve had a little revelation, I’m climbing up on the railing, trying not to look down/I’m going to do my best swan dive into shark-infested waters, I’m going to pull out my tampon and start splashing around.” That’s Ani DiFranco declaring her independence on her song “Swan Dive.”
Ani, or the Little Folksinger, as she is sometimes known, has been making music professionally for about 30 years. She is marking that milestone with her memoir, No Walls And The Recurring Dream. and an accompanying CD, No Walls mixtape.
Angela Marie DiFranco was born in Buffalo, New York in 1970 to immigrant parents. The couple met while attending M.I.T. Her mother, Elizabeth, came from Montreal, her father, Dante was of Italian descent. Ani was musical from the jump, by age nine she was performing Beatle songs in a local bar (under the watchful tutelage of musical mentor Michael Meldrum). She began writing her own songs early on, as a way to escape the tension at home.
By age 14 she was a seasoned pro, having played in bars and coffee houses, even busking for tips. By this time, her parents had gotten divorced, Ani’s mother wanted to move to Connecticut, Ani did not, so she became an emancipated minor at 15. A few years later, she relocated to New York City, intent on a music career.
Ani paid her dues, in coffee houses, dive bars, Women’s centers and Folk festivals. Armed with only her acoustic guitar and an arsenal and her ever-evolving songs, she began crisscrossing America in her Volkswagen Bug. Her music was sly and sanguine, confessional and confrontational. Her personal life was reflected in her Post-Punk/Folk flavored songs. A passionate feminist, she initially identified as bisexual. With her shaved head, piercings and tattoos, her look was both antagonizing and appealing.
As demand for her music grew, she initially sold homemade cassettes. When it came time to release that self-titled debut on compact disc, Ani considered signing with a record label. Instead, she partnered with hometown pal (and lawyer) Scott Fisher, creating her own label, Righteous Babe.
Throughout the ‘90s, Ani’s albums came at a furious clip; Not So Soft, Imperfectly and Puddle Dive were released in 1991, 1992 and 1993, respectively. They chronicled her fumbles and foibles, crushes and nascent political activism. They were good, but they didn’t quite capture the charisma of her live shows. She seemed more at home on the road than in the studio.
That changed in 1994 with her first watershed recording, Out Of Range. It was this album that harnessed the compassion, empathy, depth and energy that was evident on stage. The music business began paying attention Major labels began courting her, but she demurred, opting to sign a distribution deal that allowed her to maintain her autonomy (and bigger profit margin), while expanding her reach.
Much as Bob Dylan’s mid ‘60s triptych, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde defined his peak, Ani experienced a similar creative renaissance with Not A Pretty Girl (1995), Dilate (1997) and Little Plastic Castle (1998). The first balanced the personal and the political and featured the song “32 Flavors,” which became an empowering mantra for women on a worldwide level. Dilate was an emotional gut punch. Visceral and introspective, it chronicled a doomed affair with a married man, (her sound guy, Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist). Meanwhile, Little… dealt with the intense scrutiny and rigid expectations that accompanied her newfound fame.
Somehow, Ani managed to sneak in a live two-CD set, Living In Clip and two more studio albums, Up Up Up Up Up Up and To The Teeth before the 20th century shuddered to a halt. Somewhere along the line, Righteous Babe became the little indie that could. Located in Buffalo,its success allowed them to sign acts like Toshi Reagon, Andrew Bird and Alanis Mitchell. They also saved an historic church from the wrecking ball, painstakingly restoring it until it became RBR headquarters, complete with a performance space, Babeville.
As the new millennium dawned, Ani issued the expansive Revelling/Reckoning. The two CD set offered a brittle post-mortem on her five-year marriage to Andrew Gilchrist. At this point Ani’s live show was a juggernaut, expanding to include bass, drums, keys and horns. That Folk-Funk pageantry was captured on another live effort, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter. This allowed her to strip down her sound, returning to her acoustic roots on her next two outings, Evolve and Educated Guess.
During this era, events conspired to radically re-define Ani’s career. She bought a house in the Baywater District in New Orleans, and became romantically involved with recording engineer/producer Mike Napolitano. In 2005, following her exceptional Knuckle Down album and tour, she was diagnosed with tendonitis and couldn’t play her guitar or tour for nine months. Soon after, she became pregnant.
Her daughter, Petah, was born in 2007, Ani and Mike married in 2009 and welcomed son Dante, in 2013. Tendonitis and motherhood allowed Ani to step back from the treadmill of writing, recording and touring. Sure, she still makes music and tours. The last dozen years have seen the release of five studio albums, Reprieve, Red Letter Year, Which Side Are You On?, Allergic To Water and Binary, along with countless live “bootlegs” issued directly through RBR. But she’s also had time to reflect, which prompted her to write her first memoir, No Walls And The Recurring Dream which starts at the beginning and ends in 2001.
The songs on “mixtape” aren’t the originals, cherry-picked from the albums, but spare renditions Ani recorded specifically for this collection. To paraphrase Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp, she starts at the very beginning, as it’s a very fine place to start.
