The International Writers Magazine:Profiles and People
DIFRANCO IN BLOOM
A Candid Discussion on Political Change, Gay Marriage, Jesus, and
Personal Exorcism With Buffalos Finest
can one talk on the role of politics in art
when art is activism and anyway
both are just a lifelong light
shining through a swinging prism
Since our last published discussion two
springs ago, my favorite folk gal has been through some dark times and
personal reflection, while also managing to shoulder more social causes
than any normal musical performer. Ani Difranco puts her passion where
her music and soul reside, and does so under the microscope of the liberated
and angry (she hates that) young woman artist thing. Her projects and
efforts to restore and preserve her hometown in Buffalo, her overt national
political endeavors and womens rights engagements are inexhaustible,
and to this grouchy cynic, enviable. Somehow she always finds her way
into a studio and onto stages to perform her ass off.
On the heels of her latest record, the probingly intense, "Educated
Guess" and a new one-woman tour hitting Carnegie Hall on 5/15,
Ms. Difranco decided to open up in her only east coast interview this
This is what transpires when two diminutive, big-mouthed Virgo troublemakers
jc: The last time we did this you had a
very positive view of grass roots politics and how it can still engender
change. So, after two more years of the present administration, another
war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and everything else thats happened
since the spring of 2002, I wonder what your mood is today toward the
American political scene.
AD: Im still very optimistic for
the potential of grass roots change. I still see and feel it out there.
Its what allows me to get up in the morning, the immense possibility
that exists all around us right now. I was hanging out with my friend
Dennis Kucinich the other night, and hes so energetic and so brilliant
and so positive. At one point he runs across the room and slams his
hands against the wall and says, "Some people see a wall here,
but in between each one of these molecules theres a whole other
reality! Its something we cant see or what we can see if
we collectively envision it. If we draw it out. Theres another
reality existing around us right now." So we admitted that we dont
need to change the world. The world is changing around us. We just need
to direct that change. And our power to direct it is immense once we
jc: I was going to ask you about Kucinich
and exactly how he represents the political side of your worldview.
You backed his run during the democratic primary. Of course, Kerry is
going to represent the party now, but certainly others like Kucinich
and Howard Dean have given voice to the anti-war movement and other
liberal agendas. Having said that I know you supported the last Ralph
Nader campaign in 2000. I gave up on Ralph in 96, myself. So I
must ask where you stand on Kerry, and will you throw your considerable
influence to Nader in the upcoming election?
AD: (chuckling sarcastically) Ahhhh, no.
My support four years ago for Nader was very qualified. I showed up
for one of his rallies in New York with a press release in my little
paw that said I support voting for him in the done-deal states, but
in the swing states I felt very strongly about the priority being voting
jc: No kidding.
AD: Yeah, that was my scene at the time.
Somewhere along the way during those primaries somebody asked me, "Who
do you think is the best candidate?" And I said, "Well...Nader.
Hes got his head screwed tightest onto his shoulders. He has the
best ideas." So he sort of used that as an endorsement.
jc: So he never officially solicited your
AD: Ralph called me up, personally, and
said, "You know every time I say your name up on stage at a rally
I get the biggest response." He said, "You gotta come out,
Ani! You gotta come out!" And I told him, "Ralph, this is
a very complicated situation." But I was very impressed with the
fact that he still wanted me to participate in the rally in New York
with my qualified support. I even stood there at the press conference
and said that I believe voting with my conscience means the lesser of
two evils, because my conscience includes people less fortunate and
more affected by these minute distinctions of corporate whores like
Gore or Bush. Then, of course, along with a number of other people I
was disappointed at the way Nader played that out, and the way he seems
to be repeating that scenario now. Meanwhile, Dennis is still in the
jc: Im glad you mentioned it, otherwise...
AD: Yeah, youd never know. Of course,
mums the word in the media. But hes still in the race. And Dennis
is doing exactly what I would hope Nader would eventually do, which
is to stay in there through the primaries to push the debate as long
as he can. The point being to show that the progressive population of
America is here, that we count, that we matter. That were powerful,
and that the Democratic Party must distinguish itself once again, if
they want to survive, not to mention other more meaningful reasons.
So Dennis plans to stay in the primaries, and then hell lend his
support to Kerry in the general election.
My plan, personally, is to continue working with my friend, Dennis in
whatever capacity we can invent, because he is a comrade, because he
is a like-minded, wonderful, inspiring person to me. Were bouncing
around a few ideas that in the fall wed do a swing-state tour.
