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