Inside Ani DiFranco’s Red Letter Year

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

While the term gets thrown around so much that its value  has been diminished exponentially, Ani DiFranco has discovered what it truly means to have a “life-altering event.” Typically speaking, a life-altering event tends to be one that, when it happens, makes you stop what you’re doing, look up and take stock of what your life has meant to that point, where you are versus where you thought you’d be, and what value the actions and achievements you’ve made have in the grand design of the world. These sorts of epiphanies aren’t easy to come by, but on January 20, 2007 the singer had one when her daughter, Petah, was born. For DiFranco – a musician with a history of touring for over two-thirds of the year in some cases and usually releasing at least one album of new material per annum – that event meant totally re-evaluating her values from the ground up.

So she did what most people do when their lives get shaken to their foundations; she took a minute to look around.

While attempting to process the stimulus and what this new life might mean, the singer took some much-needed time off to savor her new private life with her daughter and partner/producer Mike Napolitano. In that time, she released her first greatest hits compilation, Canon, in 2007 and, when she felt it was time to return to the studio to follow up 2006‘s “interrupted“ album Reprieve, she had to decide what form she wanted her return to take.

Obviously, the game has taken an all-new turn for Ani DiFranco. Such a change would be terrifying for most people – the prospect of coming in from the proverbial field would be (and has been before) a harrowing possibility if “the road” has been such a big part of one’s life for such a long period of time – but, in conversation with the singer, DiFranco can barely contain her excitement. The chance to experience great unknowns and particularly the undiscovered country of motherhood is exhilarating in the singer’s eyes and every day brings a new challenge and those experiences, according to the singer, are also augmenting and enriching the beliefs and tenets that she held so dearly in her “previous life.” Everyone knows that the play of life is possessed of a complicated plot, but according to DiFranco, the more things change, the richer it gets too and, with a new album, new tour, new family life and new personal outlook combined with new hope, DiFranco’s art is beginning to more closely imitate life as the singer sees it in the forthcoming Red Letter Year.

Bill Adams vs. Ani DiFranco

AD: Hello?

BA: Hey Ani? It’s Bill Adams calling

AD: Hey Bill, you’re kind of quiet. I can hear you, but hopefully we’ll make it through.

BA: Really? You’re clear as day on this end.

AD: Oh good – well, I’ll keep a keen ear then.

BA: Okay, so how’re you doing? Is today the first date of the tour?

AD: No – it’s almost the end of our Euro-tour; we’re in Amsterdam tonight.

BA: Yeah – you’re there with Anais [singer Anais Mitchell –ed] and Ed [one-man punk rock band Ed Hamell –ed] right?

AD: Yeah! It’s a Righteous Babe-fest.

BA: That’s a pretty wild bill. I know you’ve done tours with Ed before, how has this one been received?

AD: Great! It has really been a study in contrasts; it’s really very cool because we’re all our own kind of songwriters so for any lovers of songs, it’s a pretty interesting evening.

BA: I can see that. I mean, I’m pretty familiar with both singers so I can imagine what the construct of the bill would be. Is the North American leg going to be the same?

AD: Nope, we’re going to have Pieta Brown [editor’s note: due to some complications with scheduling, Ed Hamell will be opening some of the North American tour dates, Erin McKeown will support as opener for the tour on select dates and Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsay will be opening the scheduled shows from New York City forward]. Pieta is Greg Brown’s daughter – I don’t know if you’re familiar with him – and she has developed a whole very Brown-esque body of work herself and she has Bo Ramsay, a most subtle and engrossing guitar player, accompanying her so it should be a good time.

BA: That’s cool, and as far as your own sets are concerned, I know your backing band tends to change by virtue of whatever record you’re promoting, who have you got backing you? Or is this a totally solo tour for you?

AD: No, it’s the band that appears on the new record, the Red Letter Year album. It’s the first record that I’ve worked on with this group, but they’re very much my favorite new thing [chuckling]. My new touring band is Todd Sickafoose on bass – I’ve played with him for years as a duo – and more recently we hooked up with Mike Dillon on vibraphone and percussion and Allison Miller on drums. It’s been really fun for me; working with these musicians and going deeper and deeper as a band – we’ve been playing together for about a year now or maybe a little more.

