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The Boston Phoenix Folk Tales

Ani DiFranco talks shop

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 7, 1999:  You don't have to be a fan of Ani DiFranco's music to appreciate her accomplishments. And you don't have to be aware of her accomplishments to be a fan of her music. The two aspects of, for lack of a better term, the DiFranco experience coexist independent of each other. There's Ani the songwriter/performer, a compelling if sometimes confusing composite of punk rebel, coffeehouse poet, and feminist crusader, armed with an acoustic guitar, confrontational attitude, and sensitive spirit. And there's DIY Ani, the maverick entrepreneur, the one-woman Fugazi who started her own little record company (Righteous Babe) when she was just 19 and has turned away major-label suitors ever since, even as she's sold hundreds of thousands of her 11 solo albums and found herself on the cover of everything from Spin to Ms. Either way, you have Ani the folk hero, a young woman from Buffalo who has come to represent something more than the sum of her songs and actions -- an artist whose example has taken on a special relevance in light of giant music-business mergers on the one hand and the grassroots marketing potential of the Internet on the other.

Later this month, DiFranco will add another small "first" to her ever-growing list of unique achievements when she becomes the first-ever indie artist to headline the home of the Celtics and Bruins. She's not going out in support of a new album, though Righteous Babe did just release Fellow Workers, the second of her collaborations with veteran folkie Utah Phillips. She's just doing what comes naturally -- i.e., touring, this time with former James Brown hornman Maceo Parker's band opening, and a female DJ (DJ Blues) spinning between sets. Although talking to the press is something she does less and less often, DiFranco offered the Phoenix the one Boston-area interview she was willing to do in advance of this tour.

Q: I think it's fair to say that you're the only artist without a major-label record deal who's ever headlined the FleetCenter. That must feel pretty good.

A: It's a great feeling -- indie girl is breaking into some non-indie territory. Especially because things are becoming so corporate now, with all these sorts of huge venue monopolies and stuff. But we draw certain lines that not a lot of other people are drawing in those kind of venues. If you have an audience, then the people who run the venues are willing to bend. And we make them bend all the time.

Q: In what ways?

A: One of the things we do is to continue to work with the independent promoters [Multistage Productions/Revolutionary Acts in Boston] who have booked me since the very beginning. And for a lot of those promoters, it's their first time working in these big venues. A lot of big promoters have lockouts on certain venues, so you have to go through them if you want to play at those venues. And they also have rules about ticket prices. But we just tell them that if they want this show, it's going to be different this time, and we work with our own promoters and try to keep ticket prices as low as we can.

Q: Does it worry you to see big corporations like SFX taking over so much of the concert business.

A: Totally. But it's just part and parcel of the whole corporate encroachment on every aspect of our lives. I mean, it's hard to hear music or eat food or buy anything that's not brought to you by some enormous multinational entity.

Q: From a philosophical point of view that can be pretty discouraging, but is it also starting to affect the way you do business from a practical perspective?

A: It's always been a problem. But it's just one of many. And it's a battle that's well worth fighting. Fortunately, it's something that the folks at Righteous Babe and my booking agent take care of. I just tend to show up and play when they tell me to play.

Q: But Righteous Babe is your deal?

A: It is. I'm there when I'm not on the road, which is pretty rarely. And I'm there in terms of a lot of the major decisions. And of course I make the records and I started the thing. But the other half of Righteous Babe is Scot Fisher, my manager, and he does the day-to-day work. It's his evil genius that's made it all happen on that end. He's a very political person. He sets the tone for how we do business.

Q: Have business responsibilities ever distracted you from making music?

A: It's totally distracting. It eats my head. Reinventing the wheel for yourself in order to just drive yourself around is a lot of work. But it's a really good feeling not to have to compromise yourself politically or ideologically in the ways that I would have to if I was going to play the corporate game. And being my own boss is very important to me because there are certain things I don't like to do. I don't do in-stores, and I don't go to radio stations to promote my records. And I don't do a lot of interviews these days, because I have limited time and energy and I'd rather being making art.

