“Walking into a guitar store was almost an act of courage. They would look you up and down and say ‘Hi honey, are you here to get something for your boyfriend?’”
Born in 1970, Ani DiFranco was already the ballsy type as a kid in Buffalo, N.Y. She picked up a guitar at 9, was living on her own by 15 and put out her first album, "Ani DiFranco," on her own label, Righteous Babe, at 20. She pounded out a series of acclaimed records that were half‑diatribe, half-confession, like 1995'S "Not a Pretty Girl," and became known for her intense, revival‑like shows. Her music combined folk's intimacy and punk's rebellion in a sound that foreshadowed the now‑popular pissed‑off‑woman genre. Underground types told fellow outsiders, and the name DiFranco and the label "stompy‑booted, butch folk‑singer chick," as she puts it, became one. She's also become Little Miss Indie Cred for her refusal to sign with a major label. DiFranco's sharp‑tongued songs have always created a strong We Are Women vibe, but now she's noticing more men in her audiences. Her advice to the brave? "To be a male at my shows, you have to be able to handle that kind of energy without being intimidated."
What was your first gig like?
I started playing gigs, I guess, when I was 9 years old, and I've been doing it ever since. My friend Mike, who was probably 30 at the time, was a songwriter and guitar player, and used to play in bars around Buffalo. We met at a music store when I bought my guitar, when I was 9. We started sort of hanging out ‑ he was teaching me these Beatles songs. He started bringing me to his shows, and I played with him. For me, it was just a shit load of fun to be hanging, playing music. For him it was kind of a novelty to have this little girl around singing duets.
What did your parents think when you said that you were going into music?
Even when I was very young, I didn't have a very tight relationship with my parents. I was very independent, and my family sort of imploded real early on. I was living on my own when I was 15. I think my parents' approval or disapproval ended at, "Is she doing OK?" "Is she out of jail?" "Is she feeding herself?" I think that they thought that as long as those things were answered yes, then that was fine.
What criticism of your music has hurt you the most?
[Thinks a long time] My own self‑criticism, which I'm ever so good at. Probably what hurts the most with my relationship with the media or music critics is the lack of attention to the music. Mostly what people write about is my independence ‑ the "phenomenon" of little me and my audience, and the scene that I'm supposed to have inspired. Oddly enough, the discussion rarely gets to the music or the songwriting. According to the perception of the press, the actual work that I do is incidental.
Was there a specific moment in your career when you felt alienated simply because you are a female?
For many, many years, simply walking into a guitar store was almost an act of courage, because it was very much a boys' club. They would kinda look you up and down, and say, "Hi, honey, are you here to get something for your boyfriend?" Now you walk into a guitar store and it's full of teenage girls.
Are male groupies different from female ones?
For me, definitely. Because I'm a young woman who sings about my life and attempts to empower or inspire myself through my music, other young women get vicariously empowered or inspired by it. At my shows, there's a heavy girl vibe. There's always a feeling of strength and, hopefully, community among women. But what that often translates into is very overbearing, very demanding ‑ almost carnivorous ‑ women that come at me. Often the women are much more bold than the men at my shows ‑ which is an interesting reversal of the whole rock & roll dynamic.
Do you find being a role model for other women confining?
I don't feel like the superhero that sometimes I'm made out to be, but I guess I do feel responsible to other young women, and I do feel fortunate .... I don't know if fortunate is the right word. I guess I feel like, yeah, there's a pressure there, and I'm up for it. And I'll just try to be as honest as I can and try to hold up under it.
What does music allow you that no other medium would?
It allows me a means to try and teach myself about my life. I've sort of invented this job for myself where I write these little letters to me that end up as songs. I usually present myself with a problem ‑ something that happened ‑ and then I remind myself of what I did and what the result was. Then I suggest what I could have done better so that I won't be such a pathetic fuck and next time rise to the occasion [laughs]. It's a very strange, convoluted, organic process, but by standing up onstage and trying to sing my little casual manifestoes, I'm slowly learning the stuff of what to do during the day.
Like you're telling yourself what to do?
Totally. I don't write with a grand notion of presenting myself with ultimate truths or some crazy shit like that. I often write almost subconsciously. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm trying to tell myself until months later and something I wrote about in my song will happen. I used to think it was spooky. Like, woo, how did I foretell that? But I don't think there's anything remarkable about that. I think that subconsciously we know so much that we're not consciously pondering, and that my subconscious is trying to guide my conscious.
How has being a musician affected your relationships?
I put all my personal experiences into songs and admit them to copious amounts of strangers. So it is very difficult for the poor unfortunate people in my life who see themselves portrayed through my perspective onstage. I know that it takes a very strong person to stick around a chick like me who has such a big mouth.
How do you feel about the attention others pay to your looks?
In general, there is certainly a double standard when you're a "woman in rock" or a chick singer. People are always talking about your hair and your lover.
Do you think it affects how you dress?
It's funny, because the pressure around me is not so much from the media but really from the fans. If I wear something feminine or something that could be construed as sexy or in any way revealing, then that's sort of condemned by the hard‑core, you‑go‑girl contingent. For me, most of the pressure comes from fans to uphold my image as stompy‑booted, butch folk‑singer chick.
[Mimicking a fan] "Your stompy boots are too stylish."
[Mimicking herself] "I know! How do you like me now!"
So what is your footwear of choice onstage?
Much to my delight, shoes have gotten stupider and stupider in recent years. I'm into crazy, clunky platforms, just so the guys don't tower over me too much onstage. Every now and then, they creep up to my mike, and I suddenly look like a midget.