|The "Little Folksinger", Ani DiFranco|
During my college days, a campus group that I volunteered for sponsored a camping trip. I tagged along, and while we were at the campsite, setting things up and chit-chatting, a radio that somebody had plunked in the middle of everything was playing a CD that I’d never heard. The singer’s voice had a quality that I still don’t think I can do justice to by trying to describe it, and some of the lyrics caught my attention, really making me stop to listen. While I can’t remember the exact lines now, I do know that I was caught off guard by how bold, apologetically candid, and beautifully crafted they were. I was instantly hooked. After asking someone who the singer was, those first sparks fueled my Ani DiFranco fandom that’s spanned--well, let’s just say that it’s been a long time. It seemed silly to avoid writing about her on 2nd First Look for fear of my article growing to War and Peace proportions, so my solution was to pick a favorite Ani album (not an easy task), and focus just on that.
Ani’s music catalog is so vast that, after a feverish attempt early on, I gave up trying to collect them all. Since I did manage to squirrel away about a dozen of her CDs before iPods and digital music libraries became the norm, it’s hard to remember exactly which album was the first one I got. So for this piece I’m highlighting tracks from one that’s almost worn out from so much play: 1996’s “Dilate”. Ani is a skillful master of weaving together clever, often beautiful, sometimes painfully harsh imagery in her lyrics, and “Dilate” is a stellar example of that. Recorded at The Congress House studio in Austin, Texas over a three week period, Ani is quoted as calling it “a serpentine journey” that looks at a relationship from many angles. Here are some of my personal highlights from that album.
|"Dilate" album cover|
A story of longing for a love who‘s unavailable, Ani’s voice is soft and wistful for most of this song, quietly gaining an edge each time it reaches the refrain, “So f*** you, and your untouchable face… And who am I, that I should be vying for your touch? Said who am I? I bet you can’t even tell me that much”. We realize that the “f-you” isn’t really animosity towards the “you” in the song; it’s the sheer frustration of the situation coming through with those lyrics. Even though she knows that person is in a relationship, logic isn’t winning, and there’s an overwhelming compulsion to see them: “You’ll look like a photograph of yourself taken from far, far away, and I won’t know what to do, and I won’t know what to say…I see you and I’m so perplexed; what was I thinking? What will I think of next? Where can I hide?” I’d be hard pressed to choose only one song of Ani’s that I love best, but if I was forced to, this very well may be it.
“Superhero” starts out with us firmly in the place and mind of the person telling the story: “Sleep-walking through the all-nite drug store, baptized in fluorescent light…and every pop song on the radio is suddenly speaking to me, art may imitate life, but life imitates t.v.” Missing a lover who’s been gone “exactly two weeks; two weeks and three days”, the song talks about the act of reluctantly opening up to another person, only to have them walk away in the end. Again, there are fantastic lyrics like: “If I was dressed in my best defenses, would you agree to meet me for coffee? If I did my tricks with smoke and mirrors, would you still know which one was me?” Showcasing the mix of vulnerability and fierceness that first drew me to Ani’s music, there‘s a universal theme to “Superhero”, one of letting down your guard and letting another person in, even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped they would.
Where the first two songs I talked about are a little quieter, musically, “Shameless” comes in with hard-hitting guitar and an unapologetic story of a potential relationship that some of society might not approve of. It’s another great example of Ani’s ability to write uncompromising lyrics too: “This is my skeleton, this is the skin it’s in, that is, according to light and gravity, I’ll take off my disguise, the mask you met me in, ‘cuz I got something for you to see.” Going back to the music itself, this song also gives Ani a chance to show off what a talented guitarist she is. Her expression isn’t limited to just lyrics or her voice; she can “speak” through the instrument just as much as she does with her words.
If “Untouchable Face” is in the running for my #1 best-loved Ani song, “Joyful Girl” would be elbowing its way up there with it. I didn’t realize until just recently, seeing a clip of Ani performing this live in 2013, that she wrote this song for her mom. That adds even more depth to what was already a deeply lovely track to me. A gorgeous tale of self-acceptance and solid faith in who you are deep down, even in the face of criticism from the outside world, “Joyful Girl” talks about staying strong even when things are getting rough: “”Cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged, and the woman who lives there can tell, and she looks me in the eye and says ‘Would you prefer the easy way? No, Well o.k. then, don’t cry’” Dave Matthews does a cover of this song (joining other artists who have done covers of other Ani tracks), but for me the original with all of Ani's heartfelt nuances will always reign supreme.
After years and years of listening to “Dilate” and my collection of other Ani DiFranco CDs, I was over the moon to finally be able to see “the Little Folksinger” live in concert two years ago with my friend, Jenny, who was visiting from England. Switching between probably half a dozen guitars for different songs during her set, Ani was funny, and charming, and of course, candid. It was an exhilarating experience to not just hear her through speakers or earbuds, but to be in the same room with her, watching her strum and move and see her expressions as the music came through. Ani has some of the most rabid fans out there (which I say in a completely complimentary way), and it’s easy to see why. Not settling with signing to a major record label early on in her career, DiFranco founded her own, Righteous Babe Records, which is still going strong--much like Ani herself. She’s back on tour again as this article is posted, so go to www.righteousbaberecords.com and click on “Tour” (or any of the other tabs) to find out more about Ani, her work, and where you can catch a show this fall.