By Eleni P. Austin
For Ani DiFranco, the personal has always been political, so it’s no surprise that her newest album, Revolutionary Love, consistently conflates the two.
Born in 1970, Ani grew up in Buffalo, New York with her older brother, feminist mom and architect dad. Early on she exhibited an affinity for music and dance, she picked up guitar pretty easily and assiduously studied dance. Both art forms became her solace when her parents’ marriage was coming apart at the seams.
An independent kid, Ani began performing in local bars at an early age. Beatles covers gave way to nascent compositions. By the time she was a teen, her parents split for good. Eager to control her own destiny, Ani petitioned the court and became an emancipated minor. A couple years later, guitar in hand, she set off for New York City.
Ani continued to study dance, but soon enough, music took over. She played any place she could, open mics, dive-bars, coffee houses and womyn-only spaces. Rather quickly, she developed a unique, percussive guitar style and own Folk/Punk flavored songs began to supplant the covers. Her fans wanted to buy what they heard. At first, she sold her own self-released cassette tapes after shows. But after consulting with friend and mentor (and lawyer) Scot Fisher, she started her own label, Righteous Babe Records.
Much later, on her song “Swan Dive,” Ani quipped “I built my own empire out of car tires and chicken wire…I’m queen of my own compost heap and I’m getting used to the smell,” and that was pretty close to the truth. Sporting multiple piercings, tattoos and a shaved head, Ani toured alone, crisscrossing the country in her VW bug, playing any and every venue she could. She gained a reputation as a charismatic performer, her experiences were reflected in her songs. Openly bi-sexual, she was quickly embraced by the queer community.
Her albums arrived at a steady clip. Between 1991 and 1995 she recorded Not So Soft, Imperfectly, Puddle Dive, Out Of Range and Not A Pretty Girl. The following year she released her watershed album, Dilate. The 11-song set chronicled the highs and mostly lows of her affair with her married sound engineer, Andrew “Goatboy” Gilchrist.
The album broke through commercially, hitting #87 on the Billboard charts. Mainstream media came calling. Despite her piercings and tattoos (multicolored dreads had displaced the shaved head), Ani was feted in the pages of “Rolling Stone” and on the covers of “Spin” and “Musician.” She was acclaimed as much for her business acumen as her musical talent and her candor. Even as major record labels came a’courtin, her Righteous Babe label was thriving. Although she didn’t move as many units as say, Alainis Morrisette, she was earning more off each album sold, more importantly, she was providing a business opportunity in her hometown of Buffalo. The self-described Little Folksinger had hit the big time.
Frankly, all the attention was a distraction. Ani preferred to make music, rather than talk about it. Continuing to write, record and tour, she wound down the 20th century by releasing a live, double CD, Living In Clip, as well as studio efforts like Little Plastic Castle, (which garnered her first Grammy nomination), and two albums released at the beginning and end of 1999: Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up and Too The Teeth. The title track of the latter was inspired by the Columbine school massacre, wherein Ani took aim at the NRA and the greedy politicians who abetted them. By this time, even Prince had taken notice of her prodigious talents. He sang back-up on a cut from …Teeth and she returned the favor on his Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album.
The dawn of the 21st century found Ani newly single, as she and Goatboy had married and divorced within the span of five years. That schism was reflected on her new double album, Revelling/Reckoning. At this point she expanded her touring band from guitar/drums/bass and incorporated keys and a horn section.
Two more albums, Evolve and Educated Guess arrived in quick succession. By then, Ani had begun a romantic relationship with sound engineer/producer Mike Napolitano. She also developed a serious case of tendonitis that kept her off the road for about a year. In the interim she recorded another landmark album, the warm and sunny Knuckle Down.
Ani and Mike made a home in the Bywater section of New Orleans. After the couple welcomed their daughter, Petah in 2007, they married a couple of years later. Their son Dante arrived in 2013. Adroitly balancing motherhood, marriage and music, she continued to write, record and tour.
Between 2006 and 2017, she released a clutch of albums, Reprieve, Red Letter Day, Which Side Are You On?, Allergic To Water and Binary. Each one managed to reflect her new normal without sacrificing her fierce feminism commitment to remain socially conscious. She also found time to run Righteous Babe with Scot.
Over the years the label had become the little indie that could. They not only signed interesting artists like Andrew Bird, Alanis Mitchell, Hammel On Trial and Pieta Brown, they also began releasing a series of “official bootleg” live albums from Ani and managed to save and restore a historical Buffalo church. The church became label headquarters and included a performance space, Babeville.
In 2019, Ani penned her long-awaited memoir, No Walls and The Recurring Dream, which she characterized as a coming-of-age story. It was accompanied by No Walls Mixtape, a carefully curated collection of songs spanning 1990-2001 (which is where the book closes), re-recorded by the Little Folksinger herself. Ani described the 16-song set as “my mixtape for you, like the kind that I would make you on cassette, if it was like, 1993, and I was really into you.” Mostly unvarnished and unadorned, it was as compelling as her book.
2020 saw Ani back on the road, of course, the pandemic cut touring that short. But a new album was already in the works. It was completed before the whole country shut down. The result is her 22nd long-player, Revolutionary Love.
