Willing to Fight: Ani DiFranco talks Providence and progress

The summer I turned 22, I sent a letter to Ani DiFranco, who was just 23 herself and at the beginning of her career. In it, I shared with her how important her voice was to me and what a strong impact she and her music had on my coming of age. At the time, Ani had already self-produced an amazing five albums, one a year beginning when she was just 18. Twenty-six years and more than 20 albums later, Ani and her music have etched a permanent place in my identity. Like old friends, I frequently turn to her songs for comfort and joy. Imagine my elation when, in anticipation of Ani’s November 6 show at The Strand, I had the opportunity to interview this very woman who has played such a significant role in my life.

Anyone who’s seen Ani perform live knows that she tells little stories throughout the performance, often sharing memories of the specific town or venue hosting her performance. So my first question for Ani was if she had any special Providence memories. Turns out that Ani loved Lupo’s just like the rest of us did:

“I have a lot of Lupo’s memories, which is rare because my memory is one big blur in general, but I can remember a lot of moments. Like I remember being there once with Joe Henry opening, and I jumped up with him on his set. What I remember is coming off of crashing his set and having him say into the mic, ‘I thought I told her to wait in the car,’ which I love, but I don’t know. There’s just, yeah. I have fond memories of that place.”

Keeping on the Providence theme, Ani and I talked about her song Providence (which is not about the city at all) featuring Prince on backup vocals. She told a great story about working with him:

“You know, it was terrifying and thrilling. I mean I showed up at Paisley Park on his invitation with no idea what we were going to do. And I brought one of my cheap little guitars, because that’s what I play. And I sort of sat in the waiting room because he was working on something, and then he brought me in and what he had been working on was this solo piano ballad, and he wanted me to play guitar on it and he said, ‘It’s in G,’ and I’m pissing my pants because I’m self-taught. I don’t know G from Q. I’m like, ‘Oh no, this is where Prince finds out I can’t play.’ But somehow I recorded a lunk-headed four notes on his beautiful song. And that was how we met. And then — oh, I remember — we met the night before at my show in Minneapolis that he came to. And then he invited me to Paisley Park. And when we met, he said, ‘Will you play on my new album?’ or something. And I said, ‘Yeah, if you’ll play on mine,’ cheeky little folk singer that I was. So, yeah — just a thrill all the way around.”

Because I deeply connect with Ani’s well-established progressive politics and activism, I felt inclined to ask her if she imagined 30 years ago when she began writing overtly political songs that we would still be addressing the same issues and fighting the same fights, with sometimes seemingly little change. Her initial response was that her nature is to live in the present, not imaging into the future – a trait she feels blessed to have. But then she did offer this bit of hope and encouragement, keeping true to her inspiring and positive presence:

“I pull out songs from 30 years or whatever, at least 20 years ago that could be written tomorrow. And it can be disheartening, you know? But you just have to choose to look at all the good change that we’ve made, you know? It’s not a linear process, and it’s never a done deal. It’s like a ball that we roll uphill, you know? If we go slack for a moment, it rolls backward, as we’re seeing now. So you have to be ever vigilant, but I think even in that you can find joy and satisfaction.”

Ani DiFranco performs at The Strand on Nov 6. For tickets, go to thestrandri.com

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