Throughout a trailblazing career that now spans 13 albums, Ani DiFranco has written her share of topical material, with women's rights, the death penalty, sexuality and patriotism being just a few of the issues she's confronted.
So it's no surprise that her latest CD, To The Teeth, has gotten much attention for a pair of highly opinionated songs. The title track makes an emphatic stand for gun control, while "Hello Birmingham" takes pro-lifers to task for violence against abortion providers.
But if tackling issues is nothing new to DiFranco, she says "To The Teeth" (inspired by the shootings at Columbine High School near Denver) and "Hello Birmingham" (which she wrote after the murder of a pediatrician who performed abortions in DiFranco's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.) represented unusual types of songs for her to write.
"It's kind of rare for me that songs should be initially inspired by news and events like that, because my politics have always been so personal that I tend to draw from personal experience much more than I do events," DiFranco says. "But I guess what happened with both of those songs is these news items were personal experiences for me. I mean, they affected me so deeply and so directly that those songs kind of came up that way."
"To The Teeth" and "Hello Birmingham" have created a stir mostly because DiFranco doesn't mince words in either song. In "Teeth," she places the blame for gun violence squarely on profit-motivated gun manufacturers and the legislators, many of whom receive campaign contributions from gun interests, who refuse to enact restrictions on gun use.
"I mean, it seems to me to be just basic mass insanity that we would let this kind of violence be perpetrated against us by our government and these huge corporations, which are basically one in the same today," DiFranco says, referring to the message of "To the Teeth." "Even the waiting period of three days (to buy a gun).
We'll haggle over this in Congress for years, when really people should just not have guns. We just shouldn't have them.
"You can just look north of the 49th parallel to Canada and see a society very similar to ours that's not armed. I mean, I live in Buffalo, which is right on the Canadian border. This is a city of 300,000 people, and we have about 60 times the handgun deaths per year than Toronto, which has 8 million people and is about an hour and a half away. It just all seems so blatantly obvious and devious."
On "Hello Birmingham," DiFranco's anger is just as palpable, as her words are directed to anti-abortionists who use religion to justify their attacks on abortion clinics, their personnel and their patients.
That DiFranco wouldn't shy away from such sensitive issues is no surprise. After all, she's gotten used to being a lightning rod for attention, much of it stemming from aspects of her career and life that make her an unusual — and inspiring — figure on the music scene.
DiFranco's parents split when she was 11. For a time she lived with her mother, but when she was 15 her mother moved to Connecticut. DiFranco chose to stay in Buffalo, getting her own apartment and living as an emancipated minor as she finished high school.
By that time, DiFranco had been playing guitar for years and had started writing songs. She'd also become friends with a local folk singer, Michael Meldrum, who took her under his wing and helped introduce her to the Folk underground.
DiFranco didn't exactly conform to the Folk scene, though. For one thing, early in her career she shaved her head and outfitted herself in punkish clothes, an appearance that upset some of the more traditionalist Folk faithful. Her changing hairstyles, hair color and wardrobe have remained ongoing topics of conversation in the years since.
Then there are DiFranco's sexual politics. Though romantically involved for several years with her sound engineer — who goes by the nickname of "Goat Boy" — she considers herself bisexual and has said she prefers to think of experiencing love or sex as something one shares with a person rather than a man or woman. This open-ended view of gender and sexuality has frustrated some in the gay and feminist communities who wish she'd be more definitive in describing her preferences.
DiFranco's well-documented business history is no less unconventional. Now 29, she started her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and released her first album at age 19. Today that little label has grown to employ 17 people and has total album sales of more than three million. Over the years, she's steadfastly resisted offers to sign with major labels, making her a hero for do-it-yourself musicians everywhere.
DiFranco finds it frustrating that so many aspects of her life that have little to do with her music generate so much attention.
"People get so wrapped up in talking about all kinds of political issues that might be related to my humanity," she says. "It seems to rarely even factor into the discussion sometimes that I'm a musician. Really, what I do seems to be secondary in how a lot of people describe me, which for me can be a little sad.
"But then, you know, there's what people tend to write about me, and then there's why people come to the shows. And they don't come to the shows because of whoever I'm sleeping with or however I run my record company. They come to the shows to hear the songs. So I also have that really direct musical call and response in my life that happens."
With To the Teeth (see Mike Breen's review on page 32), fans are hearing songs that put DiFranco in some fresh musical contexts. After playing solo for many years early in her career, she's slowly added accompanists, starting with a drummer in the mid-1990s, and later adding a bassist. Prior to Teeth, she brought on a keyboardist and horn players, and she puts this expanded instrumental palette to work on a number of new songs.
On "Freakshow," scratching guitar riffs and some whining feedback give the song a decidedly dissonant feel. The floating horn lines that lace "Going One" give the song a jazzy swing. A funkier side to the sound emerges on "Back Back Back" as DiFranco's horn section lets loose, while "Swing" — featuring a guest spot from former James Brown horn man Maceo Parker on saxophone — mixes Hip Hop and Soul.
DiFranco, though, hasn't entirely left behind the more stripped-down sound that typified earlier albums. Songs like "To the Teeth" and "Wish I May" feature the percussive guitar playing and clipped vocal cadences that have given her a distinctive identity within Folk circles.
Still, considering how Teeth broadens the instrumental mix for DiFranco and brings strong elements of Funk and Soul to her sound, some might wonder if it's really fair to still consider her a Folk singer.
DiFranco herself has no problem with that label.
"I've always called myself a Folk singer, because I always was and I still am," she says. "Well, first of all, I grew up on the Folk circuit. My whole history, my school, was very much at the Folk festivals and Folk venues that I drove around to for many years exclusively."
And while DiFranco knows her music might have branched beyond what some would define as Folk, to her the genre encompasses more than a particular sound.
"It's a way of living, it's a way of making art," DiFranco says. "I mean, Folk music is sub-corporate. It's usually political. It's community-based music that incorporates politics. It's music that utilizes acoustic instruments. It's live music, not music as a commodity. The CD isn't the focus. Touring, working as a musician and traveling is the focus, and the CD is secondary.
"And you know for all those reasons I'm still very much a Folk singer. You know, labels are just so constricting just by nature. But I've yet to hear somebody describe me in a way that fits better."
ANI DIFRANCO performs Sunday at the Aronoff Center.