Iconoclast singer-songwriter, indie music pioneer and social activist Ani DiFranco moved to New Orleans in 2003. A lover of the city and its music, she recruited local drummer Terence Higgins into her band. And Ivan Neville, Cyril Neville and horn players from Galactic, Bonerama and the Rebirth Brass Band have all contributed to DiFranco’s made-in-New Orleans recordings.
“I have a blast playing on Ani’s recordings,” Ivan Neville said. “She’s so creative and so urgent with what she says and how she expresses herself in music. And when she has me come over and play on her stuff, she doesn’t tell me what to do. She wants me to play what I hear. That’s how I collaborate with her. I really love that.”
A music pro since her teens, DiFranco moved from her native Buffalo to New York City when she was 18. Her indie recording artist career began when she made a collection of songs available to fans via 500 cassettes. The tape’s sold-out success inspired the 1990 formation of DiFranco’s indie label, Righteous Babe Records.
Constant touring and more self-made albums expanded the singer’s grassroots popularity throughout the ’90s. Her 1995 album, Not a Pretty Girl, and its follow-up, Dilate, made the fiercely independent and political artist a mainstream star.
When she’s not touring, DiFranco lives in New Orleans with her husband, the producer, engineer and musician Mike Napolitano, and their two children. Taking a break this year from songwriting, she’s currently working on her memoir.
You moved to New Orleans in 2003. Many celebrities, musicians, actors and filmmakers move to the city but they don’t stay. Are you still enjoying being here?
I hope I can someday grow old enough to say I’m from New Orleans. It could take 50 years of being a newcomer to earn that. But for me, it’s mecca.
What do you love so much about the city?
The connectedness through the musical and cultural history, and the melting-pot cauldron of it all. The landscape here makes me feel grounded, connected to things that came before. Instant, new cities feel disconnected and alienating to me. I love places with history.
What do you think of New Orleanians?
People here get right to the heart of one another. For better or for worse, I dig that. In New York and Buffalo, people wear veils between each other. But down here you better be right with who you are, because you can’t hide it.
Your new album, Binary, is beautiful.
I’m happy about it.
And it’s your 20th album.
A good round number. There were moments in my recorded canon when I hit on something and made an effective recording. But I think my effective records are few and far between.
Why do you think that?
Because I’ve been on my own, in music in general and in the recording studio. And I worked from the aesthetic of the house engineers in whatever studio I walked into. Later, I formed my own ideas. Some good, some not good. I took control from the house metal-head dude at the little studio in Buffalo, but I didn’t know what I was doing either.
If I have any regrets about all my years of being independent, it’s that I didn’t place a team of professionals around me when I made recordings. I just followed my spleen. A lot of those recordings are not great documents of good songs, and I feel bad for those songs.
You approached Binary differently?
A totally different scenario. I had the best of the best. From the people accompanying me, my band and the other guest musicians, to the recordist. My husband recorded it. He’s a genius in the studio.
You produced Binary yourself but, for a change, you didn’t mix it. Why did you choose Tchad Blake (Sheryl Crow, the Pretenders, Andrew Bird) for that job?
Mike recorded James McMurtry’s album [Complicated Game] in our home studio. He sent a track from that to Tchad, so Tchad could do a different kind of mix for it. Because James’ record had been made in my house, I’d heard it at every phase. What Tchad did to it pops in such a great way. After I recorded Binary, I called Tchad to see if he had time for me.
How do you like Tchad’s mix for Binary?
Whoa. I gave him the raw tracks and he painted them. I had no idea how much somebody can contribute at that late hour. He added a whole other level of creativity I was missing.
A level of creativity missing from your previous 19 albums?
Yeah, 19 records! Binary is the beginning of a new era. I never want to go back to doing stuff on my own. I want to be with people smarter than me from now on.
Following your 2014 album, Allergic to Water, which features personal songs, Binary brings you back to the socio-political writing with which you’re so identified.
My political songwriting has been a through-line all the way. But some years and albums I’m more engaged with society and some other years I’m more engaged with my personal sphere.
What inspired your social activism?