The opener, “Out Of Habit,” and “Names and Dates and Times” offer quicksilver snapshots from her early years in New York City. “…Habit,” from her self-titled debut, ambles along, powered by rippling arpeggios and Ani’s gimlet-eyed observational skills. Whether she’s assessing the diner cuisine; “the coffee Is just water dressed in brown…” or short-circuiting clumsy romantic overtures, archly confiding that “my thighs have been involved in many accidents, and now I can’t get insured and I don’t need to be lured by you/My cunt is built like a wound that won’t heal, and now you don’t have to ask, because you know how I feel.”
“Names…” which skips ahead to her fourth effort, Puddle Dive, is anchored by rapid-fire acoustic riff-age. Her percussive guitar attack is as potent as provocative lyrics that insist “I know so many white people, I mean where do I start? The trouble with white people is you can’t tell them apart.”
Several songs here confirm that Ani was on the front lines of the “#metoo” movement decades before the revolution. Deceptively gentle, Folk-flavored guitar chords and a meandering melody on “Gratitude” are buttressed by caustic, yet gracious lyrics that bust a benefactor’s sloppy attempt at quid pro quo. Acknowledging hospitality, meals, clean towels and half a bed, she reminds her host “we can sleep like brother and sister you said.” Then she moves in for the conversational kill; “But you changed the rules in an hour or two, and I don’t know what you and your sisters do/But please don’t, please stop, this is not my obligation, what does my body have to do with my gratitude?”
Sadly, the opening lines of “Every State Line” feel even more relevant today; “I got pulled over in West Texas, so they could look inside my car, he said are you an American citizen? I said yes sir, so far/They made sure I wasn’t smuggling someone in from Mexico, someone willing to settle for America, ‘cause there’s nowhere else to go.” Originally, the arrangement felt spooky and sepulchral; a harrowing horror story that catalogued the threats that Ani endured on backroads, highways and byways as she made her solo treks across the country. Here, it’s been re-fashioned as a soulful protest song. Guitars are jettisoned in favor of chunky percussion and layered, almost acapella vocals. She defiantly lays bare the indignities that women, people of color and any non-conformist behavior triggers through different forms of retribution.
The sunny melody and fleet fretwork that drives “God’s Country” offers something of an antidote to lyrics that recall awkward encounters with law enforcement. Ani’s mien teeters between deferential and disobedient; “Thank you for serving and protecting the likes of me, thank you for the ticket, now can I leave…this may be God’s country but it’s my country too, move over Mr. Holiness and let the Little people through.”
Although this is a loose and casual portrait of the artist as a young babe, (with apologies to James Joyce), Ani has called on a couple of heavy-hitting pals to collaborate on two tracks. Amy Ray of indigo girls is on hand for “The Whole Night.” Acoustic and baritone guitars swirl around this tentative ode to same-sex attraction. Amy softly shades Ani’s vocals as the lyrics parse the nuance of stolen glances and accidental/on purpose physical contact, finally basking in the afterglow; “I am waking up in her bed, I sing 1st avenue the open window said.”
The angular Funk of “Anticipate” gets an extra shot of Soul, courtesy Maceo Parker. The saxophone giant, who got his start with James Brown, then jumped to the mothership of Parliament-Funkadelic before going solo, served as an opener for Ani from 1999 through the early 2000’s. Here, his serpentine sax snakes though cascading guitar riffs, sanguine vocals and some hard-won wisdom; “If there’s anything I’ve learned all these years on my own, it’s how to find my own way there, and how to find my own way home.”
Moving through the late ‘90s, Ani’s ardent feminism ignites “If He Tries Anything” and “Not A Pretty Girl.” Meanwhile, “Dilate” is an articulate cri de Coeur, on par with Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.” The twinkly confrontation of “As Is” is tempered by the elegant Flamenco of the aforementioned “Swan Dive,” a deep dive into moments of doubt, recrimination and reflection. Over slashing acoustic chords, Ani allows herself an uncharacteristic victory lap; “I’ve built my own empire out of car tires and chicken wire and now I’m the queen of my own compost heap and I’m getting used to the smell.”
Once again, Ani’s social conscience is ahead of the curve on a couple of tracks. “Subdivision” is a lithe and lissome excoriation of gentrification, wanton cruelty and the callous attempts by certain political parties to whitewash this country. “Too The Teeth,” which was written in the aftermath of Columbine resonates even more vividly these days as America has endured countless mass shootings. Ani Rails against a country that “confuses liberty with weaponry” and takes aim at the media, gun manufacturers, the NRA and politicians that consistently contribute to this culture of violence. She delivers a potent message, aided by Billy Bragg’s indignant harmonies, that continues to be ignored.
The final two tracks her look inward. “Grey” is a monochromatic reckoning chronicling the end of the Goat era. “Imagine That” is Ani at her most emotionally naked and vulnerable confiding “I’ve been frantically piling up sandbags against the flood waters of fatigue and insecurity/And that’s when I hear my guitar singing, and so I just start singing along, and somewhere in my chest all the noise just gets crushed by the song.” It’s a sly admission that no matter what, music remains her saving grace.
In the liner notes, Ani characterizes this collection as a “mixtape for you, like the kind I would make you on cassette if it was, like, 1993 and I was really into you.” It’s Ani unadorned, unvarnished and unfiltered. Exactly as it should be.