Q: There's a sense right now that by cutting out the need for manufacturing and distribution, the Internet may be offering more artists the opportunity to achieve the kind of independence you're talking about.

A: I'm not really the girl to talk to about the Internet. I don't even have an official Web site. I'm sort of an old-fashioned folksinger type. But I think a lot of what people are saying about the Internet may very well be true. I think the danger may be in looking at the Internet as an end in and of itself, rather than just as one tool.

For example, a woman was interviewing me over the phone from New York the other day, and she told me she wanted to get involved in the poetry scene. She wanted to know where the scene was, and, you know, I haven't been in New York in a long time, so I don't really know. Then she told me that she thought she'd just get on the Internet and look around. And I was like, 'The Internet? What the fuck does that have to do with the real world?' I told her to get on the train and go to the East Village and walk around. Go to poetry cafés. Talk to people. Go to a bar. Talk to the bartender. See if you can set up in the corner with a microphone. My sensibility has always been that driving around and playing, from skanky bar to skanky bar, and doing that incessantly and joyously for years, is going to get you a lot farther than a Web site is. But that's just been my experience.

Q: You'd already established yourself before the Internet became an issue, but don't you think it would have been a useful tool when you were just starting out?

A: This is going to sound goofy, but I honestly think that even if the technology had been there, I wouldn't have been interested. Because my focus was never on selling my records. Back when I had no money and I made my first little tape on cassette because I couldn't afford a CD, I was just focused on playing music for people and getting gigs. That's where all my inspiration came from. I would sell my tapes in bars, but I didn't give any thought to things like distribution for years. And even when it came time to deal with that stuff, I was so uninterested that I let my manager handle it. I just want to be able to get in my car, go to a room somewhere, and interact with the people I'm playing for.

Plus, there's the beauty of going to an independent record store where there's a real person behind the counter who might actually run the joint. Then you have human interaction, communication about art, networking, and all of those things that are so important. Because I think of art as a social act, not really a product.

Q: In other words, you don't have to focus on the business side of things in order to succeed.

A: Absolutely. I think there must be a way to have a job and make a living through art without becoming commercially focused. If there isn't, then just fucking shoot us all now.

Q: Still, you're the exception to the rule.

A: Well, getting back to this tour I'm about to do, look at Maceo [Parker], who we're bringing with us on the tour. He's been out there making incredible music for so many years. He makes records and sells them along the way, just like me and a lot of other touring, working musicians. But that's not the focus. I mean, every now and then somebody wants to take his music home with them on a CD, and that's available. But what he really does is make live music for people. He's out there on the road doing a job without playing the commercial game.

Q: You may not play the commercial game, but don't you think the music you make is commercial music?

A: Really?

Q: Well, if you can fill the FleetCenter, then . . .

A: How does that make it commercial music?

Q: Just in the sense that large numbers of people purchase your albums and are willing to pay to see you perform.

A: I don't know. I guess I wouldn't look at it that way. The idea of commercial music seems to connote something different to me. Ten years ago or, well, fuck, five years ago, I was playing in little bars and now I'm playing in bigger places. But I'm basically the same person doing the same thing that I was in the little bars. The music hasn't changed.

Q: True, but the way the music is perceived probably has.

A: Yeah, well, it was really interesting to me that the first time I was pictured on the cover of magazines, there was all this hubbub about Ani having sold out. It struck me how simplistic our ideas about independent music have become. Just because your picture is on the cover of a magazine doesn't mean you got there the same way everybody else who's ever had their picture on the cover of that magazine got there, or that your music is the same as every other musician who's been on the cover of that magazine. But I guess in this country we now equate independence with obscurity. It's one of those assumptions that we make that we don't even know that we're making, like equating passivity with femininity. And why does that have to be the case? Isn't it possible for someone to be independent without starving?

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