Doing voter registration. Creating shows that are part political rally,
part musical party with a real eye toward the upcoming election, trying
to get young people motivated and involved. Although it does seem that
America is pretty darned inspired to get involved at this point, I would
say, which is a relief.
jc: As you play across the country, what
kind of passion do young people have for voting? Thats always
been the concern since 72; 18, 19, 20 year-old kids get motivated
to go to rallies and contribute over the Internet, but as we witnessed
with the doomed Dean campaign, will they actually come out and cast
AD: I really wouldnt know. I stand
on stage and I play guitar and I sing and talk to people, but I dont
know if they go out and vote. From what I hear, from the statistics
that seem to be thrown about in this country people are not voting,
especially young people, and its very understandable, the mass
disillusionment with what is obviously a farce.
jc: The "fixed game" thing again.
AD: Yes, but ironically, it is the reinvestment
in the belief in government that is going to get us out of this mess.
Its funny, even my friend Utah Phillips, whos a card carrying
anarchist - hows that for an oxymoron - says hes fixin
to go register and vote this time. His philosophy is his body is his
ballot and he votes with it every day, and I have a lot of respect for
the way he approaches it. But for the rest of us, voting is a very important
contribution and the first step to involvement and participation. While
Utah talks about voting as assigning responsibility for governance to
others, I think of it as securing institutional support for the good
work of people, for the work that we are doing, that we continue to
do, that we must do. Without people on the inside, without support of
these institutions that exist whether or not we participate in staffing
them or not, we cant do the work. Our hands are tied. If were
shipped off to a desert to die, or if were locked up for cannabis
possession for untold amount of years, or etc, etc., we cannot live
and grow as a people. So, it was heartening to hear Utah say he may
step out of his anarchist shoes for a second and go and pull a lever
because its that fucking desperate.
I can only hope that young people can rise above the mind control of
the media, which says consume, consume, consume and deny and forget
your power as a citizen, and that we will rediscover it on our own through
the encouragement and inspiration of each other.
jc: Speaking of the system, and the absurdities
within, the last time we spoke we talked about what you called the "defacto
economic segregation" which exists in this country, and of which
you touch upon in your song, "Subdivision". I equate that
to the "cultural segregation" in this gay marriage issue.
I wrote in a recent column that if you take out the frightened-by-the-unknown
aspect of it, if you remove the vague moralities of it, and if you expunge
God from it, the argument makes about as much legal sense as forcing
citizens to sit in the back of the bus or women being denied the right
AD: I think youve got your finger
right on the epicenter of the problem when you said take the moral part
out of it. Thats the huge part of this debate. People are confusing
God and religious customs and sanctions with laws. We are completely
muddling this issue. I think that the word marriage should be dropped
from that quest altogether, and we should all have civil unions in terms
of the state involvement, because thats what it is, legal benefits
for partners. Gay or straight, you should have hospital rights or will
rights. Thats all about civil union. We should make that across
the board for all couples, and thats as far as the law should
go, providing legal rights for couples.
Now in terms of marriages and whether its Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve,
or whether this is going to be culturally acceptable, that is fought
out in the churches, in the communities, but it has nothing to do with
the governments role. Whether we want to accept it as a society
it should be left out of the governments responsibility to provide
equal rights for people.
Actually my friend, Dennis helped my thoughts grow a bit on womens
right to choose for instance. Dennis is a Catholic boy from Ohio, grew
up pro life and thinking abortion is wrong, and then he switched his
position as a politician because he began talking to women, and listening
to women, and realizing that unless an individual woman can control
her own body she is not free. To not own your own body means you are
a slave. He began to see it as a civil right that applies only to women,
and conceive of it that way, and the governments involvement in
that matter should only be on that level in terms of preserving womens
freedom through guaranteeing this civil right. Whether or not its
morally acceptable or reprehensible, thats for the churches, for
the people, for individuals to work out for themselves. Its not
for the government.
The government should not legislate morality on that level.
jc: Of course this has always been my beef
with the FCC.
AD: Yeah, and its just about clarifying
governments role in providing these civil rights. We have freedom
of speech. The governments job is to preserve that. What we say,
whether its right or wrong, or good or bad, thats for people to
work out amongst themselves, and for society to put pressure on people
that say bad things, but their right to say it must be guaranteed by
the government, and the governments job ends there.
jc: Did you have a chance to see "The
Passion Of The Christ"?
AD: No. Not interested in the least.
jc: The reason I bring it up is I was quite
hard on it because I spent some 12 years researching and writing a book
on the search for the historical Jesus, and weve discussed the
separation of the revolutionary historical figure versus the Christ
jc: Now, using your analogy of Kucinichs
journey in reassessing the Pro-Choice issue, mine was the opposite.
Im always going on and on about defending the artists right
to free expression, but yet I not only took offense to Gibsons
view of Jesus of Nazareth as a sacrificial vessel of a patriarchal God,
but the method with which he magnified the same old Catholic dogma.
I called Gibson a propagandist, yet I have always known intellectually
that all art in one way or the other is the expression of a viewpoint
in propagandist terms. Your songs. My writing. But my emotions seemed
to swing me into a personal attack on the artist.
