A few minutes into my hourlong interview with feminist singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco about her new book, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir, she told me she was scared to release it. How’s that for marketing from a woman who has long prided herself on anticapitalist principles?
“I have felt steady dread and anxiety since turning it in,” she explained. Her book covers her early life through about the first decade of her career (it ends around the early 2000s), and by her own estimation, is notably lacking in dishy content. And yet: “I feel very fearful right now.” The look in her eye as she said this was one of tentative terror, as though behind me were gray skies and a cyclone heading her way.
DiFranco’s admission was as disarming as it was disillusioning. That she would express such vulnerability so matter-of-factly to a stranger about the very piece of media we had met to discuss was yet another example of the communicative intimacy in which she has traded publicly for some 30 years now. This is the Ani that, at one point, dorms full of college students, particularly young women, thought of as a friend. She is the kind of person who looks you in the eye and shares and shares, regardless who you are.
But at the same time, the fear of speaking out and transmitting her truth, especially now that it’s been committed to paper and is coming out whether she likes it or not, struck such a contrast with that very Ani that I thought I knew. When I asked her what exactly she was afraid of, the first thing on the list was, “Being seen, being judged.” I thought she was used to both of those things by now.
The contrast is most striking with the young woman in the book, whose percussive style of abusing music out of her guitar, melodies slipping out of the strings like prisoners against bars, was devised in part to command the attention of the apathetic bar patrons who were unwittingly attending her early gigs. The young DiFranco of No Walls slept in bus stations when necessary and told a particularly shitty dude who drove her across several states to an early college gig to fuck off, effectively leaving herself stranded and having to fend for herself yet again. “I had some kind of internal voice that said, ‘I’m invincible,’” she said of the matter-of-fact bravery she recounts in her memoir.
These days, DiFranco’s tune is more along the lines of: “I’m fallible.” At 48, she acknowledges openly that she is past her prime in terms of exposure and commercial viability. She told me that upon review, she found her own book to be subjective and that if she had to do it again, she’d probably write it differently. And her reputation as a social-justice crusader took a hit in 2013 when she announced she’d be hosting a songwriting retreat at a former slave plantation called Nottoway. If the miscalculation was somewhat puzzling coming from a white woman who’d explored topics like redlining and lynching’s legacy continuing with the death penalty in her music for years at that point, it was utterly baffling that she stated in her initial written response to the backlash: “I did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.” For what it’s worth, DiFranco told Jezebel that she learned a lot from the experience and the way she responded to it.
This is not to excuse DiFranco or explain for her, but as early as her third album, she was talking about doing things imperfectly. Her scrappy aesthetic has long made room for the not-quite-right: She occasionally forgets her lyrics onstage, she frequently snaps a guitar string while throttle-playing, she has a 19-album discography that only has occasionally captured in the studio what power her songs posses onstage.
Her book, too, is imperfect: She can be frustratingly oblique about what she’s talking about at times. She mentions coming from an unhappy family but we only see flashes of why that was so. With arresting bluntness, she admits openly that she cheated on her first husband Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist but doesn’t elaborate on the ins or outs, so to speak.
Regardless, DiFranco is raw, sensitive, and thoughtful throughout her memoir. On her early days of scraping by in New York, she writes, “I got so used to roaches that I would no longer jump or startle even when they were on me.” She writes page after passionate page tying her belief that reproductive freedom deserves to be considered a civil right with a philosophy that states that life begins before conception. She gets in a few words about her musician peers that, while not quite dishy, are pointed in their own ways. (On Bob Dylan: “Bob felt like a man who lived in fear that someone would discover and expose him as a fraud. I am not saying he is a fraud.” On playing an early gig with Tori Amos: “I remember cowering from the tension as she stopped in the middle of a song once to chastise the disrespectful audience. I had such a self-effacing way of approaching an audience myself, I would just try to trick them into listening, and here she was approaching the challenge from the other direction.”)
She writes about being so unhappy with her job as a touring artist in the early 2000s, when she was in what most outsiders would consider her prime, that: “It was only a matter of time before it would feel to me like [her label Righteous Babe Records] was this big, primitive, coal-burning machine and my job was shoveling coal. I had a sustainable business model only insofar as I stayed deep underground, gasping.” DiFranco would probably rather be caught dead than be labeled a pop star, but this feeling of propping up an entire industry that had formed in the wake of your former passion for entertaining, reminded me a lot of the fatigue you can detect from Britney Spears.
