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312: Harry Connick Jr.
311: Sonny Rollins
310: Speech
309: Santana

by Dan Grunebaum

Control freak chic

Already the head of her own label, American folk singer Ani DiFranco takes things one step further, recording her new album, Educated Guess, entirely by herself.

"I needed very much to be alone"

Nowadays, it seems every self-respecting musician has his or her own record label. The advent of the computer and the Internet has empowered performers to take control of their recording and marketing, leaving mainly CD pressing and distribution in the hands of the big record companies, and (theoretically) giving musicians a bigger cut of their sales.

But in the not-so-distant past, Ani DiFranco was hailed as an iconoclast for rejecting offers from the majors and insisting on releasing her own material. Emerging from her hometown of Buffalo, New York, the singer launched Righteous Babe in 1990, soon after she'd relocated to New York City and found an eager audience for the self-titled cassettes of down-to-earth acoustic music she would sell at shows.

More than a decade on, with Righteous Babe a busy label representing a dozen or so artists, DiFranco, 33, decided to apply the DIY ethic to the recording process itself. She holed up with a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a New Orleans "gunshot" shack to lay down January's Educated Guess. "I needed very much to be alone, for personal reasons," she explains by phone from the US. DiFranco had recently split with longtime partner and sound engineer Andrew Gilchrest, and says she needed time to reflect.

The choice to make a record alone, then, was as much an outgrowth of physically being alone as a deliberate decision. "Because I was alone, I just embarked upon making a record in solitude, which was new for me. I'd mixed records alone, but I'd never been my own recording engineer."

Serendipitously, DiFranco came upon just the right place for a stint of solitude in that most musical of cities, New Orleans. "I just walked into it," she says of the narrow shack she now calls her home away from home. "It sounded so incredible. I just decided, 'Oh, I want to record here,' because I was already thinking of my next record."

Restricted to eight audio tracks, Educated Guess marks a return to the Spartan, girl-with-guitar approach of her early work. But creating the simple acoustics of the album wasn't necessarily a simple process. For one, DiFranco had to play the guitar and press the recording button at the same time. "You can't monitor machines and adjust things and listen when you're also singing and playing," she notes. As a result, she had to deal with issues like random sound and, she laughs, "blasting oneself with feedback and having no engineer to glare at."

Despite the difficulties, DiFranco wouldn't have done it any other way. "It was alternately frustrating and lonely and empowering and fun," she says. "My experience of my work is that I don't really have fun in the moment. It can be very much like work. But in the big picture I'm very glad that I did it."

While the strength of DiFranco's music has always been in the near telepathic relationship she establishes with her listeners through the poetic emotiveness of her lyrics, the lack of a band on Educated Guess makes this even more tangible. On "Swim" for example, we feel her pain as she reflects on a failed relationship. "I let you surround me/I let you drown me." But we also exult with her as she learns to survive alone. "But I finally drove out where/the sky is dark enuf to see stars/and I found I missed no one."

Despite the seeming confessional nature of her lyrics, however, DiFranco cautions against trying to reduce them by explanation. "Like many writers, I prefer [my lyrics] to speak for themselves," she says. "It's like your life's work is to try and express most concisely what it is you think and feel. A song is about so many things and often the connections between things, so it's hard to point and describe any one thing."

With her open bisexuality, shaved head, and pierced body, DiFranco was pigeonholed in the early '90s as a "militant feminist." But she has always looked beyond a single demographic, insisting on "Grand Canyon" that feminism is "the coolest f-word ever," and asking, "Why can't all decent men and women/call themselves feminists?"

And that isn't the only political moment on the mostly personal Educated Guess. On "Animal," for instance, she criticizes what she calls the "aggression begets aggression" approach of American foreign policy, decrying "this brutal imperial power/that my passport says I represent."

But notwithstanding the Republican rule, DiFranco is in an upbeat mood about politics, and has for the first time endorsed a candidate for president, Democrat Dennis Kucinich. "I guess the reason I came out and supported someone directly for the first time was because he's one of us," she explains. "He has a true progressive vision about how to turn this country around from war and greed and global imperialism and racism to justice.

"My whole conscious adult life I have longed for a voice of reason in the political arena…the government is out of touch with the idea of representing people, and people are out of touch with the idea of themselves as citizens. Dennis feels like finally somebody cool trying to work on the inside."

Educated Guess is available in Japan on Victor Entertainment. Ani DiFranco plays Club Quattro on March 8. See concert listings for details.

credit: Smash

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