Ani DiFranco On Music and Motherhood
by Irene Joyce
Thirty-eight-year-old Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco is a role model and muse for women all over the world. She’s the founder of Righteous Babe Records, which has served as an illustration of successful David vs. Goliath-esque musical commerce since the early ’90s. Righteous Babe has released almost 20 feminism-centric albums by DiFranco since 1990, and (except for a brief hiatus in 2005) she’s pretty much been permanently on tour for the past 20 years.
And yet, speaking with me by phone recently, DiFranco intimated that the greatest inspiration in her current life as a world-famous rock star and activist is being the mother of 2-year-old Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano, DiFranco’s first child.
“My daughter and I make a lot of art together, and it’s awesome,” DiFranco says. “We have a little easel and we’re always hanging out in front of the easel together, and she’s like a little art teacher to me. Visual art is something I’ve always loved to do and used to do a lot more. I went to art school, and I’m nothing compared to her. You can distinguish her marks from my marks on any piece of paper because hers are visceral and vital and communicate so much energy and freedom, and mine are all self-conscious and intentional and much more encumbered by socialization. It’s really very cool for me as an artist to have a child as a teacher now. We make music together, and she is so sweet and unfettered by any kind of expectation or intention or subliminal right or wrongness, so she helps me get back into that free, artistic space.”
DiFranco’s music has always been an interesting juxtaposition of playful, staccato-style guitar and vocals; biting, sometimes hilarious commentary on love and relationships; and very serious, profound observations and poetic diatribes about injustice ranging from rape to the effect of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where she spends much of her free time. DiFranco’s latest release, 2008’s Red Letter Year, covers everything from global warming to atomic energy and includes lines like “I can’t support the troops / ’cause every last one of them is being duped.”
Obviously, the light-hearted (yet insightful) creativity DiFranco experiences with her daughter hasn’t simply made her into the female Jack Johnson. She was actually somewhat worried about motherhood affecting her career, which has defined her life since playing covers as a street busker in grade school with her guitar teacher.
“Babies take a lot of energy, as any parent knows. And certainly from the beginning when I was all pregnant and hormonal, I had plenty of panic about that. It was understandable, informed panic about ‘Oh, wow, I love my work,’ and I had absorbed myself utterly and totally in my work for decades on end. [But] I think there’s a lot of ingredients in me — some of them I utilize everyday and others are more labeled, but they’re brought out of me by the kid… and also I gotta give all props to her father.”
“There’s a few things that blow my mind in a new way having a kid, and [one] is the idea of a single mom. For me, my partner is essential to the whole thing because he has a way of helping me to relax and give over. I think he is inherently an incredibly chilled-out person. He’s much less Type A than I — he’s type Z. And so he and I balance each other like that, and his example certainly helps me to get into that very peaceful mindset where I don’t need to be doing anything but hanging out with my family and appreciating the new landscape of my life. I mean, how often does a non-parent go to the park or a playground and play with other kids and have those bizarre, enlightening encounters that are so fresh and funny? My partner is just really great.”
One can only imagine what it’s like to be a new mom while playing sold-out venues all over the world, being celebrated and in some cases worshipped by daughters, mothers, grandmothers and even some of their brothers, partners and fathers. But to DiFranco, being able to perform for huge, disparate audiences while her daughter watches from the wings is just a blessing.
“That feels great, “ she says. “I love [it] so much. And people of all ages… I think it’s great. There’s so much segregation in music, and I think the marketplace reinforces that: here’s black music, here’s white music, here’s music for 13-year-olds and music for 50-year-olds… and you don’t blur those lines. For me, the more diverse the audience is the better, because when you’re singing to a diverse group of people you sort of listen to yourself through all of their ears.”
The fact that DiFranco’s music attracts a following that encompasses generations and inspires honesty and courage in young women who continue to fall in love with DiFranco’s music as if she were their best friend can only mean one thing: Her sincerity is infectious, admirable and trustworthy.
“I’ve certainly showed my duplicity and selfishness along with my love and my bravery, or whatever along the way. If you feel that you can’t show aspects of yourself, you’ll never find how much affirmation there is in the world for those things. It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy: You’ll never find acceptance for that which you hide.“