Few would argue that Ani DiFranco is not one of the hardest working women in music today. Since starting her own Righteous Babe record label at the age of 18, DiFranco has toured the world countless times over, won a Grammy, been recognized by the National Organization for Women, done her fair share of political lobbying, had a baby, saved a building, and maintained one of the strongest grassroots followings of any independent singer/songwriter. Currently, DiFranco is headed out West, daughter Petah in tow, for a set of dates in support of her brand new DVD, Live at Babeville. Recorded over two nights, the footage features the small-but-mighty DiFranco taking the stage-and rocking out-at the very venue she helped save from demolition seven years ago. Since then, the building (previously the Delaware Asbury Church) has been renovated into a space unlike any other. Dubbed “Babeville,” the church that almost wasn’t now houses the Righteous Babe offices, Hallwalls’ exhibition gallery and media arts center, and a state-of-the-art performance hall. And oh yeah, she’s also just released a book of poetry and art called Verses and a two-disk career retrospective album called Canon. DiFranco recently phoned in from her home in Buffalo, N.Y., to chat about what comes next.
How’s motherhood treating you? What is it like to head out on tour with the baby? Well, she’s about a year and three months old, and I went back on the road when she was five months old. It’s been eight months of touring with the baby. It’s great. It’s really fun. In some ways it’s easier being on tour, because when I’m at home the buck stops here. When I’m on the road there are all kinds of people around to entertain her and pass her off to. [Laughs.] The food just comes; I don’t have to make it :
The DVD is spectacular. Can you tell me a little bit about how your relationship with the Delaware Asbury Church first began? Well, [Righteous Babe] had been renting an office in downtown Buffalo since 1990. And this was a building a few blocks away from our trusty little office that my friend and manager/business partner Scot [Fisher] would pass every day on his way to work. It was always surrounded by barricades, and I guess stones were falling out of the fa§ade and onto the street-which is bad in a city building. Not what you want-stones clobbering people. So after a few of these incidents, it was slated for demolition. And if you see this place-it’s this gorgeous 1870s, huge sandstone cathedral-it’s just a beautiful piece of architecture, and they were just gonna knock it down, which is really the history of Buffalo, New York in a nutshell. Like any poor city, people would sooner knock down a building to have a paved parking lot than they would save our artistic and cultural history, you know? So downtown Buffalo is pretty devastating; it’s like a mini-Detroit:
We successfully staved off demolition, and it seemed like our karma was just getting more and more wrapped up in this church. We sort of looked at each other and thought, “Well, we could use our own offices for a change.” And the next thing you know we were buying and renovating it, which, again, in the beginning seemed like a very humble idea. We just thought, “Well, it’s a sturdy building. We’ll just put some bubblegum on the outside and sweep on the inside, put in a few outlets, and move the offices.” Next thing you know, it’s $7 million and seven years later, and hordes of people, and governmental subsidies and this and that – trying to get grants here and this and that there. It became a much bigger project than we anticipated – one that kind of ongoing, we’re not quite finished. But it’s already become a sort of artistic epicenter in downtown Buffalo. There are shows going on, there’s a gallery in there now. We share the space with this place called Hallwalls. There’s a gallery and a black box theater – there’s a lot going on already. It’s a good feeling to have held on all these years – all these white-knuckle years – and made this thing happen.
Canon and Verses came out-and the Babeville show took place-all on September 11. As a New Yorker, why did you decide to do that? One of the quirks of the music industry is that records are released on Tuesdays. So it just happened that early September, Tuesday of last year was the 11th. So, of all the handful of dates we had to choose from, it was like “Oh there’s the perfect one.” [We did it] just in terms of reinventing that day, and bringing positivity and life-affirming activity to be associated with it.
You express yourself in a number of media. How did the book Verses come about, and why did you decide to release a book of poetry and art at this time? I had a baby. [Laughs.] Things like the poetry book were ideas that were waiting in the wings for years. I just never stopped. I never got off my hamster wheel of touring and making records long enough to make a poetry book happen. I took some months off to have the baby, and I told myself that I would finish my homework-my folksinger homework-like finally put a book together, and also the Canon records. The compilation/retrospective was another bit of homework that we knew we had to do for many years. There are just too many Ani D. records for anyone to : where do you start? Also, everything in my life sort of pointed to now being the time for that. My whole life has changed in this last year or so, and I’m headed in a new direction in many ways, artistically and personally. So completing these retrospective projects now made sense as the end of an era, and the beginning of something new.
You’ve mentioned being a bit self-conscious at the sound of your own voice. How did that way in to the compiling of Canon? Was it difficult to go back and essentially compile one album out of 20 years worth of work? It was really hard. There’s so many songs to choose from and hard for me in many ways to distill 20 records to two. One of the parameters that I set up for myself was that I wanted the record to kind of flow chronologically, so that influenced the song choice a lot. I picked my automatic choices, or whatever, from all the records along the way and then I made a mock-up tape and kinda saw how it flowed. Then I started swapping out songs to make it flow better. ‘This doesn’t work. Take this out, insert this’ – I sorta did that a bunch of times until I arrived on the set list you hear. But a lot of my favorite tunes are not there. I think that if there was one more compilation record like Canon, the two together could be sort of a good overview. It’s a hyper distillation. There’s a lot left out. [Laughs.]
Do you ever find yourself burning out? Well, not these days. [Laughs.] I find I have a renewed energy and excitement about what I do. I love my new band. I love my new family. I was pretty exhausted and pretty overwhelmed and a little unhappy for a bunch of years there, but I’ve come through that. This is the beginning of a new era for me. And this domestic bliss is in no way impeding my art; if anything it heeds it. I think that being happy is a really nice place to perform from. I really enjoy being on stage these days, more than I have in a lot of years. And I enjoy my work more than ever.
I hear another studio album is currently in the works. What can you tell me about it? I’m really excited. I have a new band I’m working with, and they’re all over it. Actually, there are a lot of people. I have more guests and friends and other artists involved this time around than I have in a long time. It’s fuckin’ sprawling, this record. I’ve been working on it for a while now, taking a little bit more time because I’m on baby time now. My pace is a little bit slower, which I think is great in terms of making records. I think it will benefit the end result. [Laughs.]
I know that you lobbied pretty hard for Rep. Dennis Kucinich last year. Now that he has officially dropped out of the presidential race, what are your thoughts? Well, I’m extremely excited by the voter turnout, without which you do not have this democracy. I’m really excited about this reinvigoration in our democracy, the possibilities of which become exponential when people begin to participate. I think that even above and beyond who the candidates are and what they’re capable of, whatever. Either of the-well, I’m just talking about the Democratic candidates. I don’t even want to point at somebody like McCain. I’m holding out hope that America can rise to its job of electing a Democrat at this point. And either one of the available candidates-it would be a great day to see either one of them elected. The first woman president, the first black man, that would just be thrilling as a concept in this country, and [it would] set a precedent for a different and better future. So, I think we are on the precipice of a great, great day. And no matter what flavor that day is, I’m going to be popping champagne.
Ani DiFranco will play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) this Sunday, April 6, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for ticket info.