If Woody Guthrie and Jane Fonda had somehow spawned a daughter, she would probably look and act a lot like Ani DiFranco. Live, the dreadlocked, body-pierced singer/songwriter defies the folk-musician stereotype of a quiet presence on a stool. She plays like a woman possessed, kicking the air and clawing her guitar strings with thick, false nails wrapped in electrical tape. Her concerts are exhausting to watch, and it's hard to believe that for the last six years DiFranco has toured an average of three weeks a month with no major-label logistical support.
Born in Buffalo, New York, to a nonmusical family, DiFranco started playing guitar when she was 9. "I needed some sort of tool for expression, and music was it. Instinct led me to it. My parents weren't really supportive, but once I began to learn, it just flowed out of me naturally." By age 14, DiFranco was playing Beatles covers in local bars while her peers watched The Brady Bunch.
When she was 20, DiFranco founded the indie label Righteous Babe to market and promote her own music. That was 1990, and back then, it was just Ani, a debut album and a telephone. Now, Righteous Babe sales have topped out at 250,000 units, and the label has eight full-time staffers--one for each of the aggressive folk recordings DiFranco has released in the past six years. Her latest, Dilate, comes fast on the heels of 1995's Not a Pretty Girl.
"My fans expect a lot from me," DiFranco says from the Righteous Babe offices in Buffalo, on the eve of a new national tour. "They expect me to put out an album once a year, and they expect me to tour. They have faith that I won't sell out. They would never forgive me, and that helps me stay focused. If you work harder, you don't have to play the big-business game."
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Musically, DiFranco is something of a Trojan horse, her barbed lyrics often encased in the sparse structure of a simple acoustic folk melody. She likes to lull the listener into complacency with soft guitar arpeggios and feathery vocals, then unleash a furious clamor, her voice turning into an impassioned growl, her strumming a violent storm. Topically, DiFranco ranges from love relationships (with both men and women) to getting sexually harassed on the subway to protest anthems against rape and social injustice, but all of her lyrics have a starkly personal tone, like pages from a diary.
DiFranco's fan base is relatively small but fiercely loyal and notably diverse, drawing from several age groups, both genders and various races and sexual orientations. Like the object of their reverence, DiFranco fans are highly opinionated, as an MTV film crew learned firsthand last year at a concert in New York. The crew, which included MTV News "correspondent" Tabitha Soren, was jeered with a chorus of "MTV sucks!" while filming DiFranco's performance (DiFranco quelled the uproar by joking that the cameras were filming a segment of Wild Kingdom, in which the Ani DiFranco was the featured species).
"There's a definite sense of mutual respect when you're dealing with an audience that's drawn by the music and content alone--not hype," says DiFranco. "I look into the audience and I know they're all there to hear and see and feel something."
Ani DiFranco is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, June 4, at Nile Theater in Mesa. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).