With nearly two decades of do-it-yourself ethics behind her, it's no wonder Ani DiFranco's name has become synonymous with the word "indie" in the music world. She started the hard way — get in a van and drive from gig to gig until you have enough money to put out an album. Eventually, she started a label, Righteous Babe, and it's been that way ever since — tour, record, release a new album; repeat.
For years, she's been a machine, releasing an album just about every year, plus a few live albums and a couple of compilations. Recently, however, things have slowed down for the 38-year-old singer. Blame it on the baby ... but that's a good thing for DiFranco.
"She takes all of my songwriting energy and time away from me," DiFranco says with a laugh about her two-year-old daughter, Petah. "It can feel a bit artistically constipated sometimes, but I welcome it. It's a big change, like it is for all parents, but, for me, I'm at the right point in my life to get off my hamster wheel for a second and just hang out and have more contemplative time, which serves us in the end."
That time served her well in the completion of her latest album, 2008's Red Letter Year. With a new band in tow and recent hometown of New Orleans on her mind, DiFranco has found a new energy. Mike Napolitano, whom she refers to as her partner and is rumored to now be her husband, co-produced the disc and helped with creative input.
"I had probably the best team I've ever had to work with in the recording studio," she says by phone from her New Orleans home. "I've slowly accumulated a really great group of people around me. I have to give props to Todd [Sickafoose] who contributed to the record in many ways. He did the string arrangements and had various production ideas in addition to playing bass. He started to bring me out of my shell again to play music with people and at this point, I'm so inspired that it's more fun than ever."
The band she is currently working with includes long-time collaborator and bass player Sickafoose, Allison Miller on drums and Mike Dillon on vibraphone and other instruments. DiFranco says there are definitely songs that her new band gets instantly and other songs that don't fit as well in regard to her live setlist, but most of it just depends on her mood.
It may seem natural to focus on the new album which features the band, but DiFranco knows there's plenty in her catalog that has grown and transformed since it was first written. "Some of my earliest songs I still play and still feel really connected to, but if I put on my earliest records, I'm like, 'Who is that singing?'" she says with a laugh. "A song, like anything, to be alive must change and adapt. If you compare the way they sound now with how they started out, it'd be pretty different."
While her albums are still being released on Righteous Babe and more artists are going the indie route of self-releasing albums, DiFranco acknowledges that it's a tough time for the label. While the company saw exponential growth in the '90s, she said things have slowed down and contracted a bit recently.
While she may claim to have "slowed down" herself, it's no surprise, given her past, that she's done enough writing for roughly half of a new album. She clearly has enough inspiration via love that some fans and critics have been calling her a "kinder, gentler" version of the "angry woman" they've come to know and love.
"[Petah's] going to factor into my songs because everything meaningful in my life does," DiFranco says. "It is amazing to have a kid and be forced to step away from myself a lot, and you come back and you can see things that you don't see when you spend all day with your thoughts. I think a baby is a really good influence for me that way.
"I don't tweak out on the frustrations of life these days because I'm so happy," she adds. "As long as I'm somewhere in the vicinity of Mike, I feel peaceful. It's an incredible thing to have that kind of love. I'm trying to write about the good side of life more because I think it's been omitted from a lot of my ... epics."
With all the happiness and joy in her life, you'd expect that she'd need a break from fear of getting burned out on the road after so many years, but instead, DiFranco feels energized.
"It's been really cool to have come this far and proven a few things to the universe," she says. "I think in everybody's life and career there is ebb and flow. Sometimes it can feel like burnout and really dark. Often those times are when we're learning or things are changing. I have a real sort of rebirth of creative energy and inspiration and joy. Be patient with life and hang in there, that's what I say."
Ani DiFranco will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre at 8 p.m. on March 11. General admission tickets are $35, VIP tickets are $55. Chad Stokes of State Radio is supporting.