Over a career spanning nearly four decades, DiFranco has built a large, loyal fan base. Her advice to singer-songwriters hoping to do the same? “Lift every veil that you have—the ones you know you have and then the ones you don’t know you have. Just drop them all and be naked.” Photo by Jordi Vidal
“I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am,” wrote 19-year old Ani DiFranco in the liner notes of her debut album, released in 1990. “I do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus, whether the result is harmony or dissonance. . . . Should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. Just take what you can use and go on.”
Spending most of the ’90s on the road—often playing more than 200 shows per year—DiFranco went on to defy every music industry norm of the times. This was the pre-web era, when building a sustainable music career without the backing of a major label was almost impossible. But armed with her acoustic guitar and a die-hard work ethic, DiFranco slowly gained a devoted following of hundreds of thousands of fans, all while refusing a growing number of offers from record labels. Staying non-corporate and independent was a much bigger priority to her than fame and fortune, and as DiFranco boldly blazed her own path, she inspired legions of artists to follow in her do-it-yourself footsteps.
Today, DiFranco remains independent, outspoken, and prolific—not just as a songwriter, but as a guitarist. Using 50 different tunings, all discovered by ear, she fingerpicks, slaps, taps, pulls, plucks, and strums to accompany her silky voice, which is sometimes like a whisper in your ear, and at other times like an 18-wheeler hurtling past. Her lyrics, which are thick with metaphors and eclectic turns-of-phrase, run the gamut from deeply personal to overtly political.
Onstage, DiFranco is a force to be reckoned with. Exuding charisma, she is an animated, give-it-your-all performer. Cracking jokes between songs, flashing her joyful, wide-eyed grin, and talking to her audience as if they’re old friends, DiFranco remains a true folksinger in spirit, even though her music spans many genres, including pop, rock, jazz, funk, blues, hip hop, and spoken word.
PG recently sat down with DiFranco on a sunny afternoon in New Orleans, where she lives with her husband, engineer/producer Mike Napolitano, and their two young children. With her favorite guitars and songwriting journal by her side, we talked about Binary—her 19th studio album on her own Righteous Babe Records—songwriting, and all things guitar.
What is special to you about Binary?
Well, first and foremost, the crew. Lucky for me, I’ve been in this game long enough and I’ve met some amazing people. My core band, Todd [Sickafoose, bass] and Terence [Higgins, drums], are just super uplifting musical souls. It’s very much an expression that we make together—we interpret the songs together. And Jenny Scheinman [violin] and Ivan Neville [organ, clavinet, bass, piano, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer] are both amazing musicians. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with them more over the last few years, and so I roped the two of them into the core of this record, too.
How much did you instruct what the other musicians contributed?
I think when I was younger I hadn’t yet learned that for someone you’re working with to try and be in the moment, while also trying to do that thing you told them you wanted to hear, is a conflict. So I’ve come to a place in my life where I just want to work with people who bring it, and I don’t want to say a thing. I have that kind of relationship with everyone on this record. Then, of course, Mike [Napolitano] recorded it and Tchad Blake mixed it—just all these people who could not be better at what they do. So it makes delegating excruciatingly easy.
I see that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver contributed vocals to your song “Zizzing.” How did that collaboration come about?
We know each other from working together on [singer-songwriter] Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera called Hadestown. I wanted a chorale thing, meaning voices that were not just singing backup. I do that a lot with my bullet mic and I was just like, “Enough of me and my bullet mic!” So I called Justin. I love his sound.
Can you describe your bullet mic? Is that how you get your telephone-voice sound on your albums?
Yeah. It’s actually an old rotary phone handset my friend Scott put a 1/4" jack on instead of the phone cord. It’s super cool. It’s the sound of all of my records. It’s my backup singers. And there’s just something about the sound of an old telephone. But my near and dear, like Mike and Todd, they give me shit. They’re like, “Put down the phone, Ani!” [Laughs.] But I swear I’d record all my vocals through it if they would let me.
Did you use any new guitars or new gear on this record?
Well, not new per se. The guitar that I mainly record with these days is the guitar that my mentor, Michael Meldrum, gave me. [The late musician was DiFranco’s childhood guitar teacher and made one album for her label.] It was his last guitar. We call it the “GibsMart.” It’s a Gibson guitar with a Martin top, because it got stepped on. So it’s like a cyborg guitar, but it just—you play it, and it’s just like, yeah.
I’ve always played Alvarez guitars, and at some point, my husband, Mike, was like, why don’t you try an old guitar? So now I play some old Gibsons, even onstage. Because you can have a conversation on a level that you can’t necessarily have with a guitar that doesn’t have a soul yet. But this guitar, the GibsMart—everybody that comes through this studio records on it now. It records great. I’ve done shoot-outs with this guitar and every other fuckin’ one I own, and it’s like yep, that’s the one.
DiFranco’s 19th studio album was recorded by her producer and husband Mike Napolitano and mixed by Tchad Blake. Guests include R&B horn giant Maceo Parker, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.
Can you give us a few examples of alternate tunings that you used on this particular record?
Let’s see … [flips through songwriting journal]. “Zizzing” is in a tuning I revived from years ago. It’s E–B–B–G–B–D. It’s the tuning from “Not a Pretty Girl” and some other older songs I wanted to put back in the set. I always find if you have at least a handful of songs that are in that tuning, or in that tuning family, it makes it easier to keep them in the set lists. And that’s the same tuning for “Alrighty.” And “Even More” is in D–A–D–G–A–C. The C on the top—that’s been my new jam for a while now.
Tuning and re-tuning in front of an audience can add a whole extra level of stress. Do you feel that way?
Yeah. It’s a stupid idea. [Laughs.] Having a guitar tech is what enabled me in going way too far in the open tuning direction.
For someone who makes up her own tunings, and who is mostly self-taught, how do you remember all your tunings and hand positions?
I try to be organized and write down the tunings and the chord charts before I forget them. But I don’t always succeed. It always happens after the fact. But hopefully not too long!
Did you experiment with tunings early on in your playing?
Well, somebody showed me DADGAD, probably Michael. And I thought it was cool. And from there, I just started messin’ with it. And I think also what helped, or made it all seem plausible, was that I wasn’t really a schooled player. I took lessons from between the time I was 9 and 11. And then other things took over and I put down the guitar. And when I picked it back up, I had forgotten most of what I’d learned. So then I just started playing in my natural way, which is just making shapes and then remembering those shapes.
So you are an “untrained” musician, yet a very accomplished one. What would you say to a musician who believes that a player who doesn’t know scales or music theory isn’t legit?
I would say, “What are your favorite records? I betcha that most of the people on those records don’t know that stuff.” I mean, name all the great records of our coveted popular music history, and I betcha that most of those people are unschooled.
The title track of this record, “Binary,” combines a fun and funky groove with rather deep thoughts. How did that song come about?
Well, it’s just a poem, really. It started as a poem. And then I put a groove to it so that it wasn’t a show downer. [Laughs.] And it’s really just one little groove. I mean, sometimes, I feel like, fuck it, who needs a chorus, or a bridge, or whatever? Songs don’t always have to abide by structure. As far as the lyrics, the song starts with “in the blue glow of gizmos,” which is where most of us are residing these days—in isolation, interacting with machines. It’s like this rabbit hole of … lack of relationship. So for a while, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea that consciousness is binary. The binary structure is actually underlying everything. From our atoms, to the positive and the negative, to the male and the female, to the dark and the light, to the life and the death—everything is a relationship of two things. And that kind of underlies this record in a lot of ways: the idea that everything is a dialogue, really.