Credit to GMDThree
Ani DiFranco is on tour right now with her latest album, Binary. This week she hosts Babefest, a fundraiser for Emily’s List, which is an organization that works to get more pro-choice Democrat women on the ballot at local, state, and national elections. I spoke with her via phone before one of her shows (thanks for making the time, Ani!).
AfterEllen.com: I want to talk about Babefest, how has it grown in the last year and how does it benefit Emily’s List.
Ani DiFranco: I mean honestly I’m not sure if it’s grown. It’s pretty humble this year. (laughing) We’re just going to rock it in a little club in Brooklyn. I’m probably s’posed to be all rah rah and say oh it’s gonna be a big hoopla and the sky will open up and hope will dawn, but the truth is it was actually really hard to get people on board for this benefit. I mean I sort of feel like, boy if you’re ever going to play a benefit for an organization like Emily’s List, which is out there working really hard to diversify politics one chick at a time…I thought there would be more feminists out there who would be like, yeah, sign me up. But you know as it turns out it doesn’t work with this person’s schedule and that person’s New York play and that person’s career plan. So we just went with who was excited and that was Amy Leon and that was Torres and the Resistance Revival Chorus and we’re just gonna rock it in Brooklyn.
You know I think as ever you try to keep doing the work and whether you’re surrounded by people or whether you’re out on a limb alone, you just keep going.
AE: There’s no time like the present with upcoming elections and a push to take back the house.
AD: I don’t know if you watched Obama step back up to the podium in Illinois last week and he came out of hiding to propel people to vote. The summary of his speech was basically, you know, vote motherfuckers! He said it so perfectly, something about — I know we say this all the time: it’s never been more crucial to get out there and get out the vote you know but actually it really is true now. So many things, including the future of our democracy, hang in the balance here.
So yeah, I absolutely agree with him that the time to begin your voting career if you’ve been sitting it out is now. First of all the excuse of there’s ‘no one to vote for’ is not gonna hold water. There are so many people, especially women, who are coming out of the woodwork in every state, running for office, that we need to get behind. And we can surely have a sea change if we the eligible voters of America can be inspired to get behind them.
“I feel like voting is not something that should be considered a form of self-expression, not something that you do when it’s gratifying to your ego and your identity. Voting is a thing that you do like paying your taxes, like wiping your ass, it’s something you do to be a functioning fully-fledged human citizen in the world, accountable to your society.”
Just in general, I feel like voting is not something that should be considered a form of self-expression, not something that you do when it’s gratifying to your ego and your identity. Voting is a thing that you do like paying your taxes, like wiping your ass, it’s something you do to be a functioning fully-fledged human citizen in the world, accountable to your society. It’s especially important when it’s not gratifying, when you’re not getting a thrill out of it. That’s when voting is especially meaningful — you show up because it’s the right thing, and if you don’t show up every time, you can’t live in a democracy.
AE: Tell me about the prison music project.
AD: We’ve been joking with this project that we are on prison time making this record, which is to say there’s no such thing as time, time is endless. When you know people are serving life without parole sentences such as many of the writers on this record, time becomes a very different thing.
“When you know people are serving life without parole sentences such as many of the writers on this record, time becomes a very different thing.”
It’s basically been many years in the making. We finally have recorded and mixed the music. It’s a collection of 14 songs written by men in prison. The intention is simply to highlight the humanity of incarcerated people, of which we have an exorbitant number. The words mass incarceration are very scary words and they apply to the United States of America, the most privileged country in the world.
So we have a real human rights crisis in this country, which is easy to ignore or not be aware of if you’re not personally touched, if you don’t know anybody in prison, if it’s not affecting your family or your sphere. It’s easy to be unaware that it’s happening but meanwhile, there are millions of people in prison in the US. Many have committed crimes and some are innocent — I have been involved in the Innocence Project for a long time cuz a lot of people end up in prison for being the wrong color or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because of embedded racism and classism in the system. But even those of us who fuck up deserve a chance to redeem themselves, a second chance in life to make good of their lives, you know, to transform themselves.
I’m somebody who believes that capital punishment is wrong, that it’s a continuation of a cycle of violence, not the end of it. Even the concept of life without parole is inhumane. It’s telling somebody that they will never evolve, that they can never make good on a mistake they made, that there’s no such thing as a second chance. The criminal justice system needs to be addressed in a really urgent way. Hopefully, it will come out in the next year and it’s just meant to get the conversation going about that.
AE: I bet there’s a lot of roadblocks working with these songwriters who are incarcerated.
AD: Yeah definitely, that’s part of what has taken so long, just trying to communicate with the writers because you can’t call them, they have to call you. They have to invest ridiculous amounts of money in the prison phone system, and you can’t send them stuff. We had a lot of artists involved in this record, a lot of singers. I think it’s one of the most profound aspects of this record is that it’s songs written by men and sung mostly by women. I think it’s interesting to hear women embody and express the thoughts and feelings of these incarcerated men. Some of them we recorded the artists themselves, some over the phone, so the fidelity is not great, and one was out on parole for a while, so we recorded him in a studio, but mostly the songs are reinterpreted by women.
AE: Each new album shows such different style and evolution. Binary seems like a return to some of your early really folk-y, protest music. Obviously, your ongoing projects speak to the same message of resistance. How do you keep the revolutionary spirit in such dark days?
AD: Well I mean honestly many nights I just want to sing about love, about this tree outside my window, about my kid, you know I want to talk about what I had for lunch, but meanwhile the world is ending. The political regression and oppression is amped up louder and more fierce than ever around us. It’s like fuck I can’t even afford myself the luxury of talking about the simple things or the little things especially when I feel a little bit alone in the political song game you know, It’s just — I’m a mom now so when I’m not playing shows I’m home slogging it out with my kid. I’m searching, if you know political artists out there.