BA: That’s cool. So I have to ask – where did Red Letter Year come from? With your albums, it always seems like you have a particular endeavor in mind behind them – the exception being Reprieve because everything was sort of interrupted by a hurricane – but what was the guiding principle behind Red Letter Year? You really seem to be branching out on this one.

AD: Well yeah – as the title indicates, there has been a lot of transformation in my life lately. Obviously, there’s the new band that we were talking about, and a big part that you can hear on the record is my new partner and the album’s co-producer Mike Napolitano. This is the first time I’ve really worked with a co-producer from the very beginning; like, from the beginning of the process, a creative partner that really had a lot of input guiding the process. It was very luxurious for me to make this record too; this time I was able to kick back and be the artist for a change and let him be the idea guy so a lot of the production – which is somewhat more ambitious than is typical of me – is due to Mike and the success of it is due to him for sure [chuckling].

BA: Yeah, I can totally see that because when I started in the press was when you sort of scaled everything back with Educated Guess and it has seemed to build back up again since. Was that a conscious thing or was it simply a matter of saying, “I feel like doing it this way,” or, “This is what I hear.”

AD: It’s just what’s happening. It could be the natural ebbing and flowing of my life – my creative life.

BA: I see, and as far as the tour is concerned, I assume you’re relying heavily on that material for set lists or are you doing a little of everything?

AD: Yeah, it’s more like a sampling of everything. In fact, usually by the time a record comes out, I’m already sick of the songs on it [laughing] because I always play new songs before they’re even recorded. The stage is sort of like a workshop for me – part workshop anyway. So, as far as set lists are concerned, on any given day I’m just pulling out whatever’s on my mind or in the air – you know? So it ends up being a set of songs that span all the records for sure.

BA: I see. Now, as far as how they translate to the stage, particularly in the case of the songs on Red Letter Year, there is a lot of stuff going on as far as additional instrumentation and so on, but you’re being backed by a three-piece band; so how do the arrangements work out for a live setting?

AD: Uhm, great! [laughing] You’d be amazed by this band. Todd, in addition to playing bass, has a little, tiny keyboard – a junky little synthesizer – that sits on top of his amp and he brings in atmospherics that he improvises during the show and Mike’s world includes not just vibraphone and glockenspiel but all kinds of percussion and effects; he runs his vibraphone through all these insane effects that also get all of these crazy electronic sounds as well as the organic instruments so there’s all sorts of things going on.

BA: And what’re we going to see on this side of the ocean– well, let’s start at the brass tacks. Your daughter’s second birthday is coming up, is she on the road with you?

AD: Yup, she sure is. It’s actually her second tour of Europe.

BA: Wow – she’s a well-traveled child already. Is there a balance that needs to be struck between home life and professional life?

AD: Oh for sure and, in fact, she finally provides that balance for me. I’ve always just always gone full-on into my road life and being a road warrior and she gives me a reason to stay home [chuckling] and a desire to stay home and be quieter and do less and hang out with her more. It provides a nice grounding and a balance in my life that I haven’t had really for a long time.

BA: That makes sense, and if one were to follow your life through your work, there has always been the manifestations of whatever happens to be going on in your life. The easiest and most obvious example would be Reprieve as far as you could sort of tell that the sessions were interrupted and things had to be re-started in a different part of the country. Has Petah’s presence really affected the proceedings in Red Letter Year? Was a lot of the record on that tack?

AD: Uhm, well, it has been two years since my last full-on studio record and the baby’s almost two years old so you can see that it’s no coincidence. That it took me longer to make this record was definitely a fact of being a mother and just having to dedicate most of my creative energy to my kid these days. I think that’s good though, for the process – at least my process anyway – and once again I think it’s just what the doctor ordered for me to be slowed down a little bit in life and I think it was beneficial to the making of this record. Taking more time means having more perspective along the way and I think time was an important ingredient in the making of Red Letter Year.