She’s also very funny in her bluntness. “My gold record plaque hangs over my toilet as I type,” she writes in one section. In another, she recounts her embarrassment when she realized, in Italy, that “Ani” is the plural form of “anus” in Italian.
No Walls and the Recurring Dream ultimately offers a trip back in time that I didn’t realize how happy I was to take. DiFranco’s music meant so much to me around the time of college, and before reading her book and researching this piece, it had been years since I really did a deep dive into her discography. As such, it was preserved in amber, the memories it brought back were that of the intense, sense variety. Looking back at her career, which her book invites you to do, it stunned me just how many great songs she has, and just how excellent she has been when in top form. Show me a weirder, scarier, more paranoid, more tampon-present love song than “Swan Dive.”
DiFranco and I met at the Café Standard in mid-April. Salman Rushdie, randomly, was sitting at the table next to ours as she told me about writing her book for about two years “in stolen mommy moments” (DiFranco has two children, 12-year-old Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano, and 6-year-old Dante DiFranco Napolitano). She spoke in a kind of croak and her affect was wary and subdued, but she was not what I would call reserved. She is the kind of interview subject who is engaged in the process, who seems to relish every question as a challenge of how to answer concisely and honestly. Below is a transcript of our discussion, which has been edited for length, clarity, and flow.
JEZEBEL: You say in your book when discussing your songs, “I feel as though I’ve discerned a difference between writing from life and autobiography.” There, you’re referring to refining your truth into art. And here, you’re writing…
ANI DIFRANCO: Straightforward autobiography. Or is it? Or is it just another story? I guess I couldn’t help but reflect on that mirror in a mirror in a mirror. Looking at my book that I wrote once it was in front of me, I was like, “Wow, that’s very subjective.” If I had to do it again, I’d probably do it differently. I don’t know why I told those stories and not those, and talked about those people but not them. But I tried not to think of this as the be all end all story. It’s just another…whatever. Another offering.
Did you write it from your “spleen,” as you do music, according to the book?
Yeah, exactly. And trying not to calculate or worry about it.
There are some things, though, that you don’t talk about in the book pointedly, it seems. We understand that you were married to Andrew “Goat” Glichrist, you cheated on Goat, you split from Goat, but we don’t see that split. We don’t see [drummer] Andy [Stochansky] departing your band. How did you draw those lines of what went in the book and what was off limits?
I just sort of took one step at a time through the telling and I found my way to where I ended up. Some stuff I wrote and deleted. Some stuff I went back and elaborated on. I didn’t dish on any of us in a deep way, myself or others. I think the middle way is probably where the most truth is. I’m not my best moment, and I’m not my worst moment. I’m somewhere in the middle and I think all the people in my life and the people that I wrote about, I tried to treat us all the same way. Like, here’s a portrait from my hand of this person. My best friend I was talking to the other day, they were saying how disappointed they were at the lack of dishing. “There’s not a single blowjob in this fuckin’ book! What good is this?”
Honestly, for me even telling what happened was kind of excruciating. It was a little hard for me to even want to go there. What I got excited about was my ideas. I tried to not go too heavily into pontificating, ‘cause that’s all I really wanted to do, is share ideas. I don’t want to talk more about what happened. I was trying to strike a balance between what I was compelled to do and what other people are compelled to read.
Is part of the wariness to go back and rerecord the things that happened a result of getting sick of talking about yourself?
[Nodding emphatically, exhaustedly even] Yeah. And it’s funny because then I feel like I upped the oversharing ante with the book. And after recording the audiobook version, I never want to share anything again. So, you heard it here first: I’m done. That’s it.
Is that because you had to reread what you had written in such explicit detail?
Yeah. Writing it down, there’s a certain amount of putting the little mule blinders on and just create and don’t worry. But then sitting down in front of a microphone and speaking these intimate thoughts that I somehow brought myself to put on the page, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t prepare myself for that.
You live in New Orleans. Is Righteous Babe now based there?
Righteous Babe is now based where most businesses are: In the ether. In this person’s house, in that person’s laptop. I finally came to the realization that having a cathedral to heat and cool and keep the lights on and all of that kind of infrastructure is not really that meaningful. So the venue still exists in Buffalo but that’s no longer the Babe headquarters.
Is that a result of the ever-changing music industry?
Yeah, I mean, I’m just another example of downscaling. The bubble of profit in the music industry for everyone burst some time ago. For me, it was steady growth for a decade or two and now it’s a sort of consolidation of resources and everything.
Do you take that personally?
