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The International Writers Magazine
:Profiles and People

James Campion

A Candid Discussion on Political Change, Gay Marriage, Jesus, and Personal Exorcism With Buffalo’s Finest

how 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 women’s 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 spring.
This is what transpires when two diminutive, big-mouthed Virgo troublemakers get together.
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 that’s happened since the spring of 2002, I wonder what your mood is today toward the American political scene.
AD: I’m still very optimistic for the potential of grass roots change. I still see and feel it out there. It’s 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 he’s 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 there’s a whole other reality! It’s something we can’t see or what we can see if we collectively envision it. If we draw it out. There’s another reality existing around us right now." So we admitted that we don’t 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 use it.
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 against Bush.
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. He’s 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 endorsement.
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 race.
jc: I’m glad you mentioned it, otherwise...
AD: Yeah, you’d never know. Of course, mums the word in the media. But he’s 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 we’re 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 he’ll 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. We’re bouncing around a few ideas that in the fall we’d 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? That’s 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 a vote?
AD: I really wouldn’t know. I stand on stage and I play guitar and I sing and talk to people, but I don’t 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 it’s 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. It’s funny, even my friend Utah Phillips, who’s a card carrying anarchist - how’s that for an oxymoron - says he’s 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 can’t do the work. Our hands are tied. If we’re shipped off to a desert to die, or if we’re 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 it’s 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 to vote.
AD: I think you’ve got your finger right on the epicenter of the problem when you said take the moral part out of it. That’s 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 that’s what it is, legal benefits for partners. Gay or straight, you should have hospital rights or will rights. That’s all about civil union. We should make that across the board for all couples, and that’s 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 government’s role. Whether we want to accept it as a society it should be left out of the government’s responsibility to provide equal rights for people.
Actually my friend, Dennis helped my thoughts grow a bit on women’s 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 government’s involvement in that matter should only be on that level in terms of preserving women’s freedom through guaranteeing this civil right. Whether or not it’s morally acceptable or reprehensible, that’s for the churches, for the people, for individuals to work out for themselves. It’s 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 it’s just about clarifying government’s role in providing these civil rights. We have freedom of speech. The government’s job is to preserve that. What we say, whether its right or wrong, or good or bad, that’s 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 government’s 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 we’ve discussed the separation of the revolutionary historical figure versus the Christ figure before...
AD: Right.
jc: Now, using your analogy of Kucinich’s journey in reassessing the Pro-Choice issue, mine was the opposite. I’m always going on and on about defending the artists’ right to free expression, but yet I not only took offense to Gibson’s 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 didn’t 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, it’s a multifaceted and life-affirming story, and there’s a little moment in there when he gets taken down. He’s taken down by the power structure. It’s a warning to those of us who want to make change. It’s a lesson there too. But to make a whole film on that moment...
jc: ...or a 2,000 year-old religion for that matter.
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 you’re one of my favorite people.
AD: (laughs)
jc: No, really, because I’ve 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 can’t 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? We’re supposed to feel hopeless, we’re supposed to feel powerless, we’re supposed to feel pity or remorse? What is that to keep carrying through the ages?
jc: Well, the most important thing you’re supposed to feel is guilt.
AD: Guilt! Oh, God! I forgot the guilt! (laughs)
jc: (laughs) That’s the key.
AD: I should have mentioned that one first.
jc: I’d 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 don’t know how much you respect that record, but I’m of the opinion that Dylan’s best work was, and still is the ultimate musical statement on the despair of loneliness and the loss of love. Coming from a writer’s perspective, the lyrics on "Educated Guess" achieves that level. That record, for me, could not have come any closer to the bone. So I’m 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 I’ll say it to you. It was an absolute exorcism for me. And because of that it’s my favorite record that I’ve 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…alone.
And the aloneness of it was like medicine for me. I’ve 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 there’s better line than, "As dolls go, I am broken" I don’t know if I’ve seen it.
AD: (laughs)
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 haven’t 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 don’t know." That one?
jc: Yes.
AD: I actually have a plan for my next record. I’m going in the opposite direction of "Educated Guess", now that I’ve 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 month’s back, and we really resonated. Every night we’d 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, it’s also new for me to approach a record with my eye on the prize from the beginning. I’m 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. I’m actually conceiving of it from the onset, which is a new process for me. It’s 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, I’m playing mostly those songs now.
jc: How’s Buffalo?
AD: Well, I hear...well, I don’t know. I ain’t been there in awhile. I’ve been on the lovely west coast. I imagine my garden will be awake when I get home. Can’t wait.

© James Campion May 2004

See also
High Stakes in the White House

Hunter Thompson
Bernstein in New York

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