Reckonings and Revelations

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As she sits in the kitchen of her modest home in Buffalo, N.Y., Ani DiFranco has Minneapolis, Minn., on her mind. In 1999 she was summoned to the Twin Cities by the Artist Who Is Now Called Prince but Who at That Point Was Going by That Weird Symbol. He wanted her to play guitar on a song he had just written, so he played her the tune (just once), told her simply, "It's in G," and began to record, expecting DiFranco to improvise something on the spot. Says DiFranco: "I thought I could either start crying and run or try and hang on with the song." She did more than hang on--the resulting ballad, I Love U but I Don't Trust U Anymore, was one of the high points of Prince's last album.

If DiFranco, 30, ever changed her name to an unpronounceable symbol it probably would look like a fist, to represent her subversion of music-industry conventions. Or maybe it would take the shape of a crooked smile. Or perhaps there's no single symbol that can stand for what DiFranco is all about: she's folk and she's punk; she can be a little country and even a tiny bit hip-hop. In fact, she has transformed herself into a flesh-and-blood icon, one that represents a blithe, unconquerable self-reliance: she has released 15 albums over her 10-year career, all on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, based in Buffalo. Her most popular album, Dilate (1996), sold more than 500,000 copies. Her new CD, the double album Revelling/Reckoning, is her most ambitious, most accomplished work yet, melding folk, jazz, funk and rock into music that's as elemental and unpredictable as the weather.

It's also intensely personal. DiFranco, who married her sound engineer, Andrew (Goat Boy) Gilchrist, three years ago, says that she has found living and working with the same person "24/7" difficult, and that Reckoning deals with that strain. "In the past, music has been a way that I've had to empower myself," says DiFranco. "Reckoning is about 'How do you show yourself at your weakest?'" On one song, the casually jazzy So What, DiFranco sings about a doomed relationship: "Who's gonna take the call/ when you find out that the road ahead/is painted on a wall?" On Marrow, she sings about emotional frustration: "And what do I do with all these letters/that I wrote to myself/but cannot address?"

On previous albums, DiFranco's songs have been as topical as 60 Minutes segments, touching on gun control, gay rights and abortion. On one new track, Subdivision, she turns the unlikely subject of urban gentrification into a song. But while retaining its social bite, DiFranco's music also displays a growing sense of nuance and texture; she has alchemized her rants into revelations. One of her best new tracks is The Garden of Simple, a wordy, folkie ramble that recounts a series of metaphoric vignettes about freedom. "I actually wrote that one for Prince," says DiFranco. "I just wanted to write him a song one day, so I sent it off to him." One line goes: "They never really owned you." She could be talking about herself.