The album unfurls slowly, opening with the title-track. Languid Wurlitzer notes partner with a thwoking beat, tinkly percussion, tensile bass and stinging, bottle-neck guitar. Swirly keys, a hint of brass and strings color the margins of the slinky melody. Ani recites the opening couplets like a prayer, like a poem. like a mantra; “I will tend my anger, I will tend to my grief, I will achieve safety, I will find relief/I’ll show myself mercy, I’ll show my self-respect, I’ll decide when I’m ready to forgive but not forget.” Like John Lennon and Bob Marley before her, Ani couches her message in an compelling melody. In just under seven minutes she throws down the gauntlet, challenging us, and herself, to retain our courage, our outrage and our commitment to righting social injustice and still turn the other cheek…. to bring the revolutionary love.
Toggling between the personal and the political (sometimes in the middle of the same song), has been Ani’s modus operandi since the beginning. Three songs find a longtime couple confronting the onset of marital ennui. On “Bad Dream” plangent guitars connect with shimmery keys and angular bass, over a tick-tock rhythm. The lyrics feel like we’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation already in progress; “Don’t even think for a second I had any idea, I thought you’d always want me, like I wanted you.” A keening pedal steel solo on the break underscores Ani’s fragility as she quietly admits she is rendered dumbstruck by this perceived betrayal; “Because I thought that we were perfect, which is to say I just knew it was all worth it, every day.”
“Shrinking Violet” finds the Little Folksinger slipping into the skin of a battered wife. Over an anxious kick-drum beat, bluesy bottleneck guitar, strumming acoustic guitar, slivery bass lines and warm piano notes, she confronts her partner with her fears; “There’s nothing I can say, beyond this whispered wish, your anger has a hunger, mister, and I’m your favorite dish/There’s nothing I can say, so I don’t make a sound, I just wipe the counter and I keep my head down.”
Meanwhile, “Simultaneously” is anchored by gamboling guitars, winsome keys, sparkling percussion and a percolating rhythm. Fizzy woodwinds and a buoyant chorus belie dour lyrics that chart the duality of human nature; “I live in two different worlds simultaneously, the one I seem to live in and the one that lives in me/And one is full of violence, oppression and disrespect, and one is full of longing to breath and to connect.”
On the album’s best tracks, “Contagious” and “Do Or Die,” Ani summons the ghosts of socially conscious groovers like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Prince. The former is a sinuous Samba that blends serpentine guitar riffs, stately keys, swooping strings, supple bass and an insistent conga beat. Drafting off Michelle Obama’s infamous edict, “when they go low, we go high,” she takes it one step further; “They go low, you go high, you bring more than your own supply/That dirty game, you don’t play, that shit’s contagious, you stay away.” Curvaceous strings and a strutting horn-section syncopate on the break and the song powers down with a smoky sax outro.
The latter is also the album’s first single. It was originally released as a long-form video in November. The opening shots include Ani waking up in bed, making her way toward the bathroom where she assesses her lackluster hair and promptly shaves it off, an act one YouTube admirer likened to Superman putting on his tights and cape. Strummy guitars connect with wiry bass lines, sunny keys, shivery horns, a conga-fied rhythm and enough feathery flute to make Anchorman Ron Burgundy cream his sans-a-belt slacks. Her opening gambit addresses our collective lethargy; “Do you ever just want to give up? Well, me too, are you shocked by what people get used to? Do you wake up in a cold sweat? Well, that’s sane.” She proceeds to diagnose our mutual malady; “There’s foxes in the hen house and bad news every day, and right there on Pennsylvania avenue, the sheet-less KKK,” and acknowledges that compromise; “…I know you got your adrenaline just to be a gentleman, and I know I got to fight my amygdala just to keep hearin’ ya” is the first step toward consensus. In terms of irresistibility, the fun and flirty melody, coupled with the seductive arrangement and trenchant lyrics, adds “Do Or Die” to a pantheon of classic Ani tracks like “32 Flavors,” “Little Plastic Castle” and “Paradigm.”
A couple of instrumentals dot the record. “Station Identification” feels like a musical sorbet that sort of cleanses the listener’s palette between the album’s main courses. “Confluence” quietly unfolds, echoing the Jazzy Exotica of the title track of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.”
Other interesting tracks include the dissonant see-saw of “Chloroform” and the bare-bones “Metropolis.” The album closes with the domestic denouement of “Crocus.” Descending guitar notes wrap around rubbery bass lines, plucky strings and clanky percussion. Here, Ani’s vocals are stripped-down and unadorned, her mien appreciative. Somehow her relationship weathered all the sturm und drang; “Looks like we made it through something wild, I can hardly let myself believe it inside/Yesterday I even heard you laugh, took it like a bird bath, it has been a long, long, long, long time since I felt like that.” Lyrics liken the romantic rapprochement to the earth’s renewal; “When the longest, coldest winter finally lets go, and the first purple crocus pokes it’s head up through the snow, all the world can go to hell, if I’m right with you than all is well.” It’s a reassuring finish to a stellar album.
Produced by the Little Folksinger herself, she handled all the vocals and guitar, and was joined by longtime bandmates Todd Sickafoose on bass, keys, effects and vibraphone and Terence Higgins on drums, percussion triangle and crazy stick. Other players include Phil Cook on drums and shakers, Brevan Hampden on congas, bongos, triangle, shakers and percussion, Matt Douglas on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, Brad Cook on bass and Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel. Plus a string section comprised of Jannie Wei and Wyatt True on violin, Kimberly Uware on Viola and Eric Alterman on cello. Revolutionary Love lands somewhere between Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (coincidently, both hit their 50th anniversary milestone this year). Like each of those records, Ani manages to chronicle bad times and good trouble, mixing deep introspection and righteous calls to action. It’s the first great album of 2021.