BA: Yeah, I can understand that. It always kind of threw me if you go back through the different records and the very public face of your music, you can kind of piece together, “Okay, this was part of that and this was part of that event in the performer’s life” and this and that–

AD: –Mm hmm.

BA: As far as Red Letter Year is concerned, I found myself – knowing that you had recently had a child – trying to piece together how one event coincides with the other. On a comparative level, I look at Ed’s last record and the connection is obvious so I wonder if there’s the same sort connection between Petah and Red Letter Year?

AD: Well sure – it’s all there in the songs. There are some songs in which her presence is felt and she is a part of the Red Letter Year of course for me.

BA: Hence the name of the record?

AD: Yeah.

BA: That’s cool. As you were saying, her presence has kind of forced you to scale back and sort of take a little more time. I noticed on the string of North American dates, there are fewer than there have been traditionally, is that simply a matter of breaking at Christmas?

AD: I still tour a lot, but I tour less than I did [laughing]. Because of the kid and everything, how we’re working it is that Mike comes out on tour with us and looks after her while I’m working and then when we go home I look after her while he works [chuckling] just to make it even. So yeah, the tours have been a little shorter than they have been in times passed.

BA: Well, I can understand that. I mean, you now have a daughter; theoretically, you’re want to savor her childhood. With that said, a lot of these songs saw performance before the album’s release, is writing still ongoing? Are you still working on new tunes?

AD: Well, writing is something that’s very hard to do when you have a baby. Again, that’s creative energy just getting poured into the kid and, quite literally, it’s like I’m either making shows and Mike’s watching her, or I’m watching her so there’s not a lot of time or energy left for creating new material which can be frustrating but I feel so lucky and happy to be where I am right now in life that I just try to go with the flow and I’ll get back to my furious pace of writing when I can.

BA: That makes sense, and obviously being a mom takes precedence over songwriting; I can understand that.

AD: Yeah – it’s amazing! Having a kid opened my eyes to so many feminist concepts that I’d heard or believed theoretically, but just what it takes to be a mom, it’s beginning to make more sense how women weren’t necessarily the inventors and things like that. How could they be the inventors and the rulers of the Earth while they’re busy raising children? [chuckling] It’s truly all-encompassing work and I’m finding that out in my own way as we all do.

BA: Well sure – I’m finding that now, as a step-dad, I’m examining an entirely new prospect and I find that I have to mind my manners a little better than I used to [both laughing]. Now, you were talking about concepts of feminism are you beginning to better understand and learn?

AD: Uhm, well, I guess I’m understanding feminism is not just for women [laughing]. The sort of urgent and initial work of feminism is, of course, is to save the lives of women or emancipate them from the toils of everyday patriarchy but I think feminism is truly much bigger than that.. It’s a route out of patriarchy – which is hurtful to all of us, not just women, but men and women together – and I think that feminism serves all of us; if we had a balance and a true conceptual interaction between the sexes that formed the bases of our culture, society and government, I think we’d have a much different world. I think that patriarchy is at the root of all of the social diseases we see around us basically. When you start with a fundamental imbalance, you can’t end with peace; it just doesn’t work that way. Nature teaches us that peace is a product of balance and so I guess my understanding of feminism is evolving in that way.

BA: And with that said, this is another epiphany of the Red Letter Year which by definition means according to the glossary of a calendar, “important year.” Is the record sort of the physical embodiment of the lessons learned since Petah’s appearance?

AD: I’d say it’s certainly the embodiment of the transformation that I’m undergoing and, to a certain degree, my society is undergoing as well as my understanding and perspective of that.

BA: I absolutely understand that, and as far as being on a very contrived political level in the United States as well as on a personal level for you, I can understand how this period of time would very much be a cultural year zero.

AD: Yeah, it will be in nine more days. I fully expect a transformation of epic proportions to occur in the United States via the presidential election and yeah [very warmly and with satisfaction] it’s going to be a Red Letter Year indeed.


“Emancipated Minor” from Red Letter Year – [mp3]

Red Letter Year is out now. Buy it on Amazon.


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