AD: Sure, but I can understand that. I
didnt see the film, but from what I understand of the Bible and
the story of Jesus and what we have carried down culturally through
the ages, its a multifaceted and life-affirming story, and theres
a little moment in there when he gets taken down. Hes taken down
by the power structure. Its a warning to those of us who want
to make change. Its a lesson there too. But to make a whole film
on that moment...
jc: ...or a 2,000 year-old religion for
AD: Fuckin yeah! To boil it down
to the moment of defeat and gory violence, I mean, even the crucifix
as a symbol for him is just fundamentally morbid, bizarre, and wrong-headed.
To show the man in his moment of defeat, when he was so full of life,
when he gave people life, when he inspired people to freedom. To use
that to represent his meaning I think is bizarre, and to construct a
movie all around this sort of violent, unfortunate death? I would think
that anyone with a real passion for that man and his teachings would
make a movie about his life, not his death. I have no interest in gratuitous
violence in movies to begin with, let alone of a religious nature. (laughs)
jc: This is why youre one of my favorite
jc: No, really, because Ive spent
all of my adult life trying to defuse this harmful myth, which to me
shows a complete lack of respect regarding the assassination of someone
who endeavored to demonstrate the divine spark of humanity, and then
to prop it up as some sort of victory? I cant accept it, and never
could, even as a ten year-old Catholic-schooled boy.
AD: If we keep staring at that cross, at
that moment of defeat, what are we supposed to feel? Were supposed
to feel hopeless, were supposed to feel powerless, were
supposed to feel pity or remorse? What is that to keep carrying through
jc: Well, the most important thing youre
supposed to feel is guilt.
AD: Guilt! Oh, God! I forgot the guilt!
jc: (laughs) Thats the key.
AD: I should have mentioned that one first.
jc: Id like to talk about the new
record, so this is the butt kissing part of the interview.
AD: Ah! (laughs) Woo! Hoo!
jc: I view "Educated Guess" as
your "Blood On The Tracks". I dont know how much you
respect that record, but Im of the opinion that Dylans best
work was, and still is the ultimate musical statement on the despair
of loneliness and the loss of love. Coming from a writers perspective,
the lyrics on "Educated Guess" achieves that level. That record,
for me, could not have come any closer to the bone. So Im wondering
where you have to go, what you have to endure to achieve it?
AD: Well, you know, I have not said this
yet while talking about the record, but Ill say it to you. It
was an absolute exorcism for me. And because of that its my favorite
record that Ive made. I guess me being more of a Springsteen fan
than a Dylan fan, I think of it as my "Nebraska". You know,
the record I made in my bedroom, cause I had to
And the aloneness of it was like medicine for me. Ive not been
alone for many years and I was emotionally unhealthy with a lack of
solitude and time for reflection, so this record represents a journey
back to myself, the self that began writing songs and playing them solo
and making little records on her own. Except, hence the title, I am
slightly older, and hopefully, slightly wiser now.
jc: Well, if theres better line than,
"As dolls go, I am broken" I dont know if Ive
jc: You read a particularly striking poem
when you played at the Beacon here in New York back in November. You
pulled it from your pants pocket. I havent heard it anywhere since.
Is it going to end up on a record?
AD: Yeah, yeah. Next record.
jc: Oh, great.
AD: (recites) "33 years-old and not
once do you come home to find a man in your bedroom that is a man you
dont know." That one?
AD: I actually have a plan for my next
record. Im going in the opposite direction of "Educated Guess",
now that Ive found myself again in this pile of my life. I called
up my friend Joe Henry, a beautiful songwriter, and a snappy dresser
and a creative, energetic man. I invited him to share the stage with
me months back, and we really resonated. Every night wed
sit around after the shows and talk, and we discovered we have a lot
of the same sensibilities and energy when it comes to making records.
So I began to envision my next record. I called him up with two songs!
I had two songs and I called him up and asked, "You wanna co-produce
my next record?" and he said yes. Then I just began furiously writing.
I wrote like eight songs in just a few weeks. So not only is it going
to be a completely new environment for me to have a co-producer, to
be working with new musicians, its also new for me to approach
a record with my eye on the prize from the beginning. Im writing
for! the project, with the idea of the destination in mind, as opposed
to just writing songs and sort of looking at the collection later in
the game and beginning to conceive of what the record is. Im actually
conceiving of it from the onset, which is a new process for me. Its
been really fascinating for me.
jc: Sounds like it. Can we expect to hear
those songs at the upcoming Carnegie Hall show?
AD: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, Im playing
mostly those songs now.
jc: Hows Buffalo?
AD: Well, I hear...well, I dont know.
I aint been there in awhile. Ive been on the lovely west
coast. I imagine my garden will be awake when I get home. Cant
© James Campion May 2004
High Stakes in the White House
Lifestyles and Comment
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