This article originally ran in 2019.
Years ago, when I had musical aspirations that never quite made it beyond dive bars, I wrote lyrics inspired by Ani DiFranco and her prolific, genuine song-making skills. "Apples never had such hungry worms," I wrote, suggesting, I guess, that DiFranco – as well as those of us attempting to be anywhere near her level of achievement – was the worm (a delightful worm wearing a tiny hat with a flower stuck in it, of course) and the apple was her music, life, everything.
I feel a little asshole-y opening with this because as DiFranco states in her book, media has changed and journalists are too eager to place themselves in the story these days. And here I am, placing myself in a story about DiFranco. But I can't have it any other way, because after 25 years of fandom and throwing my sombrero into the ring at least five times for a press interview, I was granted the chance to interview her last week – on my birthday, no less.
After our 40-minute conversation (!), it was clear that DiFranco has continued her journey as a passionate and ambitious woman, embarking on back-to-back book and music tours. Earlier this month, she released her memoir, "No Walls And The Recurring Dream," drawing on the first 30 years of her life. She writes honestly and candidly about growing up in a "donut house" with unconventional parents, becoming an emancipated minor at the age of 16 and her fascinating, zigzaggy path to musical success in the '90s that included the creation of her innovative label, Righteous Babe Records.
Like in her song lyrics, DiFranco's memoir writing is soul-bearingly honest and philosophical, yet entertaining and lighthearted. DiFranco takes us along for a righteous, raucous road trip of her early life during which, while crammed into the backseat, we become privy to facts and secrets and stories so very rich and real.
During her book tour, DiFranco stopped at Women and Children First in Chicago on May 7 and, now on music tour, she will perform a musical gig at the Pabst on June 5. (Get tickets here. $1 from each ticket goes towards Girls & Ladies Rock MKE.) She released her most recent album "Binary" in 2016 and earlier this year offered up a mix tape – on cassette and as MP3s – featuring re-visited songs from her large repertoire that are meaningful to the book.
DiFranco, a native of Buffalo, New York, who has lived in New Orleans for a decade and a half, has released 20 records since 1990 on Righteous Babe and for the first time with "Binary," she handed over the record-mixing reigns to someone else.
Now a mother of two – Petah, 12, and Dante, 6 – DiFranco braids motherhood’s heart strings with the poet's guitar strings, determined to contribute thoughtfully and artistically while mastering, I mean mistress-ing, the demanding fine art of mom-dom.
OnMilwaukee: So book tour and music tour? Wow.
Ani DiFranco: Yeah, what the hell? Book tour has been quite a gear-shift. These last few weeks have been extremely grueling with the physical and practical aspects of so much travel. And then there’s the emotional side that goes something like, "I wrote a really personal book and now I'm having public conversations about it." Yeah, I really set myself up. (Laughs.)
But I am really, really happy that I did it. I didn't know what a book tour would be like, but it’s been so cool traveling in a different community – the world of book nerds – and different kind of events, different kind of shows.
Is it strange for you to be on stage without your guitar? Do you feel kinda naked?
I guess I feel pretty naked everywhere I go. So nothing new there. Actually, at first I was apologetic. I was like "you guys spent money on a ticket and drove here and all we’re gonna do it yack for an hour and that’s it?" But my team helped me shift my thinking and reminded me that if I ever just started playing songs and stopped talking and telling stories during my shows, that’s when people will want their money back. It’s always about the engagement between me and the people who show up. The book tour made this very evident.
Throughout the book, I wondered how you carved out the time to write a book with such a full personal life and music career. And then, late in the book, you tell us that you did it "behind the kids' backs, on tour, while they slept." Can you elaborate on that?
I know, it sounds totally impossible. Especially if you’re a parent. Are you a parent?
Then you know. For anyone to be a parent and to fulfill the daily duties of the job is already too much. And to put a book on top of that, the pile is even larger and more exhausting. But for me, when I get my teeth around something I’m really passionate about, I just find time. I could write on tour because I wasn’t also doing my mom duties, but I still had to make the time before and after shows. I'd often be into the book for half the night, working on the book instead of drinking beer and high-fiving. That’s how parents can contribute to their community the way they want to – by losing sleep.
You have a chunk of time this summer without any tour dates. What will you and your family do during that time?