No. I try not to feel bad about it. My whole world is populated with artists, some of whom had moments in the sun, some of whom were very brightly lit, but it all, ya know... Even a Bruce Springsteen is past his prime at some point. You have to accept that, and what happens next and who are you now. Those are just the challenges that you’re lucky to face if you have any kind of success.
In the book you write, “It was exciting for my career to be on the way up, yes, but in many ways, it got better on the way down.” Was it ever difficult to face “the way down” as it began, or have you always been so zen about it?
I think I’ve always been pretty zen. I believe that the universe will hold me. I believe that the universe will not let me starve. And beyond that I’ve been lucky and I have to stay grateful and not worry that something becomes less or that something becomes harder. Life is nothing if not humbling, so you can either accept it or die resisting.
Is part of your reaction to reading this book aloud similar to that which you have with your records, which you write about ending up hating, almost invariably?
I don’t know because this is my first book experience. I don’t know what the lasting effect on me will be, but I have felt steady dread and anxiety since turning it in. I just want to get through the next few months. I just want to see July on the calendar and know somehow it went out into the world and whatever the reactions were from the near and dear to the stranger, I survived it and life continues. I feel very fearful right now.
What are you afraid of?
Being seen, being judged. I’m afraid of hurting people. One unique aspect of this project was letting people into the process, like, “Here read a version and tell me what you think.” That was fascinating.
Yeah, I let 20 people into the process and everybody picked up on different stuff. Everybody had different suggestions. Different people warned, “Take this out!” “You can’t say that!” I had to navigate through that. A lot of warnings about a lot of different aspects of what I was putting out there. I know from a life of putting yourself out there that there’s a certain amount of blowback and criticism and people that will feel hurt or angry. I had to really decide to leave in what I left in and hope that the overall effect is what I intended, which is that I love and respect all the people in this book. And I’m trying to be balanced and fair but real. I guess I sort of open the book with that: What is the degree of real that is appropriate to be with other people in any moment?
The idea of feedback and its corrosive effects has long been a theme in your work—it comes up in various ways in “In or Out,” “Not a Pretty Girl,” “Joyful Girl,” “Little Plastic Castle,” etc. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell, who has expressed a similar sensitivity to feedback. What I interpret from her and what I think I interpret from you is that the sensitivity that has allowed you to open up and express also makes you vulnerable to the effects of that expression.
Totally. I think that’s the plight of the artist and many people who are not artists, just the sensitive among us. It’s a gift and a curse. Maybe also for women because you’re not often in a position of defining the terms of discourse, it’s like you’re starting from a somewhat disempowered place when you’re speaking, even of your own experience. It will be gauged and defined by something outside yourself, which of course exists on so many levels in the power dynamics of society—you’re queer, you’re a person of color. Your experience will be interpreted by the other and they may or may not hear or see you as you see yourself or as you intended to be heard. It’s a dicey business.
It seems like there’s no solution. You just gotta ride the wave.
Yeah, and continue to put your truth out there.
You’re good, doing all your homework.
We’ve talked about the negatives but were there positives in writing this book? Was it all fun or stimulating?
Yeah, if I survive the next couple of months, I’m gonna say, “Positive experience,” because I feel like the overall effect that I took away from the writing process was of deeper gratitude. I had some oversimplified memories, as we do. It was like Memento, the three words on a Polaroid, that’s what our memory is. To sit down and try to go deeper than that, it’s like, “Right, I can’t reduce you to ‘asshole,’ like I did for the last 30 years. You’re a person who gave to me as well as took away. You’re fallible, like me. You’re somebody I love as well as somebody I’ve been hurt by.” I think the overall effect for me was to look at people in my life with renewed appreciation. I made myself go there. No more writing off that moment or that person.
You write matter-of-factly about your relationship with a man you refer to as The First Boyfriend, who was in his 30s when you were 15. You write that “to my undiscerning eye it looked consensual and balanced,” but you don’t dwell on the optics.
I was certainly aware, as a 15-year-old dating a 33-year-old, that the gaze of the world was like, “Mmmm, that’s uncool.” But for me I felt like, “I’m grown, I’m making my own choices and I choose this relationship.” I considered myself empowered within it. Looking back, I’m more standing with the rest of the world. In that moment it was important for me and in so many moments, it was important for me to tell myself, “I’m in charge. I got this.” It’s the only way forward.
The situation that inspired the song “Gratitude,” in which a man in England let you stay at his place and then “insisted I use my body to pay him rent,” did you always consider that on the spectrum of rape? (“Rape is a black dot in the center of a dark smudge in the center of a very big grey cloud that dissipates and pales at the edges.”) You approach the subject with a degree of humor in that song.
