Aquarian Weekly 5/3/02
Ani Difranco Interview
Unedited Transcript Back Stage At Mid-Hudson Civic Center, Poughkeepsie, NY – 4/21/02
Photo by Albert Sanchez
I consider Ani Difranco a fellow soldier in these ridiculous, sometimes humored, but always-rewarding sieges on the elusively hidden truths of our silly human collective. Since the night this magazine sent me to an old theater in Portchester, NY to watch her perform nearly seven years ago, I’ve been a fan. That night she spoke to me like few other artists have. I’ve seen her play a half-dozen times since, and each one brings a new experience, always effusive and brutally honest.
Over 12 years and 15 records, her biting lyrics usually reflected my own well-crafted cynicism of a politically ambiguous world bloated with lethal doses of sweet propaganda primed to reduce us to merrily marching mindless hordes. But along with being a kindred spirit, DiFranco’s independence in the manipulative landscape of creative distribution has been a great inspiration for a young author butting heads with publishing icons. More than once I’d used her name as less noun than verb, as in: “These fuckers keep this shit up and I’m going to Ani this book”; to which I did, happily.
So when we met on a chilly, overcast spring day in the industrial pall of Poughkeepsie, NY, in the bowels of the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, set on the shores of New York’s famous river of simpler times when the folk singer might earn a cup of java from a passing stranger for spinning yarns of heartbreak, Ms. DiFranco and myself had ourselves a chat. Two admitted lunatics dissecting the greater good.
on a morning beatific in its indian summer breeze on the day that america fell to its knees after strutting around for a century without saying thank you or please
– ani difranco
james campion: This stanza of the poem you are working on presently, and performed so movingly at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago, hits home for me, because it succinctly projects what I’ve been writing about for years concerning the U.S. presence in the Middle East and our inability to fully understand the race issues and religious issues that are prevalent in India, Pakistan or what is currently transpiring in Israel.
ani difranco: Except to exacerbate them. (laughs)
jc: Correct. So, I guess my first question would be; is this something you normally attempt to touch upon in songs, instead of blatantly, as in this particularly striking line in the poem?
ad: Well yeah. You know I really don’t have a mind for the hyper details of foreign policy, or of what the stupid white men are doing, but I do have some basic ideas and feelings and impressions. I would make a very bad columnist like yourself. I write in metaphor and feel compelled to express things like the United States exploitation of not just the Middle East, but also the “Third World”. You know, our capitalist selfishness in terms of using the world’s resources and labor and just manipulating weaker countries for strategic and economic reasons.
Whatever, I mean, that’s a very, sort of, obvious and basic thing to say, but somehow I feel the need to keep saying it.
jc: As a folksinger, and you always refer to yourself as a folksinger, which I find enlightening, because throughout the centuries folksingers or minstrels used music and used dance to comment on social mores or the social wrongs of the time. So, do you feel as a folksinger you can tap into those same things and not be sitting on CNN with your suit and tie and pointing the literal finger?
“We’ve had our citizenship stolen from us and had consumerism foisted upon us, and at this point, ironically enough, there is a reinvestment in the belief in government, a reinvestment of energy and involvement that is the only thing that can recreate or salvage our ‘democracy’.“
ad: (chuckles) Well, CNN would probably be an impossible place to tap into anything real since all of the information is completely co-opted and controlled by corporate forces. So, yeah, it is a much better venue to pick up a guitar and walk into a bar and talk to people one on one.
I love my job; touring and traveling and making art in very common, open spaces and feeling a totally free to talk about political or social issues. Music is a very effective way to communicate and inspire.
jc: Yes, but do you believe there is still a chance for grass roots movements?
ad: Ah! It’s happening as we speak. You know it. It’s all around us. I feel a new sense of optimism out there. We may even be surfacing from the 80s’, (chuckles) culturally speaking, a youth culture. Of course I have a bit of a slanted perspective from standing at my microphone, in terms of what cross section of young folks I encounter, but I am impressed and hopeful with the kind of political will of the young people now. They recognize that they were born into…
jc: A fixed game.