Certainly the genre of hiphop and rap has been on the political forefront as far as the musical world is concerned, and there’s a lot of people pushing the envelope, but the more the merrier. Sometimes I feel this intense responsibility to stand in those shoes until there are more people doing so. So it propels me on.
Actually, I just spent the last few days with David Byrne — I opened for him last night. So here’s a guy who’s playing to who knows who out in the audience, people who loved talking heads or listened for years, they may be of any political bent. It’s not like he’s a real political songwriter. He’s been partnering with Head Count and registering people. He did that thing Janelle Monae does where you invoke the names of all the young African Americans who have been shot and killed by police. I was so thrilled to see how much he is rising to the occasion, so there’s one guy who’s not mincing words out there.
AE: So speaking of other performers who embody the resistance, tell me what it was like working with Prince.
AD: For the last couple of years I wrote a book, kind of a memoir, and that’s gonna come out in the spring. I did talk about Prince and described our first meeting and the first time we hung out. Such a unique, vivid, and exquisite human. Just his presence, let alone his artistry, I feel like he had such a transcendent energy and spirit. He was able to bring people together, not with a lot of complicated words or intellectualization but with action and energy and spirit. He transcended gender, he transcended race, and he allowed everyone around him to do so with him, just by playing music with women all the time, that’s my kind of feminism. You don’t have to talk, you can show.
AE: It’s perfect that you brought up your memoir because that was actually going to be my next question, can you share any memoir tidbits?
AD: I mean mostly I hope folks won’t be disappointed that I got off the boat at 2000. I mostly talked about my early years coming up, inventing myself and finding my path. So I really focused on the early years, that was really the story to tell, not then how you reinvent yourself continue, to stay on it. That’s mostly what I wrote about.
AE: One of the things I think about your early music for me hearing it when I was 14 and such it was very political, and it made me feel like being a citizen. One of the things you wrote about is your relationship with your mother and how she taught you and gave you that civic engagement and zeal and I was wondering if you can talk to me about your daughter Petah and how you pass that on to her.
AD: Kids are inspiring in addition to being exhausting and maddening. You know it’s really not even about teaching them a way to be in the world so much as unlearning them everything that they come out knowing. It’s so inspiring to see a kid come into the world with no pre-conceived notions about social constructs.
When she first started learning how to speak English I almost regretted it because before then her expressions were so her and then step by step, day by day you learn how to fix yourself into the box of society, culture, language. Language is a construct and it frames things and suddenly you’re signing up for the constructs that you didn’t intend to merely by using the language you’re given.
“What’s thrilling to me is that children do not inherently buy into any of this shit. It’s like — don’t fuck em up. You don’t have to teach them anything! Just don’t erase what they already know to be true.”
So my daughter, when she was little I dressed her in wife beaters and black pants and we were twins. One day she came home from preschool and rejected all of her clothing and said I’m a princess and I want dresses and pink. For a few years she was ardently a princess, hyperfeminine in the way that the culture has designated and validated. You put on the princess dress and go to the store and everybody says, oh look at you and who doesn’t want that? Constantly validating. And at some point years later she’s Mega Princess Cinderella of the World and she asked me, ‘mama why don’t you ever wear a dress?’ Not long ago women had to wear dresses and she was like huh? Believe it or not, I was one of the generation who kind of fought against that — what if I don’t want to wear a dress? What if I like pants? Just to introduce kids to a concept of culture that is so completely — it reminds me of being at a demonstration with her and her asking, ‘why do we chant hands up don’t shoot‘ and I have to explain ‘there’s this thing called racism…’ and she’s like huh? So what’s thrilling to me is that children do not inherently buy into any of this shit. It’s like — don’t fuck em up. You don’t have to teach them anything! Just don’t erase what they already know to be true.
AE: Speaking of social constructs, can you explain to me why you named your latest album Binary?
AD: Binary is a word, is a concept that is rampantly misused or misunderstood. Or I have an understanding of it that is out of the norm. I guess what I see when I look around me is that we live in a binary universe.
“This idea of binary, of either/or, black/white is a misconception of reality. No, everything is black and white. Everything is in an ever-changing, mutating, overlapping oneness and from relationship brings existence.”
Everything is made of relationships. There is no existence outside of relationships. Ask the quantum physicists it’s Schrodinger’s cat — is it a dead cat or a live cat in the box: yes. It’s an endless world of possibility until the moment of interaction. Once you observe something, you affect it, you are interacting, you are in a relationship with everything else. And that’s what someone’s existence brings. Singularity is a concept. This idea of binary, of either/or, black/white is a misconception of reality. No, everything is black and white. Everything is in an ever-changing, mutating, overlapping oneness and from relationship brings existence. It’s partly my feminist mindset and perception and it sort of runs through a lot of the songs on that record which is why I chose that to title the whole thing. That’s what I’m singing about over and over again, how we bring each other into being.
AE: What are you reading right now?
AD: Oh man! I’m reading ‘the hidden life of trees’ and it’s fucking — it’s so good — it’s the best book I’ve read in so long. It’s ahead of its time. It makes me feel like, ok we’re evolving, we are evolving. This German forester guy has this epiphany, you know, he’s an animal lover who’s been working as a butcher. He has this epiphany about the consciousness of a tree. He’s just so far ahead of the rest of us. Of course we are not the only sentient beings, in fact not even just animals are. If you really open your mind, you will begin to understand that trees have a language; they interact; they love and care for each other.