Most of Ani DiFranco's sentences don't end so much as they drift away, sometimes bumping into another thought, usually plunging the conversation into uncomfortable silence, the kind of quiet that comes when two former friends run into each other for the first time in years and neither has anything to say. She doesn't like to talk about herself much, so she doesn't, providing the barest minimum of information required to answer the question and nothing more. Frequently, she doesn't even give that much: If there's any way she can possibly respond with a simple yes or no, she will, even if the reply doesn't entirely -- and occasionally, remotely -- answer the question.
Maybe it's because she is tired of answering the same questions over and over, often prompted by new albums -- she's averaging close to two a year since her self-titled 1990 debut, and this year alone DiFranco has released three (Up Up Up Up Up Up, Little Plastic Remixes, and Fellow Workers, a collaboration with Utah Phillips) with another (To the Teeth) on the way in November. Plus, when DiFranco's not putting out new records, all on her own Righteous Babe Records label, she's on the road promoting them, on tour "pretty much except when I'm in the studio or with my family for Christmas."
Of course, her reticence could be due to the fact that the rest of her band is noisily beginning its soundcheck for tonight's concert in Norfolk, Virginia. But, more likely, it comes from the articles that all those interviews eventually turn into, most of which focus more on her business acumen at Righteous Babe (resulting in more than two million copies sold) than the music that led to her starting the label in the first place, acoustic folk songs that owe a debt to punk and funk, not always in that order. If you want to talk about her business, she'd prefer to explain what Righteous Babe has meant to her hometown of Buffalo, New York.
"Buffalo is a very poor city, kind of like a burned-out, post-industrial Great Lakes town," DiFranco says. "Economically, it's tough to stay in Buffalo and try and build a business there. I mean, there's just so few jobs in Buffalo that to have a cool place to work is pretty rare. It's a good feeling to have started this little epicenter of activity downtown. It's one of those ghost towns after 5 p.m."
Still, if writers aren't ignoring her music in favor of the company that releases it, they're disregarding it instead to engage in a gender-politics debate with the woman whose nose ring and hairy pits have become almost twin symbols of modern feminism. Sure, DiFranco feels strongly about feminism ("There is no other word in the English language that recognizes the idea that women are just as good, despite any behavior or prejudices to the contrary," she wrote in Los Angeles Times Magazine in an "appreciation piece" about one of her idols, Joni Mitchell), but she feels even stronger about the songs she writes. She'd rather discuss them than politics any day of the week.
For example, when asked about R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Century of Women in Music, the five-disc box set recently released by Rhino Records on which her song "32 Flavors" appears, she doesn't offer much more than, "I actually got a memo from my office that you might mention that, just to remind me what it is. There's just so many things. I haven't been thinking about it too much."
Or at all: Other than the fact that one of her songs is on it, DiFranco doesn't have anything else to say about a collection that includes everything from the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl" to Liz Phair's "Polyester Bride," and for the most part, does a decent enough job summing up women's contribution to music. (Though it doesn't really make sense that Rhino chose to use a more recent Phair track instead of one of her earlier, much more important songs.)
And don't ask her whether she thinks that she is overexposing herself by keeping such a hectic release schedule either. "I think they'd pretty much be happy if I keep putting out music as much as I have it in me," she huffs. "There's no contract that you sign saying you have to buy every record. People make that choice."
Only when talk turns to some of the famous guest stars who appear on the forthcoming To the Teeth -- former James Brown and George Clinton sideman Maceo Parker and The Artist -- does DiFranco seem interested in the discussion. She can't say enough about her new friends, two men with little in common with DiFranco except for their commitment to independence.
"I spent this summer with Maceo -- we did a tour together -- and we just got real tight," DiFranco says, explaining how they all came together. "In the middle of the tour, we were playing in Minneapolis, and The Artist came out to the show. He invited Maceo and I both back to Paisley Park the next day. So we both played on his record. It's a total scene at this point, because Maceo's on my record, and I'm on his." She laughs. "The three of us are kind of visiting each other's records this year, which is really cool. For me, it's real exciting, because they're both musical heroes of mine. I don't know what I did right in my last life as a mosquito."
DiFranco and The Artist had been president and vice-president of their own mutual admiration society for the past few years -- DiFranco often spoke of how influential his music had been on her, and The Artist practically begged to release his albums on Righteous Babe. But they'd never been able to hold one of their meetings until recently.
"Until this summer, we had never met," she says. "We just sort of sent little messages vicariously through the media. He's pretty much got his own crazy deal going now. I guess he has some sort of distribution deal now, and I hope it's working for him."
She starts to trail off, as the discussion heads back in the direction of Righteous Babe. But for all of DiFranco's unwillingness to talk about the label she started in 1990, it's hard to think of anything else that she has achieved that is more notable. What started with her selling albums out of her trunk has blossomed into a business with 14 full-time employees and offices that always seem to need more room no matter how many times the company buys extra space. Whether you love or hate her music, that kind of growth is impressive, something artist-run labels such as Superchunk's Merge Records would never be able to accomplish on the strengths of one artist.
DiFranco finally lets herself admit that she is also impressed with how far she has come in less than a decade. That is, when she thinks about it all, which isn't often.
"I think a really big part of it is really loving what you do, and therefore having enough stamina to just keep doing it and not sit around and worry about how to grow and increase your audience and exposure and this and that. I'm just happy where I am, and have been so for years. For me, just the act of playing music is pretty much what it's about. Communicating with people -- that's what I get off on, so that certainly has helped.
"I never thought about it all, really. It was a very long, slow process, you know? It wasn't like overnight something happened. There was never any turning point. I've just been out there playing music. And mostly, I see it as the audience in front of me every night and how they slowly change and grow. It's been a process."
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