ad: Yeah, a homogenized culture, and wanting to dissect that. We were probably born just early enough to know a time before
jc: I’m 39.
ad: (pointing to herself) 31. But, you know what I mean? There was a time when you could actually buy a record at the local record store.
jc: Wow, records.
ad: Yeah, records!
jc: (laughs) Vinyl? No way.
ad: (bold voice) You remember when there used to be records?!
jc: You’re taking me back.
ad: Yeah, (laughing) I think that young people are beginning to question that sort of corporate super structure. You know, all of the protests in New York and Seattle and Prague. I find those all very inspiring.
jc: So, you’re optimistic.
ad: I am optimistic.
jc: You’ve mentioned Ralph Nader at several of your shows these past couple of years. I voted for Ralph the first time around. My mother was a huge Nader fan back in his wars against the BIG corporate lie, automobile manufactures and all. I never forgot that.
ad: That’s interesting.
jc: Sure I vote for people with no chance. I voted for John Anderson in 1980. I had high hopes for a third party candidate to arise for a long time, but I have my doubts now. Do you have any confidence that politics is really any way to get to the crux of any issue?
ad: Absolutely, now more than ever. I think that is of primary importance. I mean, I was ten years old in 1980, so by the time I was coming to any kind of adult consciousness the political system was a corrupt, capitalist club of elite corporate CEO’s. The whole Reaganomics, and the whole Reagan/Bush regime, we are still living under, and I think young people completely divested themselves from their government. There was such a disconnection.
“I’m not really interested in Jesus as a “walking on water” kind of guy, but as a revolutionary, as a guy who was trying to free the slaves, fuckin’ A.”
jc: There’s a deep seated cynicism. I know. I’m there. My work reflects everything is more or less fucked in some irreversible way.
ad. Right on.
jc: But it’s actually refreshing to hear you be so positive.
ad: Well, the cynicism is well founded. We’ve had our citizenship stolen from us and had consumerism foisted upon us, and at this point, ironically enough, there is a reinvestment in the belief in government, a reinvestment of energy and involvement that is the only thing that can recreate or salvage our “democracy”. You know, I just don’t see a lot of young people getting involved in party politics, trying to infuse themselves into the system without
jc: Like in the 60s’.
ad: Yeah. I mean, why would we begin voting again, first of all, if there is nobody to vote for? So, not only do we have to get out and vote; we have to get out and run. I have a friend I was just talking to last night who spent the last week in D.C. meeting with all these representatives and senators about this Yukka Mountain in Nevada. They’ve already spent four billion dollars on the nuclear waste all over the country, and they have this plan where they want to ship it all to Nevada and dump it in an Indian Reservation.
jc: That’ll work.
ad: (sarcastically) Yeah, and it’ll never leak and it’ll be fine. No problems. So, here is my friend Susan attending meeting after meeting after meeting with all these senators, because the Bush administration passed it and its going to go to vote, and she’s trying so hard to get these people to vote “no”. And when I spoke to her last week she was saying, (dreary tone) “Okay, I’m going to D.C. and I’m fixin’ to get really disillusioned and I’ll probably come back as a car bomber ”
jc: (laughs) Into the mouth of the beast.
ad: (excited) But after days and days of meetings, she called last night and it was so great to talk to her because she was re-inspired at the possibility of one person to make a difference. You know, these senators just vote on what their aids say they should vote on, and they’ve only been meeting with the Energy Commission, Officially Sanctioned Report. You know how it is. But she felt that her presence really had effectiveness that week.
