Folk singer Ani DiFranco moved to New Orleans approximately eight years ago, but she has entered the city’s musical community discreetly, playing the occasional show such as last year’s Gulf Aid benefit for those affected by the BP Oil Disaster. She has done so, she says, because “that is my style. I like to do things organically and without hoopla. Living in such a powerful musical place now, of course, I organically make more and more connections every day. My path intersects with the paths of other musicians. My associations deepen. I could certainly grow old and die in New Orleans and never be at a loss for magical company and musical inspiration, and that is my plan.”
When she recently played the Voodoo Experience, she was accompanied for the first time by an all-New Orleans band made up of Ivan Neville and Herlin Riley. Neville she met when he performed on the song “J” for her upcoming Which Side Are You On? album, which also includes performances by Cyril Neville and members of Galactic, Bonerama and the Rebirth Brass Band.
“Ivan came over to my house, sat down with this unusual track,” she says. “I watched him in the course of 10 minutes make his way to something amazing, something completely uplifting for the track.” Riley, she says, “is not a drummer. This is a musician sitting behind a drum kit who plays jokes, who plays his heart, who plays greetings, who plays love, who’s able to express and interpret on the drums in a way that very few can.” After the experience, the three started conspiring about playing together again.
On the day of this conversation, DiFranco is in New York City to play a couple of concerts. As a long-time activist and folk singer who takes her job seriously, she had the Occupy movement on her mind.
How closely have you been following what’s going on?
I’m not a TV person. We don’t have a TV at home, so I don’t watch the major networks spew about it, but I’ve certainly been aware of it since day one, and aware of the evictions that have happened in New York and Oakland. I don’t know if you heard, but there were thousands of people on the Brooklyn Bridge last night, so the energy is still out there in the streets of New York. The police backlash seems to be getting pretty intense, so I want to go down and see for myself what there is to see.
Did you visit Occupy NOLA?
Yeah, I did go down there, two or three weeks ago. I hung out for two or three hours. It was pretty low-key—a lot of people camping down there by City Hall, a lot of boards specifying a lot of meetings about how to get through the daily food and dishes and trying to figure out the daily biz of urban camping.
What did you take away after visiting Occupy NOLA?
I think that it’s great that there are people in the streets calling attention to the disparity of wealth in this city, and to the exploits of the top one percent. I agree with all the commentators commenting that the movement needs to articulate more specifically the solutions, to grow beyond pointing out huge problems and begin to point out some of the solutions.
I wish I lived back in New York right now and could participate directly in one of the epicenters of the movement. I heard on the news last night a very cool film director, Robert Greenwald, who makes progressive documentaries. He was saying, “Now we need to identify the One Percent. Who are these people?” And I was thinking, “No, I don’t think we should go on personal vendettas even though we would love to shame these people who are ruining our country and our lives. I don’t think that’s the best way to go.” Naming the laws that were enacted and de-acted and all of the systematic devices these people use to exploit the system—that’s what we need to focus on.
If you were back in New York, would it be hard for you at your level of success to get involved in a project like this at a grassroots level?
Dealing with celebrity is something that I negotiate in my life. I saw Pete Seeger down there marching a few weeks ago—such a wonderful statement because Pete Seeger is as radical as the day is long. He’s also an American icon and has become accepted by the general populace and really loved by most of America. His showing up there was very powerful. Billy Bragg has been down there singing songs. I have an audience that’s very intense, very passionate about their connection with my work, so it’s definitely something I have to weigh. I have to do a show tomorrow night and I don’t want to be drained.
As a folk singer, it’s part of my job now. I recently went with an expedition down to the Gulf Coast and saw things for myself—talked to a lot of activists, a lot of locals. It’s my job to show up and to ask questions and try to learn as much as I can about what’s going on in this country. But yes, celebrity makes it a little tricky.
How did you meet Pete Seeger?
