Ani DiFranco not a pigeonholed girl
ASPEN When Ani DiFranco emerged as a musician in the early 90s, her appearance and persona were so striking that it was almost impossible not to define her in strict terms. She was a feminist, angry and in-your-face and boldly bisexual. Her head was shaved, or, when her hair grew in, she colored it and let it do crazy things. Her appearance seemed stridently unglamorous; she typically wore plain, sleeveless tank tops. She played an acoustic guitar, often unaccompanied, but she had the attitude of a punk.And if you resisted the temptation to define DiFranco herself, it was even more difficult not to pigeonhole her audience: Mostly young women, unusually devoted to DiFranco and to the social causes she addressed.The branding of DiFranco worked, in the sense that it made her popular. Those idealistic young women showed up in droves, and DiFranco was a strong draw on the concert circuit. Her fiercely independent record label, Righteous Babe, served practically as a model of what was to come for music distribution in the Internet age.But all the way, DiFranco was insisting that those easy, narrow categories failed to capture the full picture. As she sang on 32 Flavors, from the 1995 album Not a Pretty Girl, she was a poster girl without a poster/ … 32 flavors and then some.It was always funny funny as in uncomfortable to be pigeonholed as a girl singer, singing songs for girls, when I was of a mind to be very inclusive in my art, said DiFranco by phone from her home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.As the newness and outrageousness of that personality have worn off, DiFrancos record sales have dropped as have most everyone elses; DiFranco observes that the age of the album is behind us. She has moved her tours into somewhat smaller venues on the whole. DiFranco has greeted that process with a good measure of relief. At first there was my audience, whatever that was. Then there was the media blip, the height of exposure. In the first decade of Righteous Babe, it was exponential growth. It was crazy to keep up with all that change. Now my audience has peaked; the natural downsizing has begun.DiFranco, 37, makes her first Aspen appearance in 13 years on Wednesday, with a sold-out show at Belly Up Aspen, featuring opening act Martyn Joseph. In some ways, it is a different DiFranco than the one of the mid-90s. DiFranco is a mother; she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, a year and a half ago. Four years ago, the Buffalo, N.Y.-native moved to New Orleans, a place where the music reigns while the business and media sides lag behind.Moreover, the perception of the icon has changed. Mention DiFranco and the most likely observation is what a bitching guitarist she is. It feels safer for audiences of all kinds to see her shows; she said her crowds have gone from extremely homogenous to very diverse.It was certainly way oversimplified, every step along the way, she said of the way she has been perceived. People were so far away from even understanding that I play guitar. Because thats the area of society I challenged. I was a threatened patriarchy.DiFranco is now reaping the benefits of no longer being the weird new thing. The listeners of my music these days have a connection with the art. Its cool to connect in these different ways guitar playing, or maybe the lyrics, or the musical setting, said DiFranco, adding that, in Europe, she has always been seen more as a musician than as a social icon. Im happy with playing smaller theaters, having a downsized crew. Its harder to connect in an arena.The art might even be benefiting from DiFrancos slowed-down ways. She has released 15 albums of new material in 18 years, plus several live albums and collections. Her forthcoming release Red Letter Year, tentatively due for release in September has been atypically slow in coming together.Im welcoming that, she said. If I was guilty of anything along the way it was moving too quickly through records, throwing stuff unedited into the world. You spend more time with it, you have more perspective. So I have [my daughter] to thank for that.DiFrancos latest project also reveals a sense of patience. The concert DVD Live at Babeville was recorded in a 19th century church in Buffalo. DiFranco was instrumental in saving the building from the wrecking ball and turning it into an arts center and headquarters for Righteous Babe, a process which took nearly a decade. The DVD captures the first performances at the repurposed church, performed last September. And yes, the concert hall has been renamed Babeville. What could be more appropriate for an 1870s cathedral? asked DiFranco.A big part of the changes DiFranco has undergone, as a musician and a person, can be traced to her openness to collaborating with other artists. In the late 90s, she forged a relationship with Maceo Parker, recording and touring with him. From a distance, it was an odd alliance the 20-something white folk-punk, and the 50-plus black funk saxophonist, dressed in a sleek suit.On the surface, Maceo and I are really different, according to time and place, said DiFranco. But on a deeper level we related to each other in a lot of ways. And one of those was putting on a show, putting a lot into our performances. When I listen, God forbid, to the music I was making then, I felt like I was in music school.DiFranco is currently on tour with a band comprising bassist Todd Sickafoose, percussionist/vibist Mike Dillon and drummer Allison Miller. The format spotlights DiFrancos abilities as a band member.Todd described my music as four-dimensional, said DiFranco, meaning there were a lot of ways to relate to it.
Ani DiFranco, with Martyn Joseph opening, starts Wednesday at 9 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Doors open at 8 email@example.com