Ani DiFranco is a little scared.
For the first time in her career as a singer, songwriter, activist and independent businesswoman, the Buffalo, N.Y.-born DiFranco admits to being a bit fearful when it comes to saying what’s on her mind.
“I’m having experiences of fear that I never had,” says DiFranco, 45, on the phone from the Florida Panhandle, where she just did a show. “One of my strong points, one of the things that I’ve had to give all these years, is lack of fear. I just decided long ago I am not going to be afraid to say it. I’m just gonna say it. And my experiences of push-back from the society never really hurt me as much as my experiences of people coming out of the woodwork and going, ‘Oh my God – thank you!’… Now, there’s this kind of absence in young people of awareness, of who are your allies.”
For more than 25 years, DiFranco has been the living embodiment of a self-made, DIY icon. In 1990, she launched her own label, Righteous Babe Records, where she released her music sans major-label drama. By the time the mid-’90s came around, when feminine (and feminist) singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel and Fiona Apple were all the rage, DiFranco became a folk hero in every sense of the word. Her virtuoso, acoustic guitar stylings and honest, unabashed lyrics got her both indie acclaim and a dedicated fanbase. (By the way, this year marks the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough seventh album “Dilate,” her highest-selling record.)
DiFranco has also been a staunch activist, supporting everything from women’s rights to the anti-war movement to opposing the death penalty. While she’s gotten used to the powers that be keeping a proud person like herself down, she hasn’t gotten used to social media and unknown forces on the internet ready to shame them when they’ve done something disagreeable.
“I don’t think that the social media – this has been shown to be not a place of dialogue,” she says. “It’s a place for witch hunts. It’s a place for sort of negativity and, you know, the sort of dark forces that underlie our human nature are very strong in that format.”
She definitely got some shame in 2013, when it was revealed she would be hosting a three-day artists’ workshop the following year (called the “Righteous Retreat”) at Louisiana’s Nottoway Plantation, not too far from her New Orleans home. One of the largest plantations in the South ( now a luxury resort), DiFranco was criticized for her choice of venue. A petition on Change.org opposing the event was launched, rounding up over 2,500 signatures.
While DiFranco eventually canceled the retreat, she admits it took her a long time to get over the backlash. It also made her feel paranoid toward the people she’s been entertaining all these years. “You know, I’ve been saying (expletive) since I started writing songs, and I’ve caught a lot of flak,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of criticism along the way. But, you know, all of it from the power structure. Now, there’s this kind of anarchy where you don’t know if the person standing next to you, if the person you’ve been fighting for the whole time, is gonna be the person to turn on you and try to bring you down.”
DiFranco continues to fight, working on music that she hopes will make a difference. She’s putting the finishing touches on a compilation of songs written by prisoners, set for release later this year. She also seeks to incite young people to vote while on tour, which she calls the “Paint Congress Blue” tour. (She’ll be making a stop at Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh on Sunday.)
But even though she’s now a married mother of two, Ani DiFranco still enjoys the hell-raising work. Heck, she’s been on the scene too long to give up now.
“I’ve been there every show along the way, every step along the way,” she says. “I was just joking with my audience last night that I’ve been to every Ani DiFranco show there ever was. So, yes, I’m very aware of how long ago it’s been. But, you know, it’s been awesome. I really feel – I don’t know – more grateful than ever to have this job, you know. And it’s as inspiring as it ever was to me, you know. So, I guess so far, so good.”