Ani DiFranco takes sides and finds honesty pays

Ani DiFranco with Daniel Champagne

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.

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Where: Alix Goolden Performance Hall (900 Johnson St.)

Tickets: $53.25 (plus service charges) at the McPherson box office, 250-386-6121 or rmts.bc.ca

 

Ani DiFranco has been thinking a lot lately about the line that separates life and art, and how a writer and performer such as herself is expected to navigate such tricky terrain without leaving behind some collateral damage.

More to the point, she has been trying to determine the amount of licence an artist has when it comes to writing personal songs about friends and family. She understands that there is such a thing as too much information, but that doesn’t seem to placate DiFranco.

“Is there some kind of territory where art for art’s sake has a right to be?” DiFranco asked rhetorically, down the line from her home in New Orleans. “To express and create works of art, and not have them be taken literally?”

Since the arrival of her 1990 debut, the Buffalo, N.Y., native has been keeping it real, so to speak, calling out those who need to face the heat. For well over two decades, the process of writing and recording gave DiFranco an outlet for her ideas and iterations.

She took that opportunity and ran with it. But the natural byproduct of that process meant someone near and dear always got hurt, DiFranco lamented.

“My songs are the one place where I won’t mince any words. One on one, I have a lot of fear and inhibition. I think this is why I’m so bold in my songs. It is my one place that I have carved out to do that, be that. [My songs] have gotten me and lot of other people into a lot of trouble over the years. My guitar has this truth serum in it, and lo the people that wander into my canon.”

DiFranco has been vexed over such big-picture scenarios in recent months, motivated by two major changes in her life — the death of folk icon Pete Seeger, her close friend and mentor, and the birth of her second child, Dante, last April.

Seeger’s death last month hit DiFranco hard. For as long as she has been performing, Seeger was always there for her, urging her to push further as an artist. He had his own well-leaning motivations for doing so, DiFranco said, but she never begrudged him for it. Playing folk music for a living is no easy task, and Seeger saw in DiFranco someone who could help the cause considerably.

She was more than happy to help. Seeger and many of his hard-core contemporaries, such as Utah Phillips and Tom Paxton, were nothing but warm and receptive to her brazen opinions and explicit songs.

“When I showed up shaved-headed, army-booted and pierced in places that people were talking about, I can’t tell you how welcoming they were,” she said.

“There was, of course, the sort of stodgy folk-Nazis within the community, but the dudes who really knew what was up looked through the difference in uniform and style and said, ‘Here is somebody young doing the work. Welcome, and bring your teenagers with you.’ It was a real embracing environment for me. I got to learn from the masters.”

DiFranco says she hopes to pay it forward at some point, though longtime fans would argue she already has. She supports a number of social and environmental causes, and has become one of the leaders in the fight to restore areas of New Orleans, her adopted hometown.

Fittingly, she titled her latest album, ¿Which Side Are You On?, in honour of the Florence Reece song Seeger made famous in the 1960s. DiFranco learned the 1936 original in time to play it at Seeger’s 90th birthday party, which was held at Madison Square Garden (“Lo and behold, they do birthday parties,” she quipped).

It never left her set. When she was culling songs for a new recording, it felt right to name the album in Seeger’s honour. The album was completed while Seeger was still alive, and the fact that Seeger was able to sing and play banjo on the title track makes DiFranco feel like she added another link to the chain.

“Leave the ego out of it, I am an inheritor, I am part of the continuum,” she said.

The creative cycle has come full circle for DiFranco, a nine-time Grammy Award nominee who has run her own label, Righteous Babe Records, since 1990. Almost accidentally, she is at the centre of an independent business model that is being adopted by new artists on a daily basis. As she watches some of the bigger names in music come around to her way of doing business, she can’t help but smile at the irony of it all.

“It’s a good feeling to be an inspiration,” she said proudly.

DiFranco was so focused at one point in her career, she couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Being able to put out records when and how she wanted was a rush, but she didn’t take enough time to let ideas gestate. It wasn’t until she began having kids (her daughter was born in 2007) that she realized her lifestyle change could offer a shot in the arm artistically.

“At first I was resistant, like any parent is. But as soon as I gave over to that, it was a blessing in disguise. Now that I put out an album every two or three years, they are better records. If you take a few breaths along the way and step away from what you are doing, when you come back you have perspective. I have my kids to thank for what I hope will be better records from now on.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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