One of the real changes in how Ani DiFranco approaches live performing these days may be something that, in a strict sense, isn’t actually part of what she does on stage. But rest assured, DiFranco indicated during a recent phone interview, it’s making a difference in her performances.
“For most of my life, I’d get off stage and I have this sort of tortured side to my personality where I just I relive all of the things that I did wrong or didn’t quite say right, because I like to speak off the cuff,” DiFranco said. “And sometimes it comes out right and sometimes it comes out sideways. And then I have to dissect every moment and I’ve done a lot of beating myself up and worrying over the years about not being good enough.
“Now I really consciously try not to do that so I stay more at peace,” she continued. “I think it sort of helps me to walk out on stage with a more relaxed, ready-to-have-fun version of myself if I can sort of put my worrying gene on the back burner a little bit. So I do that better now. It’s still hard for me, but I try to be more Zen about it because I know that the best moments on stage are when you’re totally relaxed and in your skin. That’s when you and the audience get the most out of it.”
That emerging inner peace as a performer seems like a part of a bigger overall picture of contentment for DiFranco. After years of romantic and personal disappointments (including the divorce after five years from her first husband and long-time musical partner, Andrew Gilchrist, known affectionately as “Goat Boy”), DiFranco met her second husband (and co-producer), Mike Napolitano. The couple had a daughter, Petah Lucia, in January 2007.
Marriage and motherhood clearly agree with DiFranco, 42, at this point in her life.
“It helps to be a parent,” she said. “I’ve got other things in my life that eclipse my job in importance most of the time. It helps keep it all in perspective and I think I’ve been enjoying that a lot, a little bit of perspective on these moments that are still very important to me. But now that I have a balance in my life, it’s not life or death.
“I just feel very lucky to be where I’m at, to have a job that I love, to have a family that I love that’s supportive.”
But don’t think that a happy home life is keeping DiFranco from noticing things that are wrong in the world and feeling inspired to share her thoughts on these issues.
In fact, her latest album, Which Side Are You On?, has its share of topical songs that take on what she considers some of the major issues of the day.
“You know, since it seems to be my job to push that envelope, I’ve been sort of exploring, ‘How hard can you push it?’ ” she said.
The topical side of the new release should be apparent enough just from the title. The title track is an updated version of the pro-union protest song made famous by Folk legend Pete Seeger. Seeger himself plays banjo on the song, which was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, a wife of a coal miner and union organizer.
“I wrote a lot of new words for the verses to have it reflect the political now,” DiFranco said. “As I worked on this album, over the last few years, that sort of rose to be the title track just because, I guess, it’s an urgent question that I’m asking the world around me. We’re faced with a lot of crises and it’s not getting any simpler. So we’ve got to really take action. So it’s sort of a cry for action. It’s this big rabble-rousing show closer on a lot of nights.”
The fate of unions and workers’ rights, though, is hardly the only topic DiFranco tackles on Which Side.
“I think there’s a lot of ideas floating through the new record about changing course, you know, away (for instance) from unsustainable fossil fuel technology and into sustainable holistic technologies of the future,” she said.
Another major topic gets explored on the song “Amendment.”
“(It’s) about the Equal Rights Amendment and trying to revive that because I think the civil rights of women is an important building block toward future democracy,” DiFranco said. “I myself strive for a sophisticated understanding of feminism that is just bigger than the rudimentary equal work for equal pay or safety for women on the streets or in the home. It’s about a shift in consciousness that brings the feminine sensibility into balance with the masculine. And then through that, a very fundamental, hard-to-achieve sort of shift, we get more of a balance in the way we approach the environment, the way we approach foreign policy and other nations and the way we approach each other in our domestic policies.
Not everything on the album is weighty and political. On her previous album, 2008’s Red Letter Year, she had a few songs that chronicled the joys of motherhood and marriage and some of that happier life also filters into Which Side Are You On?
“It’s pretty wide scope on this record, I guess, from the very macro to the very micro,” DiFranco said. “I mean, for me, it provides a nice balance.”
DiFranco has been playing a number of the new songs in her live show and also selections from across her entire catalog, which now includes 17 studio releases, all put out on her own label, Righteous Babe Records.
And that happier, more settled attitude she’s been taking in not being so self-critical of her shows, as well as the stability in her personal life, is having a good effect on her frame of mind in general.
“I think I’m in such a good place now that my health has improved,” she said. “I’ve noticed my immune system functions, and all of these nagging problems that I was dealing with in my body, a lot of them have really solved themselves.
“There’s nothing like inner peace for medicine.”
ANI DIFRANCO performs Friday at Covington’s Madison Theater with Pearl and The Beard.