I learned to be a citizen from my parents. Being present and accounted for has always given my life meaning. When I was a little kid, my mother campaigned for liberal candidates in Buffalo. She started a food co-op in our neighborhood. My parents were grateful taxpayers. I was raised with the idea that taxes are a good thing. Just look at what this country gives you. You get civilization. You help each other and the bar rises for everyone.
But more and more in America, we’re seeing what happens when we don’t take care of each other. When people step on and push other people down, the people getting pushed down are hurt the most, but it brings us all down.
Just so you know who you’re talking to, I’m a socialist, basically.
You wrote the outwardly looking songs on Binary before Donald Trump’s presidency. The lyrics, however, are prescient to the present.
I’ve heard other songwriters speak of premonition in writing. When you’re creating art, you tap into a subconscious place that’s not bound by time. It used to spook me when I wrote about stuff and then it happened. But time, as the quantum physicists tell us, is an illusion. A year ago is the same as tomorrow.
Binary means connected. That’s an interesting title during these divisive times.
Americans, I believe, have been pushed by calculating people into combat between themselves. It’s making enemies of people who are not enemies. We have common interests. We all bleed. And yet we’ve been mind-melded into vilifying each other.
I think I was graced by being old enough to grow up in the 1970s. I went to public schools in New York when people believed in the value of education and society. I experienced a more unified, hopeful America, before it began to devolve again.
Are current events, including the Trump presidency, inspiring you to write songs?
Honestly, I find myself at a weird crossroads. It reminds of when Katrina hit. I was in New Orleans then, stepping back from my public life. My guitar playing had left me physically injured—tendinitis and stuff. And I’d been mentally overwhelmed for years.
So, I took nine months off. But even when I’m not on stage, I’m always mining for songs. But I was also in this place where I wanted to keep my thoughts to myself. I needed to just be. And then Katrina hit New Orleans. I’m like, ‘I should get back on my horse! I should get on my soapbox. I should get to work.’ But I needed that time for myself.
And you’re in a similar place now?
I’ve been working on a memoir since the fall of 2016. This new idea I came up with to challenge myself and change it up. It’s a daily slog. A huge undertaking. I’m scared. I’m petrified. It’s a deadline that never goes away.
So, I haven’t been writing songs. I’m writing sentences about the past. Which is weird. But, immediately, when Trump was ordained, I started getting calls and emails. ‘Bring it on! Can’t wait to hear your new songs!’ A lot of pressure came my way. ‘Give us an anthem.’ Not intentional pressure, but I felt the need that thinking, caring people had for songs to sing in this moment. But I’m trying to stay true to what I’ve already established as my purpose right now, and that’s to make a book.
Is writing a memoir at least similar to writing songs?
I’ve been a writer of poetry and songs for 30 years. I’m a first-time memoir author, but my sense of how to express myself, for better or worse, is specific. When it’s working, it connects with others. And all those songs that I wrote, nobody was there but me and my demons.
In the studio and on stage, bassist Todd Sickafoose and New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins are your rhythm section. You love their work. What do they bring to your thing?
My love for them increases every day. To be backed up by such amazing and intuitive and giving people is such a blessing. And I’ve been backed by wonderful musicians from the beginning. Everybody brought a different thing to my songs. But with Todd and Terence, I have more bases covered than ever.
What about Terence, specifically?
In that essential way for a drummer in a band, he grounds it. It’s not just that the pockets in his groove are as deep as anybody’s. It’s his spirit. I’ve tried to tell him, in several drunken moments, what it means to me to turn to him on stage during the height of a performance. Everybody’s grooving and I turn and it’s like, ‘Drum solo!’ And I stop playing and Terence, instead of getting all manic like I do, becomes even more subtle and intentional. I find that really instructive.
Todd is on the other side of me with his melodic, orchestral mind. Even after 15 years of performing with Todd, he plays a song different every time. It’s never play the part. It’s play the moment.
In addition to Terence, you enjoy working with other New Orleans musicians.
I have some of the world’s best musicians within arm’s length. It’s a luxurious place to be.
Ivan Neville is another of your local favorites.
He’ll come into my little trio and, through his fingers, expand the whole thing. I’ve seen him do that with so many people. Ivan is rooted in New Orleans music and royalty, but he’s a sponge who’s soaked up music of all kinds and flavors. He gets it. He translates. O
House of Blues
Sunday, November 19