Ani Difranco, a legend in the indie music scene since the early 90s, hails from Buffalo and got her start playing Beatles covers at local bars, as well as busking alongside guitar teacher Michael Meldrum. A graduate of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts High School, Difranco began attending classes at Buffalo State College at age 16 and founded Righteous Babe Records, in 1989 at age 19.
DiFranco’s Babeville is a multi-use facility devoted to the arts built inside a 19th century Gothic Revival-style church that was rescued from the wrecking ball to become a home for home for the arts in downtown Buffalo.
According to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, DiFranco manufactures all her albums in Buffalo, uses the services of Western New York companies for all her products and employs a staff at her downtown Buffalo offices, thus making both an artistic and economic contribution to her hometown of Buffalo.
Rob Smittix of The Xperience Monthly spoke to DiFranco recently, discussing her then-upcoming show at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, songwriters, up-and-coming musicians, as well as Buffalo and her current home of New Orleans.
AD: Hey is this Rob?
RRX: It is.
AD: It’s Ani calling.
RRX: I recognize your voice, how are you?
AD: I’m good.
RRX: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I’m excited about talking to you.
AD: Aw shucks. You’re in Troy?
RRX: Currently, I’m across the river but you’re coming to Troy November 11th to The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. It’s a beautiful theatre, have you played there before?
AD: Oh wow, I don’t think so. Although my life is a bit of a blur.
RRX: Well speaking of your life being a blur… you may or may not remember this but my boss here, Art Fredette and his best friend Jim Barrett used to own a record store called Positively 3rd Street in Troy. He said years ago before you really made a name for yourself, you actually came into the store dropped off cassettes and I imagine you had an acoustic with you because they say that you played a few songs.
AD: I mean, I believe it.
AD: I believe that happened. Who’s to say what memory is ? Feels like a memory, yeah.
RRX: I’ve hear that story a few times and it really made an impression on them.
AD: I mean those were the days. I would literally bring in my cassettes to indie stores in the region and that’s how it all started. Supportive local people who are like okay local chick, what do you got? You know?
RRX: But you were really out there hustling for yourself.
AD: Just trying to make a living without a whole lot of backup.
RRX: That’s great. What I’m saying, is that you really started out DIY before DIY became the big movement that it’s become today. Being independent, having your own record label and doing it on your own way before it became the trend, is really cool. Every album you’ve put out was on your label (Righteous Babe Records), if I’m not mistaken.
AD: In one sense it’s always been there, you know? Where’s the line between? There’s local musicians in every community playing around and getting local audiences. Maybe they’re making a recording and selling them at their gigs. It seems kind of silly. I know that I’m kind of indie-girl USA and often touted for propelling the music industry into it’s new future but in another sense it’s very simple; don’t stop, keep rolling with that and f**k all of the assumptions about where you go from there.
RRX: I respect that! Well that’s cool. I’ve been in a band for years but as we know, only a handful of people actually make it in the business. That’s a dream come true for so many of us. So for people that have made it and that are recognized… that leads me to the question, what are your dreams now? What do you aspire for now?
AD: As you were asking your question I felt the urge to pushback about… even just what making it means. Along the theme of what we are talking about, you’re a musician, I’m a musician. I think anybody that makes a place for music in their life and can carve out that place somehow and make music in a way that sets them free. If it puts them in touch with their body, themselves and their community, people they play music with or for, maybe it’s a solitary thing but if it helps you process your life and be a healthy, happy person… that’s success!
AD: So to finish answering your question, I think holding onto that. That’s all I want. I mean there’s nothing like a pandemic to to refresh my capacity to appreciate my job. After all of these decades it’s still a job. I think if there’s anything I want to do moving forward it’s to stay in touch with my joy of playing music and my purpose of it. Even though it is a f**king job, for me.
RRX: Right, right, but it’s a job that you enjoy and you do have some control over which is really cool as well. That at least I can relate to. I work in radio and for this magazine that we’ve got going on and that’s a dream come true for me. Now do you keep a dream journal?
AD: Um.. no, I barely keep a waking journal. Who has time?
RRX: I kept a dream journal for a really short period of time but then I realized that you can’t always control your dreams and I don’t want anybody reading this stuff.
AD: Oh, yeah there’s that. I somehow let my journal leak into the wider world, I don’t know if I’d recommend it.
RRX: Wow, yeah that could certainly backfire. So because I just like to chat and not really do your standard interview, I just wanted to ask what’s been going on in your life? What’s been on your mind? That sort of thing?
AD: Getting back to touring a lot, which is still just a little bit unhinged. The pandemic changed everything for everybody. Many people that I’ve been working with just splintered in different directions, starting over and the chaos of the touring industry. The whole ride-along of trying to deal with Covid protocols. You feel a little like you’re on the Muppet Show where people are just exploding around you. And the buses… I don’t know if you realize that there were no bus drivers because they all had to go and do something else.
RRX: Wow, no I didn’t even think of that.
