I just found out that Ani DiFranco released her new studio album last month, and I’m absolutely ecstatic. Technically, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as DiFranco has released a full studio album virtually every single year since she first debued in 1990. But I’ve been so enthralled by her latest album, Knuckle Down, that I still listen to it with the happy satisfaction I had a week after I had purchased it.
Ani DiFranco’s story is nothing short of inspirational: Starting out playing Beatles covers at the age of nine in local haunts around her hometown of Buffalo, New York, she moved on to writing poetry to her own music as a teenager in New York City. She founded her own record label–Righteous Babe Records–at the age of eighteen with just fifty dollars, and turned down many major record deals along the way. A poet at her core, DiFranco’s style has created a niche of its own with her spoken word interludes, staccato melodies and aggressive fingerpicking in a plethora of tunings. Today, after a decade and a half of writing, touring and playing for crowds of loyal listeners all around the world, her music still maintains the level of honesty and forthrightness for which she has been so well known. And as she aptly puts it, ‘folk music is not an acoustic guitar–that’s not where the heart of it is. I use the word ‘folk’ in reference to punk music and rap music. It’s an attitude, it’s an awareness of one’s heritage, and it’s a community. It’s sub-corporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.’
An inspiring example of how an individual can be self-sufficient and far-removed from a world of excess hyped up over egoism and commercial culture, DiFranco has until this day maintained her strong, highly respected independence. She has lent her voice to issues such as racism, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, reproductive rights, poverty, and war. In recent years, she has also been responsible for saving the Asbury Delaware Methodist Church from demolition, which has since been turned it into an entertainment venue and the new headquarters for Righteous Babe. And during her Vote Dammit! Tour, she was active in encouraging as many people as possible to get involved and take the initiative to vote in the 2000 US presidential election.
Her latest album, Reprieve, is a new mixture of DiFranco’s older styles and styles exhibited in recent years. The cover art shows an image of a tree photographed in Nagasaki on August 10, 1945 in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, by Japanese photographer Yosuke Yamahata–setting an appropriate tone for the poetry of this highly critical yet calmly introspective album that discusses an array of topics including celebrity, network news, patriarchy, the current US administration, Hurricane Katrina, and her pregnancy. And after sampling the tracks on her album’s website, I can already tell that one of my favourites is ‘Millenium Theatre‘–a song that may very well be the anthem for the 21st century.
I have yet to listen to the album in full to comment about the rest (which I eagerly anticipate–I think one of the first things I’ll do after getting back to London is head to Virgin…), so until then I’ll leave you with one of her remarkable performances with upright bassist Todd Sickafoose from the May 2004 TRUST concert in Washington DC. This is for the song ‘Phase‘, from the Grammy-winning Evolve album…*
*Update/Correction: The video for the TRUST performance of ‘Phase’ has since been removed from YouTube. But instead, here is a toned down yet equally effective live version of my absolute favourite from Reprieve, ‘Millenium Theatre’. Also performed with Todd Sickafoose, it’s from the Henry Rollins Show, dated August 5, 2006:
Sarah Badr © MMVI