Photo by Albert Sanchez
If people had any idea how much power they have, shit could really change. If we just started exercising it. So, yeah, I am longing for an inspiration of progressive young people to change the system, and really get inside the system, and not just working from without.
jc: That’s a huge leap from disillusionment to optimism; because I can tell you when I was younger I had this rabid anti-authority thing that was less anger than fear. And I think it was born from this fear of blind patriotism, because when I was a kid my mother was on the “If there’s a draft we’re moving to Canada” thing.
ad: (laughing) Yeah, right!
jc: My mother is a devout Catholic, and I went to Catholic school, but I never considered going into a room with any priest by myself. Anyway, what I’m getting at is when you write in your songs and speak at some of your shows; it is from a humanist standpoint, politically. You have this artistic individualism about you. So how did you react to the whole flag waving, “God Bless America” fervency that we just passed through? Not to demean why people lean on the group dynamic, but sometimes individual thought can be sucked out by this conglomerate – “Unless your with us you’re against us” mentality that happens when a nation is wounded like our nation was wounded on 9/11. Did you feel at all ostracized from the vox populi?
ad: Well, that’s nothing new. The day that I stop feeling that way I’ll have to start questioning myself. (laughs) But yeah, it’s just so sickeningly sad the way calculated propaganda and these huge media outlets could twist the idea of patriotism. They’ve done it forever. Completely inverting it. Go back to McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities? When it is the most American activity of all to express yourself, to fight the government when it’s wrong. Democracy is about, “If you don’t like your government, change it. If you can’t change it have a fucking revolution. They wrote it right in the constitution.
jc: Ready your muskets I always say.
ad: (laughs) Yeah! There’s some quote, I wish I could remember which Founding Father said it.
jc: Jefferson’s “Let’s have a revolution every ten years.”
ad: Oh, I don’t know, that’s a good one.
jc: I’m paraphrasing, but he did say it.
ad: You see? There is always this, “hear what you want to hear – see what you want to see”. They can twist things like the constitution or the Bible into any kind of oppressive tool.
jc: But isn’t the Bible an oppressive tool?
ad: It depends on how you read it; same as any document. They are just tools to be used, they can be used against us as well as for us, but there are certainly many positive messages in the Bible. I think Jesus
jc: Ah, love and forgiveness.
ad: Sure, I think reading any document literally, especially something like the Bible, which is all metaphor, is so misguided. You know, I’m not really interested in Jesus as a “walking on water” kind of guy, but as a revolutionary, as a guy who was trying to free the slaves, fuckin’ A. There it is right in the Bible: “Slaves bad.” (laughs) “Love your brother!”
“We’re still living in a segregated society. It’s not on the books, but defacto economic segregation is as affective, or more so, than any signs that you could put up over a restroom.”
jc: They took care of that guy.
ad: But there was some quote I read somewhere recently, it might have been from Jefferson, that “to not criticize your government, especially in times of war, when your government is perpetrating violence on another people, to not be critical is an act of treason.
jc: I think it might have been John Adams.
ad: Yeah, maybe I should shut-up.
jc: No, those guys were all maniacs. I love those guys. If you read about the Founding Fathers, and get out of all the textbook stuff we were taught as kids, they were downright radical, quite diverse. This country didn’t get to a point where you could speak freely for I mean when you discuss McCarthyism it was in the 1950’s, not the 1850’s. And that gets back to the original question about your art, because I believe the only true voice left is through free expression. Art may be the only thing not co-opted or annexed in a fluent dialogue between people and ideas, but every once and awhile when someone gets close to the bone, so to speak, they try to manipulate their words or tear pieces of them away like a Jesus or a Gandhi.
ad: I think that every room is a perfect venue for political change, whether it’s a theater with a stage in it or a whether it’s a classroom or whether its the halls of justice. I’ve been engaged in conversations recently where people ask me, “What do you think is more important? What’s more effective? What’s more legitimate statement: To make radical art or to try and get in the system?” And for me it’s Yes! Yes! All of it. Whatever you’re fucking good at. I used to dance; I went to art school for years. I love to paint. But there was something about music and the inclusion of words, the literal communication through words that I really felt was my most effective way to make change, to inspire people, to become myself. But for somebody else it might be raising their kid and teaching him or her to be a respectful, loving, thoughtful questioning person. There’s infinite numbers of ways we can change the world.