I think that’s more of a reflection thing that happened much later. You just consider it the way it is. Whatever the hand you are dealt, that’s the way it is. And even getting to the point where you’re rebelling against the way it is is a journey. I told that story and other little snippets just to try to be real about, yeah, the negotiating, the power dynamics. But it could have been a litany of those. It could have been endless. Endless stories.
Why did you choose to refer to those guys by pseudonym instead of naming them?
Well, to not do damage. Their names aren’t important. Maybe he regrets that night. It’s funny, I’ve been working on a record now for several years, I’m finally done. It’s called The Prison Music Project and it’s all songs written by prisoners, many of them lifers. It’s a lot of different singers, most of them women, which is interesting, all the writers are men. This fellow whose song I sang murdered somebody, a woman, when he was 19. He’s my friend now, you know? We have corresponded ever since the inception of this project. He’s been in prison for 40 years. He was 19 when he committed that act. He deeply regrets it. He’s awake now. He was not awake then. He did not understand his connection to other people the way he does now. He’s actually a very sensitive feminist, artistic, gentle soul who went all the way to the dark side, and I believe has a valuable story to tell because of it.
When I first found out about the details of his crime, after we had already become friends, it was like (gasps). For people who do that kind of [criminal-justice] work, it’s like to humanize murderers, to find the good in a person who fucked up as bad as you can fuck up, to continue to love that person like their mother would, is the work of the gods, the goddesses. Seeing what it means to continue to give love and respect somebody’s humanity. If I can do that with my friend the murderer, I can do that with my friend who sort of forced me to do a one-nighter, you know? I really feel that we have to make space for the awakening of ourselves and each other. This culture now of writing people off…
It’s just gonna get us nowhere.
But do you think certain lines can be drawn? For example, R. Kelly, [an alleged] serial abuser of women, [alleged] rapist of teenagers? Or, to draw a more personal example, could you see yourself forming this relationship with a convicted pedophile?
Whew. I know women who work in criminal defense who don’t take cases like that because it’s just too hard, and I get it. And right, we all have to draw the line somewhere with how much it impacts and hurts. I just think it’s so important to know that the R. Kellys, etc., are everywhere. That we are R. Kelly. If you really, really go back, you have to write off a lot of our male heroes at least. There’s a lot of abuse of women by men who are canonized and deified. It’s just before full consciousness. Same thing with race. You have to appreciate people’s context and their fallibility. I think if the reality of R. Kelly’s personal behavior makes listening to his music too hard, don’t listen to his music, by all means. And in fact maybe stop supporting him as an artist because you feel like you’re enabling bad behavior. But you can’t write him off as a human being or stop expecting him to grow and listen. Okay, let’s wake up, but we can’t kick each other off the planet. We’re still here together so let’s wake up together.
About Prince, with whom you collaborated, you write, “In addition to his obstinate independence, I could relate to his way of being heterosexual but queer as the day is long.” Did Prince ever identify to you as queer?
No. I love the word “queer,” I’ve always embraced it because I love how open-ended it is. I think that some straight people are really fuckin’ queer and have very queer sexual lives and some gay people are very straight. I think of queer as unconventional. So yeah, I mean, it was much easier to write about Prince because he’s gone and I don’t have to worry about…I know what it’s like to be defined by others and I don’t think I would have written that little section as freely if he were here to go, “Fuck that!”
I don’t know where you are with identity now. Do you use the term “bisexual?” Do you prefer the term “queer?”
I like “queer.” “Bisexual” always sounded very medical, like something you do to a frog in 9th grade science or something. I think the irony is I’m pretty fuckin’ hetero, which is unfortunate for me because many of my deepest connections are with women. But, naw, I just like what’s in boys’ pants better. That’s what turns me on.
About playing the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, you write, “Everywhere we went, some woman seemed to be dedicating herself to protecting some other theoretical woman who might be triggered or feel tacitly oppressed by some tiny detail of the known universe.” That attitude, more generally applied, reminds me of how many people behave on Twitter.
Boy, I hope that we can find the balance. At some point we just have to: “So, you’re offended. Now what?” You string that person up? I think it’s almost like, I don’t know, it seems a little naive to me to think that we can live in a state of outrage. It’s an outrageous world, for sure, but you have to function in it. So that involves a lot of humility, a lot of forgiveness. To each other. And it might be me that needs forgiving tomorrow. This culture of perfection-or-else is not sustainable.
