American Strings: An Evening with Ani DiFranco

American Strings an Evening with Ani Difranco

During the school year, Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts does a monthly showcase called American Strings.

Hosted by Bob Santelli, OSU director of popular music and performing arts, this series brings musicians from all corners of the country to Corvallis for an in-depth look at the role stringed instruments play in American music.

Prior to Covid, these musicians would come, in person. Today during the era of the plague, we get Zoom meetings…which actually do really have some benefits (like…I don’t have to trek down to Corvallis to take part).

Each event includes both a conversation and live performance from the invited artists, which is super cool.

It’s really intimate and informal.

On November 17, 2021, a very special guest was on the agenda. Somehow, someone managed to get Ani DiFranco as the feature.

Blow my whole damn mind!

For those folks who aren’t familiar, DiFranco is a musical legend, social justice advocate, and a queer icon. In addition to being actively anti-racist, staunchly advocating for criminal justice reform, and lending a voice to unions, she’s been an openly bisexual woman for as long as she’s had a platform, which is over 30 years now.

Her music is intensely eclectic with a compelling, signature style. It’s evolved over the years from a punkish folk sound to alternative rock to a unique and swaggering brand of her very own jazz.

She’s had a long string of collaborations with people ranging from folk legend story teller Utah Phillips, to funk master Maceo Parker, to the Purple One Himself.

She’s been an activist even longer than she’s been a musician and, if this isn’t enough, she also founded Righteous Babe Records way back in 1990 and it’s the most successful independent label in the world. (This is not an exaggeration.)

And she was in a Zoom meeting with Bob Santelli on my computer a few nights ago.

This, my friends, is incredibly badass.

Ani Difranco on a Zoom call, seated in a living room space surrounded by guitars and audio equipment
Ani Difranco on the American Strings Zoom Call

What’s She’s Been Up To

In typical Ani style, she’s been up to a whole lot of stuff.

At the center of the interview is the release her most recent album, number 22, Revolutionary Love, which dropped earlier this year, on January 29th, 2021.

When asked about the creation of the album, she pauses momentarily, then looks thoughtfully at the camera…

“It’s about a lot of things. Lots of political content, of course. I’m incredibly fascinated by the macro and the micro. The political and the personal.” she explains.

“The music is very layered.”

When tracing the development of Revolutionary Love, one can see that it was, indeed, a slow, interwoven process.

She had written a couple of the songs a few years ago, but then grew busy with the writing of her memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream.

Songwriting was pushed to the back burner as she focused on her book, along with the day-to-day reality of being a mom and wife who is also an active, touring musician who just also, by the way, leads the most successful independent label in the world.

Then the lockdown happened and the touring job just suddenly disappeared.

For the first time ever, she was finally “given permission” to stay home with her kids, which she was grateful for, however, she freely admitted, she loves her work and had quite a few people who rely on her for an income, which definitely caused some stress.

During this period, alternative income streams were the order of the day, so she started on several side hustles: a musical, a kid’s tv show, and Righteous Babe Radio to name a few. Many of these things are still actively being developed. During this period of intense activity, the rest of the songs bubbled to the surface.

Running parallel to all of this, Ani found herself as the producer of Long Time Gone, a compilation of work by nine incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists at the New Folsum prison in Sacramento, CA. This ten year collaborative effort, The Prison Music Project, was conceptualized and created by non-binary folk singer Zoe Boekbinder. The album was released in June of 2020, with all profits to benefit communities impacted by mass incarceration. The funds will be administered by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

About the Music

Upon being asked about the musical influences behind her distinct sound, she replies, in her usual, understated way, “Well, I took guitar lessons for a couple of years between the ages of 9 and 11…”

Much of what she plays, however, is of her own invention and experimentation. Whether it’s the taped on Lee Press-On nails that she regularly uses in her highly percussive, fingerstyle method or the very weird alternate tunings that just always somehow seem to work, all of these are the finely honed building blocks of her own unique musical presence.

When asked about her influences, she credits Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Phillips, of course, who contributed a great deal to her folksy, story telling activist side.

“I really listened to a lot of John Martyn. Are you familiar with him?” she looks up at the camera and smiles her trademark, broad smile. “I like him a lot.” Then she rattles off some other familiar names: Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega…

“There’s actually quite a variety. At some point I developed a real interest in jazz. Betty Carter is a big influence.”

In regards to content, the political will always be there.

And suddenly that familiar earnestness of hers shines through brightly, as she puts a call out for songwriters, poets, and other creative writers in the audience to get political about things.

Performance

[Note: I currently don’t have access to the recording of the interview, so I’m including pre-existing video of the songs she performed on this night. If OSU’s College of Liberal Arts makes the recording available, I’ll swap everything out.]

Ani started her performance with Do or Die, a politically charged vote motivator from her new album, Revolutionary Love, which she jokingly calls more a poem set to a groove.

Simultaneously from Revolutionary Love

DiFranco then switched her instrument up, electing to go with an acoustic guitar strung with rubber strings.

[Oh hey…I’ve played guitar since 1978, a substantial portion of my life, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that this is a new thing for me. I really love the warm sound it produces so I’m probably going to be experimenting a little bit here in the future.]

Allergic to Water from the album of the same name, published in 2014.

Play God from the album Binary, published in 2017

Changes tuning on the spot to some weird open arrangement, then reaches back a few years to play Swan Dive from 1998’s Little Plastic Castle

Wait! What?!

Bob Santelli invited her over as an artist in residence!!!! (is this a joke?! More to come on this, for sure.)

Afterglow

The next morning I woke up with her tickling my ear. So I decided to brush off my Ani collection and take it for a spin.

I was reminded of this song…which still floors me today. It’s called Pacifist’s Lament and it’s from her previously mentioned album, Binary. I was really thrilled to see that there’s a video for it.

You’re welcome.

Published by Jonah Sheridan Fenn

Nerd herder, word wrangler, working on the next chapter...

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