The L'il Folksinger That Could
In the last dozen years, Ani DiFranco has single-handedly become the greatest success story in recent music history. She's a one-woman general of an army she doesn't lead. She's the CEO of a record company whose success she's never courted. For the last six years, she's been one of the top 50 concert draws in the U.S., without theatrics, by following an age-old folk formula of playing and singing and being honest with people. She's tapped into a fervent audience of loyal feminists and music fans, even as she's deflected and deferred their worship. She's consistently evolved her music, her politics, her playing style, her voice and her appearance. And she's remained true to the liner notes on her very first recording, which read in part: "I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am. Should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. Just take what you can use and go on."
Having acquired a guitar a year earlier, nine year old Ani DiFranco walks into a music shop in Buffalo, NY to get lessons. She meets local folk scenester Michael Meldrum, and plays Jethro Tull's "Wond'ring Aloud" and W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" to demonstrate her prowess. Meldrum becomes her mentor, and starts taking her to gigs in the Buffalo area. "He had me out in bars and squawking at inappropriate ages," DiFranco says now. "One of the basic things that I learned was that music is an activity — it's a social act, not a commodity. That made an impression on my psyche. My parents didn't have a stereo, so I didn't buy records until I was in college. Growing up, music was something that you did, in a room in time and space — that was one of the gifts that Michael gave me."
By age 11, DiFranco is already a performance veteran. She learns to be heard over bar chatter by taping plastic fingernails to her fingers, allowing her to play her acoustic much louder. "[I also learned] basic folk singer chops. Folk singers on stage are just themselves — you talk about whatever is on your mind and you include political perspectives and your community newspaper, as opposed to other forms of music where there's more theatre or more pomp and circumstance in the performance. Folk singers are pretty straight up on stage, and that made an impression on me. Just stand there, play guitar and sing at people. It seemed like a good enough career choice."
DiFranco's parents' home becomes a crash pad for touring artists coming through Buffalo, often booked by Meldrum. Guests influential on the young Ani include Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked.
DiFranco decides that dance, not music, is her true calling and attends the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, until 1987.
DiFranco's parents divorce. Rather than choose with whom to live, she moves out on her own, taking a variety of service-industry jobs to pay her way. One of these, in construction, brings her in contact with a politically committed carpenter named Scot Fisher, who will later play a key role in her career.
DiFranco plays in a Buffalo band that either never had a name, or that she has since forgotten.
A romantic relationship with an older man sours after she gets pregnant; he disappears after her abortion. The painful experience is chronicled in "Lost Woman Song" on her first album, released the following year. She enrols in Buffalo State College, studying painting and art, while continuing to play gigs on weekends.
DiFranco drops out of BSC and moves to New York, where she attends the New School For Social Research, studying poetry. Her mentor is poet Sekou Sundiata, who will later release albums on Righteous Babe Records. She befriends Dale Anderson, a 47-year-old rock critic, who becomes her manager.
She chooses 12 songs from over 100 she's written to date and records her first self-titled cassette, featuring simply her voice and acoustic guitar, at Audio Magic Studios in Buffalo. She borrows $1500 for the recording and duplication of 500 cassettes, released under the moniker of Righteous Babe Records. Her first choice, Righteous Records, was already taken by a Southern gospel label. The manufacturing is also done by a Buffalo company (the same one she works with to this day) despite the fact that DiFranco is based in NYC.
"I was performing in Buffalo for ten years before I made a tape. When I made that first cassette tape, it started to have a life of its own. It began to travel. That's when I began to make connections with my tribe — other women in colleges started duplicating my tape and sending it to each other. Letters started coming in saying ‘can you come play in our cafeteria? The women's centre can pay you $200.'" She embarks upon weekend jaunts to cities within driving (or bus ride) distance to play gigs, even while she continues with school and volunteer work with the Central American Solidarity Movement and the War Resisters' League.
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