Probably at the Clearwater Folk Festival on the Hudson River. I started showing up there when I was probably around 20 years old, which was the first time I was hired to play there. I remember being onstage with Pete as a young pup. I remember the phenomenon of me showing up there at Clearwater and suddenly there was this huge infusion of teenagers at this folk festival. This was happening at a lot of folk festivals when I was beginning to show up, and there was a bit of a fear factor amongst the old folkies, and then there were people like Pete and Utah Phillips and Tom Paxton who were right there with me, saying, “Right on! New blood!” They were very welcoming to me. He was instantly on the same page as me. There was no fear or hesitancy. “Here’s a new generation with a different sound and a different uniform but doing the same work. Pete has always been a great inspiration to me and a great comrade to me in that way.
How did the decision to record his “Which Side Are You On?” come about?
I got asked to play at his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden. There was a huge group of people there to play and sing and support the Clearwater organization. So I got my folk singer assignment before that show, and one was to play “Which Side Are You On?”, which was a song he recorded in 1953 and sang a lot. My job was to play that song with Bruce Cockburn and “Hole in a Bucket” with Kris Kristofferson.
As I began to learn it, I couldn’t help but tinker with it, that being the folk process. I ended up rewriting the verses extensively and I’ve been singing it ever since. It’s become sort of my rabblerousing show closer. This new record I’ve been working on for years, I think it morphed a lot along the way, and “Which Side Are You On?” became the theme over the course of the years I’ve been working on it.
Pete plays on it. I called him up and I said, “Pete, I’m recording ‘Which Side’ and do you think you could join me on it?” He was like, “Hang on!” He gets his banjo and gets back on the phone: “Okay, are you doing the modal version like this, or this version like this, and…” Dude is 90 years old and has more energy and more passion than I could ever hope for. He played the banjo intro to the track on the record exactly like the 1953 recording that he made in one take.
I loved the use of the Roots of Music on the recording. How did that come about?
About 16 years ago, I went on a coast-to-coast summer tour and hired the Rebirth Brass Band to open it. It was a month-long party. Ever since then Derrick [Tabb] and I have been buddies. He and his friend Allison [Reinhardt] basically started that music program from nothing. They knew about as much as any of us about starting a free music school for underprivileged kids and somehow they’ve done it. It’s incredible what they’re doing. I’m on the board now, and I’ve been working with them and trying to help in various ways. It was actually my partner and co-producer, Mike [Napolitano], his idea to get them on that track and I love it. It feels so good that there’s just a huge, diverse population playing on that track. It’s politically appropriate.
How do you continue to write political songs now after you’ve been writing them for so long? What are some of the challenges you are facing?
The political songs have always been the hardest. To write about the love, the personal foibles, the heartache, that’s automatic. To write about things that are bigger than yourself, things that are maybe far out there, it’s more tricky. One of the problems that I’ve experienced over the years is a simple problem of language. If you want to say something really specific, politically, you get into a territory of language that is very un-musical. Maybe it’s because we’re not used to hearing this language in song, but “patriarchy” and “multinational corporation”—it’s hard to put those across in song and succeed and say something that doesn’t have an expiration date. Or something that does. Folk songs are very often topical, and they’re part newspaper, part song. I think that’s a cool genre as well.
Recently, I’ve had some conversations with younger artists who I admire, and I’ve had experiences where they’ve said to me, “Wow, you were such an inspiration. You emboldened me.” After twenty-something years of making songs, I’ve realized one of the roles I play in music and in society is boundary-pusher, especially in the arena of politics and art. In thinking about that lately, if it’s my job to push these boundaries, then let’s see how hard I can push. I think of “Amendment” [on the new album] as a stand out. I worked really hard on that song to make it a song and also to be a proposal to a constitutional amendment that leaves nothing out.
Was this a time that particularly called for a political record?
Gee, what time isn’t? Even the time of quiet prosperity of the ’90s was really time of deregulation and setting up all of this freeloading inequality. I think anytime is a time when citizens need to be citizens and art needs to challenge society. That’s how we grow and that’s how we evolve.