Once upon a time, in the land of corporate America, there was a giggling girl who had a dream that her popularity as a musician would not owe itself to partnerships with profit-minded conglomorates. And so she stuck her tongue out at the powerhouses of big business, packed her car with a box of home-made tapes and hit the road.
Ani DiFranco released her first album independently in 1991 when she started her label Righteous Babe Records. At the time she was barely 20, although she had been writing and performing since her early teens, having reportedly written over 100 songs. Since then she has released 13 albums, selling over three million in total, and she has been nominated for four Grammy awards. The phone number to Righteous Babe Records is “1-800-On-Her-Own.”
But it is live performance, even more than writing and recording, that has been DiFranco’s main artistic focus. In this respect she is more travelling preacher than singer-songwriter, gaining converts with each live performance. A woman whose politics place her at odds with big business, DiFranco has always aimed at resisting the categorization typical of Top 40 hype. Intensely critical of the media, her popularity as a musical artist has not grown through the wheelings and dealings of press agents and A-list management. Rather it is the home-grown, personal success of her live performances and the tremendous amount of word-of-mouth publicity she receives that guarantees her a dedicated fanbase.
Her success is no accident; a live evening with Ani Difranco is an evening to be remembered. DiFranco exudes an innocent, winsome charisma while simultaneously delivering an incredibly polished performance. She expresses her music with an honest, vulnerable intensity. As a performer, she harnesses all her energy to create the emotional connection between herself, her songs and her audience.
Her songs all begin as very personal pieces of poetry, and she shares them with the audience with the shy trust of someone who has given a friend a particularly revealing diary passage to read. This trust fosters a sense of intimacy. Audiences are attracted by the personal revelations of someone who is articulate, talented and unapologetically bold in celebrating deviance from social norms. Her performances are a musician’s dream, celebrating the convergence of the universal and the personal. Through revealing so much of her own rich inner life, she reaches the audience on a very deep level.
DiFranco spends two-thirds of every year playing live gigs, travelling across the nation and the world taking on audiences one night at a time. According to her recollections on Friday it had been twelve or thirteen years since her first performance in Boston. During an early break in her set on Friday April 5 at the Orpheum, she said, “I remember when I first pulled up here in my lil’ van with my one guitar, they were like ‘Where’s the band?’”
Over the years the size of both the venues and the band grew, until she was touring with an entire brass section. But eventually all that company must have gotten to the girl who thrives on making a personal connection with her audience. So out she went, on the road alone again, like the old days. This time instead of an intimate coffeehouse set for a few uninitiated, she commanded the attention of an audience of thousands.
As both DiFranco and her audience have grown, her music has evolved as well. Lately her music has become more complex with moody, meditative undertones. Her new material on Revelling/Reckoning is a gritty yet melodic collection of songs with spare, carefully chosen accompaniment. The effect is a more fully realized marriage of poetry and music than much of her earlier work.
Her songs have become lyrical gems, with the emotional twists and turns that have always been her great joy to express to live audiences. She is big on poems themselves these days, performing them straight up, new and old, at all of her recent concerts. She prefaced her newest song, inaugurated Friday night, by reading two short poems by the poet Lucille Clifton. The new song is provocative, and incredibly verbose, jam packed with the kind of raw melodic vocal preaching that DiFranco fans have come to expect. Before reading Clifton’s poem Ani grinningly declared with typical candor, “I’ve always used poems as food, and I’ve been writing poetry before I started growing pubic hairs.”
DiFranco fans themselves have become something of a phenomenon. Like many popular musicians, DiFranco has developed a cult follwing, but hers is particularly eclectic and notorious. A friend, before leaving for the show, changed her AOL IM away message to “Me, Ani and 4,000 screaming lesbians” a reference to Ani’s core audience of non-conformist young women. But looking around the Orpheum, there indeed were an awful lot of young women in head scarves, but there were a remarkable amount of men of all ages, and more than a few women of indeterminable age dressed in their Chanel best.
And she continues to gain converts. Ultimately DiFranco speaks to everyone who has ever felt the crunch and pressure of society and its mores. DiFranco transports her audience to a place beyond cultural constraints, where healing and catharsis co-exist naturally, in the easy space between words and solo guitar.