AD: There were no buses, we were thrown into vans. It’s just been chaotic but really the divides of the shows an audiences are so high. I’ve been really looking towards the elections and trying to get people registered “A” and “B” excited about f**king changing this sh*t! There are a lot of exiting, young, diverse candidates out there, people stepping up to the plate and running for office. I just feel very strongly about supporting this movement to reclaim democracy and diversify government. I’m really excited about organizations like Run For Something. It’s crowd sourced funding of all of these different progressive candidates, in a lot of different areas. You may not have somebody specifically in your neck of the woods that you are super-jazzed about voting for but a victory somewhere is a victory everywhere. Then there’s Emily’s List, which I’ve been involved with for years, that supports pro-choice female and non-binary candidates. All of these organizations that you can contribute to and help people get their foot in the door and help politics be less controlled by the rich.
RRX: Yeah, I’m really tired of it coming down to the lesser of the two evils.
RRX: I was just thinking, really… why do we always put up with these choices? There’s how many? 330,000,000 people or something like that in America, so I think we can do better.
AD: It seems like it’s cracking open. It’s changing and all we have to do is throw our weight behind this change and we can make it happen.
RRX: I’ve got to say and I am generalizing, there certainly are exceptions but I’ve got three kids and I’ve listened to them and I’m not knocking the newer generations but it seems as though many of their priorities and values are compromised. A generation that never knew the world without the internet. Kids that are more concerned about TikTok and social media than anything else. Even video games have some responsibility for the way the minds of our youth have developed. I mean there are 7 year olds who have gotten their hands on Grand Theft Auto. It desensitizes them. But the youth are the future and we need to focus on them.
AD: For sure but all of this new technology is completely unregulated, it blindsided even our ability. They want to convince you that government is bad and regulation is bad but of course that’s from the perspective of the overlords. They don’t have to be regulated they have the ability to maximize their profits, no matter what. Government is supposed to protect the little guy. Is business protecting us from itself? Or is it government? Which do you think is going to work better? It’s difficult but I believe in order to get this technology under control so that it can do more good than harm to our young people and our future. As a society we have to get the right regulations in place to counteract the insidious negative effect of the invisible algorithm and the downside of connectivity.
RRX: Also with the youth today, I’ve got to say the music is not helping. The messages that a lot of this music is pushing… and I know we grew up with records that our parents wanted to destroy but it just seems that it’s gotten way worse. Especially the image that woman are portraying in the Hip Hop scene. It’s not what I would want my daughter listening to but kind of hard to ignore it because that’s what they’re putting out now and that’s what is selling.
AD: There’s a big world out there and it’s all in the palm of their hand.
RRX: At least there are artists like yourself that do exist and do have good messages to spread. You’ve got something to say, unfortunately a lot of artists are just trying to capitalize on what will sell regardless.
AD: I feel really strongly about trying to adopt a stance of revolutionary love which hopefully I can employ into everything that I do.
RRX: It’s a double-sided coin as well because I’m not about art censorship, so even though I don’t like the messages that they’re putting out, it’s freedom of speech, they should be able to do it. I guess the problem is that the quote unquote “industry” wants to get this filth into kid’s ears. On another note, I was hanging out with my keyboardist last night he reminded me about Babeville. I’ve never been but I’ve really got to get up there.
AD: It was a huge undertaking that’s for sure and it’s a beautiful venue. It’s several venues really and an art gallery, it’s a little scene in this old cathedral. There’s a cool club down in the basement. That building was slated for demolition like so many buildings in Buffalo. Beautiful architectural treasures that because of poverty…
RRX: Urban blight.
AD: Like so many cities in The Rust Belt. But it was going to be torn down. We started action to to save the building then our karma was wrapped up in it. I remember the summer that basically two dudes spent hand digging out the basement.
RRX: Oh my God!
AD: We couldn’t get a backhoe in there and literally the basement had to be dug from 5 feet headroom to whatever it is. Two dudes! Everything of Righteous Babe went into it but actually in more recent years, I personally have moved on. My partner in Righteous Babe continues on with that venue and I’m down in New Orleans with the record company.
RRX: I was gonna ask if you were still down in New Orleans.
RRX: I’ve just seen pictures of Babeville online, so I had to bring it up. It’s really cool that you brought it back to life. I imagine the place is probably haunted. So I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Was there anything else that you wanted to say?
AD: Well for the show itself, I’m going t be playing with Todd Sickafoose on bass and keys. I’ve been playing with him for about 25 years now, my left hand man. We’re also going to be playing with a completely new drummer Jharis Yokley, so that’s radical and exciting.
AD: The openers are the The Righteous Babes Revue, which is a super group of Righteous Babe artists that are coming together to do these shows and play each other’s songs. It’s really so many awesome and talented babes that are currently on the label that will be opening the show and sitting in with us. This should be a really fun tour
RRX: Well I really appreciate your time. It’s really been a pleasure and I hope you enjoyed yourself as well.
AD: Absolutely, likewise and thank you.
Interview originally published in The Xperience Monthly.