Aside from battling tendonitis in 2005, the folk rock icon Ani DiFranco has been a mainstay on the touring circuit and a prolific recording artist since her self-titled debut in 1990. It took DiFranco becoming a mother (her daughter Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano was born in 2007) to finally slow her frenetic pace.
"I'm not as prolific [now] as I'm known to be," says DiFranco from the road, naturally, during a recent phone interview. "I've been blaming it on the kid for about two years now."
But when her husband, Mike Napolitano (who also co-produced her latest album Red Letter Year
), recently went out of town for the better part of a week, DiFranco wrote three songs while babysitting alone.
"So I've decided it was his fault all along," she cracks.
Longtime fans can hear more sweat in the details of the lush, refined music gracing Red Letter Year
"I welcome all the changes the baby brings to my life," DiFranco says. "I think that's just what the doctor ordered for me and my creative process at this point. The fast pace of my work up till now has had its ups and downs, its benefits and its issues. Slowing down and the perspective it allows is a useful thing for me at this point."
For DiFranco, it's never been a question of creating good songs. She's written hundreds of them since her teen years, in styles and textures that have often found crossover appeal. Rather, "It's realizing them on recordings for posterity that I've not always done well," DiFranco says. "It hurts my heart, in a way, to think that some decent songs have not come across as well as they could have. It's really great now to sort of be honing in on that."
That determination got teeth a couple years ago, when she re-recorded some of her earliest material for Canon
, a two-CD set that marked her first career retrospective. It was such an enjoyable experience for her that DiFranco says she hopes to do more in that vein. She also credits Napolitano and her current band for the renewed vigor she has in making music.
"I feel like I'm in a better position than I ever have been at making documents of songs," DiFranco says. "That's a great feeling for somebody like me."
Commendation also should go to the changing times. As far as the business side of music, DiFranco seems positively prescient for having sidestepped the major label racket from the beginning to form her own imprint, Righteous Babe Records, and therefore control her own destiny.
"I didn't predict anything," she says. "I didn't go the independent route because I knew the music industry was going to implode within a decade. I did so for my own idealistic reasons. It just so happens more and more artists are forced to explore independent avenues. But that's cool. It's just going to expand the realm of possibilities for musicians."
Same thing with conservation efforts, a philosophy that's always been dear to DiFranco's heart. She used geothermal heating and cooling in Righteous Babe's Buffalo, N.Y., headquarters before most had even heard of the term. Now more consumers than ever are turning to such cost-cutting measures out of necessity.
"It's unfortunate it takes crises sometimes to push us in these directions, but whatever," DiFranco says. "As long as we're moving in the right direction, I'm pretty thrilled."
With Barack Obama's election, DiFranco's optimism runneth over. More than just the acute greed now cannibalizing the music industry, she sees a sea change in the corporate overthrow of the economy that's been brewing for decades.
"I feel like there is no better, more intelligent, more engaged and more wise person to help us recover from the incredible greed and shortsightedness that has governed our country for a long time," she says of the new president.
All these developments have helped DiFranco answer a question that sometimes recurs to her in the dark of night: What do I have left to say?
"Luckily the answers haven't stopped coming yet," she says. "If I can dip into my energy reserves and find more to give, there really isn't a better time than this. I feel more dedicated than ever to investing that energy. In this political environment, we have an opportunity to really make forward momentum. As a folk singer, I feel like there's never been a better time in my life to write."
Perhaps that partly explains the sheer mirth that exudes from Red Letter Year
. DiFranco noticed with Canon
that the joy that helps define her life isn't exactly evident in her work. She's been on a mission to accentuate it ever since.
"Lo and behold here we are in an era when a political song and a happy song are not mutually exclusive," DiFranco says. "It's a pretty cool time to be a folk singer."