There’s some kind of African proverb that says; “If you don’t think one person can make a difference, spend a night in a room with a mosquito.” So I think art and music are effective, but you know sometimes rock stardom has a lot of glory attached to it, you get this applause at the end of your working day.
jc: The immediate feedback, which you never get as a writer. (laughs) I’m envious of that.
ad: Yeah, I feel I got a good job. But there are an infinite number of ways that are as important and effective and possible.
jc: Let me touch on the literal for a minute. I just read a piece, and I want to get to the thing you wrote in The Nation, but I know you had a problem with the David Letterman Show regarding your choice of song, “Subdivision”.
ad: (derisive chuckle) Mmmm.
Photo by Scot Fisher
jc: The song begins with the line: “White people are so scared of black people.” That speaks to me as a writer, because I feel the act of philosophy is to hit them with something strong in the lead, and once you get their attention, only then can you start spinning your philosophy. Is that where you were going there, or are you saying it literally?
ad: Well, yeah, that was it, but that’s not usually my thing. I don’t usually lead that way. That was different for me as a writer, but I wanted to get people’s attention because I just feel as though the great liberation from segregation is a lie. We’re still living in a segregated society. It’s not on the books, but defacto economic segregation is as affective, or more so, than any signs that you could put up over a restroom.
And therein lies the very complex, radical systematic criticism. To look at a lie like “separate but equal” and say, well, okay, we attacked the separate part, but that wasn’t the problem. I’ve read a little bit about the ending of segregation and how Thurgood Marshall and the Civil Rights leaders were unable to really approach the “equal” thing. There’s no fucking way with the amount of power involved.
jc: Just let us have the legal thing.
ad: Yeah, so attacking it on the separate side was about all they could swing at the time, and bless their hearts for giving us that much, but now we need to keep the pressure on, and keep looking at things like our evacuated cities, and applying words like racism to it. You know, “Where did all the white people go?” In Detroit and Buffalo, my hometown. And how can you, in good conscience, set up a tax structure where the suburban tax bases are not one with the city. So the suburban schools are rich and full of computers and the city schools don’t have pencils. Economic segregation is
jc: It’s a class system, but you rarely hear it spoken directly that way. Again, I refer to centuries ago, how human beings sectionalize themselves economically. Well, human beings? I’ve written it time and again; women are not really responsible for these atrocities, these are men holding the oars on this boat ride. I call it the Big Dick God Theory.
ad: (laughs) Yes.
jc: Men perpetuate all these hatreds against each other and women have never really had a voice, which comes back to you. As an artist you’re empowered not in the sense of “Take a look at me I’m a woman”, but “Take a look at me I’m a human.”
ad: It’s interesting, because since the beginning, since I started writing little poems, of course my identity as a woman has informed my writing. Everything from how I perceive the world to the experiences I have, to, I think the way I play the guitar; somewhat less linear. I don’t think I’ve ever soloed in my life. I hear music in circles and I feel power dynamics amongst people only as a woman can, and yet, like you say, I am writing about being a human and trying to connect, trying to re-connect us across gender lines, as we have been socialized to not do. But speaking to those gender dynamics has brought me so much defensive reaction over the years, so many of the “She’s an angry, militant, man-hater”.
jc: Well, of course. That’s’ how you deal with the suppressed, by defining those who speak their mind as pissed and subversive.
ad: Yeah, it’s interesting to me, that sort of knee-jerk reaction to having something pointed at is uncomfortable for some people Wait, where were we ? (laughs)
“I am writing about being a human and trying to connect, trying to re-connect us across gender lines, as we have been socialized to not do. But speaking to those gender dynamics has brought me so much defensive reaction over the years, so many of the ‘She’s an angry, militant, man-hater’.”
jc: (laughs) I’m reminded of your line “When I move it’s a women’s movement” or, and I’m paraphrasing, “What’s my hair color today? It’s my statement. What kind of shoes I’m wearing. That’s my new statement.” And of course it’s going to happen when you reach a certain level of pop stardom, or pop notoriety, not that you’re a pop star, but if you’re going to be on the cover of a magazine, there’s going to be this scrutiny about fashion for some kind of statement.
jc: Wow, you say that with such derision.
