Ani DiFranco. Photo by Charles Waldorf.
Ani DiFranco’s career as a pop star (using the term broadly) has been uniquely hers. She lived alone at 15 as an emancipated minor, started her own Righteous Babe Records at 18, hit New York the same year and welded folk guitar to slam poetry in a style that has kept evolving and transcending since her first album came out 26 years ago.
Her fans are uniquely devoted—her ability to dig into love, intimacy, and politics with literate humor and candor are through-lines, whatever the style she’s exploring—and many have stuck along for the journey with her from their college days to more gravity-bound adulthood.
When reminded of this, she lets out a laugh. “This is a good conversation to start my day with,” she says over the phone in advance of her return to First Avenue this month. “I feel that way about my audience, too. I don’t have as big an audience as some others, but the quality of the relationship—the types of letters, and the stories that are told and relayed—has such an impact on me.”
She’s a dynamo of a live performer, with a tightrope mix of bravado and vulnerability. And DiFranco’s maintaining business ownership of her own art and her years of engaging her audience as equals also have lent her the aura of a hero. She flirted with mainstream stardom in the early days but, perhaps fortuitously, managed to avoid the pitfalls that led some of her peers to sacrifice their particular voice for a more short-lived success.
As a sign of how her audience views DiFranco: When I happened to mention to a couple of women in my life that I was going to be speaking with DiFranco, I was told they would be so awestruck in my shoes that they’d be speechless. (To those who feel the same: You wouldn’t be. She’s as down-to-earth as you would hope.)
Now 45, DiFranco lives in New Orleans with her husband and two young children—domesticity being perhaps not the most likely outcome from the perspective of her younger days. But then we all evolve, don’t we?
“It’s one of the things I hear the most these days, when somebody comes up to me on the street in daily life: I’ve been on this journey with you for 20 years, we’ve been leading parallel lives,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It has something to do with the way I built my career, brick by brick. I think there’s an element of live by the media, die by the media in showbiz. Reaching an audience over the course of 10 years on foot makes for more of a solid and enduring relationship.”
Or, as she put it to me more bluntly, “I’m a lucky fu**er.”