Because you read the book, you’ll understand when I say it’s "Lake Time." I’m taking my family to the lake in Quebec where I went every summer and to gift them with the multi-generational connection to a land. For the experience of "look at how big that baby pine tree is now!" That’s what July looks like for us, happily.
Based on the book, I presume you visit your mom when in Canada. And your relationship with your mom was, I dunno, non-traditional growing up. How is it today, with your own children?
We only see her twice a year because, unfortunately, we’re very far apart. So I relish those times. My mom has a bit of magic in her and I hope it can rub off on them in the little time that we have.
I haven’t spoken with my mother about the book yet. It was taking forever for her to receive her copy of it, and that's something I feel very apprehensive about. I really hope our relationship goes deeper because of the book – not the opposite.
You are such a thoughtful and prolific person, you must offer so much to your kids. But what do you hope they learn from you the most?
I don't even think about it. I don't give it two thoughts – what they get from me is up to them. Recently, my book was on the kitchen table and a friend asked my daughter, who is 12, have you read your mom’s book? And she said, "ew!" And then I said, "ew!" I’m sure some day she will read it, hopefully during the right time for her.
Is there anything in the memoir that you don’t look forward to your kids reading someday?
I couldn’t hide from my kids if I tried so why try? In terms of everything in the book, it’s all OK – except the hitchhiking. I even say that in the book directly to my daughter. I can accept them knowing anything about me, except that I thought hitchhiking was fine. I just don't want them to take on that level of risk. But yeah, otherwise, why not just be transparent, always?
In the book, you speak about conflict a few times, and how you learned to be in conflict with someone but then able to resume friendship even if the conflict isn't completely solved. How does someone start doing that – even though they are living in a culture telling them to avoid conflict, to be "nice"?
Ah, that’s a hard balance to strike and I completely relate. That’s the world I grew up in with my family. Total "conflict avoidance" and yet so much underneath, but no ability to address it. It's about finding the balance point between where we can stay open to each other and yet I can be authentically me and you can authentically be you. We have to stay open to each other and create a place where we can make mistakes with each other and not shut down. I’ve been thinking about this stuff right along there with you.
For the first time you hired someone else to mix your album. Was it hard to relinquish control?
After 20 records, it was unprecedented for me, but it was also super liberating. It feels good to be collaborating, letting more people inside and in return benefiting from their perspective and sensibilities.
I’m not sure how the next record will take shape, but I know I want to bring more people in – musicians, artists, producers. Collaborating is something I want to do more of even though I'm not sure what form it will take.
The next record?
Yeah, I have a handful of new songs that I’m gonna start recording this summer.
Are you going to write another book?
I don’t know yet, but I really enjoyed the foray into long-form writing. But a big part of the experience is how it is received by others. I’m so afraid of hurting other people by exposing them through the lens of my life, but so far it has reconnected me with people instead of pushing them further away. My brother, for instance. I am so immensely grateful how he’s responded in a supportive and loving way. And that makes me feel like, yeah, maybe I could do this again.
I am also considering writing a children's book. The (children’s literature) wing of my publishing house approached me about it and the idea has been floating around in my head for years, so we’ll see. If I do, I would try to illustrate it myself and reawaken my visual side which has been long dormant.
What are you reading right now?
One of my book stops was at the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival and I got to go to a talk by Zadie Smith. She’s an English writer and, oh man, is she cool. I related to everything she said, so I picked up a book of her essays called "Feel Free." I’m already a big fan.
This is kind of random, but how do you feel about song requests? I’m always surprised by the range of songs people yell out during one of your shows.
One thing I super love is that the people who turn up don’t all request the one radio hit. Mostly because there is no radio hit, which solves that problem, but it’s always amazing to me how diverse the requests are. People have stereotyped me and my audience as a singular "type" and the requests remind me that the people who come to my shows have very different roots and are individuals who came for their own reasons and get different stuff from my songs. It’s evidence of diversity. And I love it.
Gonna end with a very specific New Orleans question: Have you ever eaten from the deli at Verti Marte on Royal Street?
Dude, are you kidding me? (Editorial Note: ANI DUDED ME!) My studio was on Esplanade (near Royal Street) and that was our sustenance for a few records. My advice is always, "go to Verti Marte where drag queens will make you an awesome po' boy."
To order Ani DiFranco's book, music or merch go here.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.