ad: Well, that’s a little sorry by-product of my job, to be turned from a three dimensional creature to a two-dimensional creature for the purposes of a magazine. Ugh! And expending a little too much energy along the way trying to counter-act that, trying to insist on being yourself against this sort of energy of oversimplification and projection, but I find if you just stick to it, after about ten years the stereotype doesn’t hold up next to the reality eventually.
jc: You outlast it.
jc: Which you’re doing now, I think.
ad: Yeah, I’m feeling as though I’m rising above it. I have seen over the years the media dictate to my audience, not just me, but also my audience: “This is chick music for Grrrls.”
jc: (laughs) Yeah.
ad: “There’s the sea of screaming Grrrls.” And then I get up on stage and say; “No. They were wrong about us.” First of all, please stop screaming, because it will be much better for our conversation, for our dialogue. Second of all, just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m not a human and this is not about us and them. This is not a special interest group that I am speaking to or from. (laughs)
jc: You’re not preaching to the choir, per se.
ad: It’s the idea of women as being some kind of special interest group, that kind of pre-supposition that writers write from that they don’t even recognize, where men’s experience is universal and women’s experience is threatening. (laughs)
jc: (laughs) But you’re still speaking as a women though. You can’t separate it completely.
jc: For instance, your comments in The Nation about the media was quite biting, because of how you’re perceived. I always find myself defending the media, because it’s the first instinct to blame the messenger. I agree in part to CNN being a corporate run medium, like the New York Times etc. This is why I write for publications like the Aquarian Weekly, where they allow me to write what I want, and most of it is syndicated anyway, so I can get through the muck somehow and cheat my way into the mainstream.
However, you cannot be completely objective in any way. People are always crying for the media to be objective, taking the human side out of it. I spent time in the Middle East, so its difficult not to defend Israel’s right to defend itself. How George Bush can come out and decry Israel’s rights to defend itself in measured ways, when this country has gone halfway across the globe to char children is beyond me. So, if you cannot separate yourself from your outward experience, you certainly cannot alter the inward. You can’t separate your vision as a woman, if you’re looking at things through a woman’s eyes.
ad: And consciously doing so. Admittedly doing so. I’m not going to pretend for you that my life is like that of a man’s, not even for the purposes of making nice-nice music. And to speak on the fallacy of objectivity, if you believe in objectivity, then your reading of any kind of media is going to be misguided.
jc: Of course, you only see it from your own standpoint. (laughs)
Photo by Scot Fisher
ad: And if you don’t realize you’re listening to one person talking about themselves (laughs) as much as the world around them, you’re going to be mislead.
jc: Where do you get your news from?
ad: The Nation. I’ve got a subscription to the Nation. Ms. Magazine. You know, the progressive publications.
jc: Public radio?
ad: I don’t get it with radio so much. I live on a bus most of the time, and I steer pretty clear of the TV. I can’t watch TV. It depresses me or enrages me.
jc: (laughs) Thank God it does that for me.
ad: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, right.
jc: It has nothing positive, and for that I am grateful.
ad: No attraction there, whatsoever.
jc: The stress box.
jc: Do you feel isolated “on the bus”? You mentioned it, so I was just thinking that I mean, do you feel that you get to see America while you’re touring, or do you just see bus stops and hotels rooms and train stations and airports.
ad: Yes. I am very isolated in a way. Not only do I live on a bus, but I get off the bus and come into rooms like this and I spend the day here until I get on stage and then I come back here, and then I’m back on the bus. So touring was not like it was ten years ago when I was driving myself, sleeping on people’s couches and in people’s dorm rooms, you know that kind of scratch and sniff your way around the country.
The whole nature of touring has changed very much, but I travel further than I’ve ever traveled and even from standing on stages all over the country and all over the world I’m grateful for being acquainted with the people and the energy and the reactions of audiences, and I can feel the political climate and the cultural landscapes change beneath my feet.
