Revelling in Unraveling

Ani DiFranco is up to her butt in snow. Major storms have buried her hometown of Buffalo, NY, under a thick blanket of white, but as the self-effacing “little folk singer” admits, “My center of gravity is pretty low, so I’m used to it.” DiFranco is having some rare downtime; in a day or two she’ll be hitting the road for the Wreckage Unraveling Tour. Today, after a few phone interviews to support her new
Revelling/Reckoning double disc, she’s hanging around the house to work on a song–on the piano.

“I do play less guitar these days,” DiFranco says. “My current focus is the band and how to breathe space into the songs. That translates into me playing less. The music is funkier, the arrangements are tighter and sparser, so I have to fit the guitar into a smaller space.” The big question, she says, “is: how do you keep the intimacy going with a six-piece band? But I do pine for my guitar, which is probably why there’s so much acoustic stuff on the Reckoning disc.”

Revelling/Reckoning, which hit stores April 10, is DiFranco’s thirteenth album and one of her best, an incendiary mix of funky, band-driven tracks like “Ain’t That the Way” and “What How When Where (Why Who)” and more introspective, acoustic based tunes like “Grey,” one of the most poetic songs DiFranco has ever composed. There are also a number of subtle, melodic gems that could have come from the pens of Johnny Mercer or Sammy Cahn, if they’d had DiFranco’s gift for introspection.

“I’m not familiar with that era,” DiFranco says, “but I’m a sucker for a beautiful tune. After fifteen years, my melodic sense has gone beyond the vocabulary of verse-chorus-verse that I started with. As I grow older, I’m exploring different ways of structuring a song, and different melodic relationships. John Hassell [jazz trumpet player and guest artist on R/R] recently complimented me on my singing, and said I should record some torch songs, some old standards, but I was thinking–I’m a songwriter; if I want to sing a standard, I’ll write one.”

Besides expanding her musical palette, this is the first album DiFranco has recorded and produced in her new, self-owned studio, the Dustbowl. “I have a 24-track digital board. I can record my middle-of-the-night inspirations, or the whole band playing live, in a comfortably indigenous environment. I’m freer to experiment when it’s not on somebody else’s clock. It’s quite a change after years of odd little studios, surrounded by heavy-metal guys who think a chick with a guitar is odd.

“I did two intense five-day sessions [for the album] with the band last September, one here and one in Austin; then I took the tapes and it was me, me, me, and me, doing overdubs and recording the newer acoustic stuff. The pattern is that I’m usually working on the new record before the last one is released; I’m already writing songs for the next one, which will probably be another live album, since so many of the songs have been remade and remodeled with the band.”

Like the rest of her albums,
Revelling/Reckoning comes to listeners courtesy of DiFranco’s own Righteous Babe Records, a indie that’s now a mid-sized label with a growing roster of artists, including Arto Lindsey’s arty Brazilian music and a trip-hop second-line duo from New Orleans called Drums and Tuba. But the bulk of the label’s sales–now past three million–is product by DiFranco. The majors have stopped courting her: “All they can do is add more zeros onto our bottom line, but it will come at a cost that I can’t foresee, and am unwilling to pay.” And while radio play remains rare and videos are pretty much out of the question, DiFranco’s happy where she is, enjoying her mainstream presence without having to worry about losing her soul.

“I’ve been around long enough that the real me is finally starting to counteract the image the media has of me –the angry-girl stereotype. I was born with thin skin; all the blue veins show through, and it’s difficult to accept the fact that there are people forming opinions about who I am and what I do without ever having met me or seen a show, or having any firsthand relationship with me, basing their opinions on what they’ve heard or what some other person has written about me. It makes me claustrophobic; the stereotypes encroach on the real me.

“It may be unavoidable, since I’m situated outside the dominant discourse of society, but it’s problematic. I get asked a lot of questions that seem to be in another language, and trying to translate myself can be difficult. The common music-biz standard, for example, is that you go out on tour to support the new album. I go on tour because I’m a working musician, and I enjoy it. I don’t work like the industry model they’re presupposing. I feel like I’m Mr. Livingstone, perfectly happy in the jungle until Mr. Stanley arrives to ask me about my life. I’m sitting here cross-legged, knowing that what he takes to the people back home is gonna be more his thoughts than mine.”

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