I was on tour in late September last year when everyone else was canceling tours and locking their doors and it was fascinating to be standing onstage in a room full of unified thought, not literally unified, but where we’re all thinking about something, to feel the pressure every night to speak to it, to feel the hunger, to feel the fear, to feel the incredible catharsis of the audience to want to hear something other than the CNN-speak. So I do feel like I have a unique opportunity to have a finger on the pulse through traveling a lot, but through tiny vignettes. I see a lot of friends, but for very short periods of time.
jc: And of course that effects how you view the greater picture.
ad: Sure, sure.
jc: What are your overall thoughts about what happened on 9/11?
ad: I was here that day, well not here, but in New York that day.
jc: You were.
ad: Well, I was mid-town. So I was out of the line of fire, but for me it was all the smoke at the end of the avenues and the exodus uptown and the ash-covered people, and a few days later when the wind shifted, the acidic, choking smoke that engulfed all of the city, and the months and months of respitory problems; both the beauty and the tragedy of it.
One of the exquisite effects of that day to me seems to be the immediate recognition of people; first in the city and then in the whole country, of us as one people. When that first building fell there was a color blindness in that blinding flash of light that I found so beautiful. There were beautiful things that came of the ugliness, and that I think can still come; the more that we keep the pressure on, and keep talking about it and keep counter-acting the propaganda, the fear. The the the..I’m sorry.
jc: No, that’s okay. It’s tough to talk about it in terms of the city itself, for me. I know you lived downtown for a time, and write extensively about New York, especially in your earlier work in a glowing and critical way, but it’s the greatest city in the world and I couldn’t imagine being there when it was being wounded. I still call it the “Gaping Wound on Wall Street”, because there’s a reason why those buildings were hit.
“When that first building fell there was a color blindness in that blinding flash of light that I found so beautiful. There were beautiful things that came of the ugliness, and that I think can still come; the more that we keep the pressure on, and keep talking about it and keep counter-acting the propaganda, the fear.”
ad: It’s poetry in motion. And the genius to make that happen and the incredible arrogance and incompetence it reveals. It was obvious what the plot was a few years earlier. In that sense it should have been no surprise to any of us that they finally pulled it off. And now its time to turn our eyes towards our own government and not outward, because it’s the only way we can save ourselves. It was obvious from that example that there is no amount “human intelligence” (nervous laugh) that could save us from such acts. It’s only true justice and global justice that are going to prevent that kind of rage and violence from appealing to, and taking hold of, or activating populations of people. Of course, we’re talking about some crazy guys, some crazy violent motherfuckers.
jc: But they don’t just become crazy out of nowhere.
ad: Yeah, and it takes a lot of people who are very pissed off and very poor and have been living among violence and oppression at the hands of this country for way to long to back those guys up. But I think I said a whole lot in that poem about my immediate reactions to being there that day and that week. I was supposed to be flying in that morning actually, but I drove in the night before for whatever reason.
jc: Who knows why any of these things happen?
ad: You know, there’s incredible possibility in those events that make us look at the brevity of our lives, at the mortality of ourselves, of the consecutiveness between us. And if we can take the energy that exploded in the city that day of oneness, and we apply it globally, the realization of it So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do; to let the smoke of that awareness billow forth, not the fear, not the us and them that George W. is trying promote.
jc: Or any president in his situation would probably have to promote, because he’s representing this huge conglomerate of countless years of failed expectations abroad to try, to hang onto something, to try and seem like he is defending a country that should have been defended properly in the first place.
ad: Well, I guess, I don’t know if Gore was sitting in the office he was voted into I don’t know how different it would be.
jc: Well, the cynic in me tells me, no different. Which is why any accolades or derision this guy gets as a result of this mess is unfounded in reality. I’m an anti-Gore guy myself, not that I am a pro-Bush guy, but I never got over the PMRC thing. It’s a personal thing between myself and those cheap whores who belittled Bill Bradley and I should stop now.
ad: (laughs) Again, without systematic change we have no third party, without a third party we have one party.
jc: (clapping) Bravo.
ad: (Laughs) Not two, but one, somehow. But (long pause) But nothing, I have no idea.
jc: (laughs) No ideas. That’s everything I came for and more.
ad: Oh, good.
jc: It was important to me to hear your personal, outside the songs, thoughts on some issues.
ad: I was ramblin’.
jc: Ramblin’s good.
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