And you experienced that to the greatest degree with the Nottoway debacle.
My interpretation of your responses was that the first one you sent was an explanation.
And people did not want an explanation.
They wanted you to say you were sorry.
But you wanted to show your thought process and it ended up biting you in the ass.
Right. Yeah. That’s one of the things I learned. It’s so huge and complex. That impacted my life so deeply on so many levels and it was devastating. One of the things I can say in a sound bite that I learned is if the pain of racial injustice is awakened in people, it is so huge and so deep and so real that it doesn’t matter what the details are. It doesn’t matter to parse fact from fiction. It doesn’t matter to dissect the he said/she said. Your job as a white ally is to affirm the pain, is to affirm the rationality and the real basis for it and to listen and to apologize for being involved in something that in any way ignites it once again.
And definitely trying to explain myself was in no way useful. It’s a real bummer because you are, of course, aware of all kinds of other things surrounding the legitimate discussion. You just have to put all those things down and be the ally. Do the listening. Affirm what you heard. Don’t try to explain yourself. This is not time for more of your story, even if you too experience injustices or hurts from other people, it’s not the time for that.
You write that you sympathize with both sides regarding Michfest’s trans-exclusionary guidelines: “I understand the need for trans women to find community with and be accepted by other women, and I understand the need for people with reproductive systems, perceived female at birth, to make space to process their particular relationship to patriarchy.” The need for an exclusive space, I don’t get that, as a stupid man. Could you explain to me why? It seems to me that in your life, as a cis woman, you encounter many other cis women with whom you can discuss reproduction. To have an institution that excludes such a tiny piece of the population would seem only to serve to hurt those people.
I feel pretty strongly that the staunchness of the vibe there was not helping that festival or feminism in general. But I do know and have experienced how [for] women, it’s sort of the eternal circumstance to be always put to the end of the line. This is now again: “It’s not the time for you to have what you need in terms of a space to process your relationship to patriarchy, to support each other over maybe even something as specific as living in this world with a reproductive system and all that that means.” I think women are asked again and again and again to move over and make room for somebody else, you know? So I can feel that dynamic of it. I can empathize with the feeling of you’re shutting down this experience that I really need affirmed by the people who share it exactly, and you’re telling me I don’t have a right to that space. There is no space yet for that! I constructed a space and now you’re saying, “That too is not your space that you crave.” I think it’s hard for anybody outside of a very specific group to experience it the way that group does. I agree on one level, ooh maybe this group should be a little bigger. Maybe that’s the way through here. But I don’t want to tell you that your experience doesn’t deserve a place. Within Mish there [was] a tent only for black women to go and process what it means to be a black person with ovaries. I don’t want to say to that tent, “You should let me in!”
I guess when the segregation dovetails with the status quo, that’s when my antennae go up. Trans people are told practically everywhere, “Not here.”
Yeah, exactly. I think it’s just…that’s all I was trying to do: Let’s not be quick to say to cis women, “Move over again.” Maybe that’s the right thing to do, cis women, in this moment, but be careful, society, of telling women that again.
In the book, you talk about jokingly embezzling $16,000 from yourself—your merch money—to buy a Mustang. This section comes right before a reprint of your letter to Ms. magazine, in which you made it clear that your goal in forming your own business was for creative freedom, not to be an entrepreneur who made more money per unit than Hootie & the Blowfish. Something I have long wondered is how you negotiated turning a profit while being anti-capitalist. I know you have to give yourself a salary, but personally did you have rules about how much you were allowed to profit off of your hard work versus how much money you put back into Righteous Babe?
Just an instinct. Nothing that could be written down. Nothing that is fixed. My instinct was to turn around a lot of that profit—and in fact now, with all of the downscaling, it’s like, “Maybe too much! Shit!”—to activists, to other artists, to people in the world that are doing the work that I want to see done, that I appreciate. I have no problem with profit as a necessity. Everybody needs to be able to make a living wage doing what they do in this world. Profit as a motivation is what I don’t dig. The profit’s gotta be what happens when you are following your purpose and you have to find the balance.
I Googled your net worth and some random site that isn’t quite clear on its sourcing estimated it at $10 million.
Wow. All right!
That’s not true?
Probably not. Yeah, I mean I guess I’m no longer the owner of that cathedral in Buffalo but that is potentially worth a few million dollars. That kind of thing. The record company. What is Righteous Babe worth? That’s a very esoteric proposition to figure out. But yeah, no, there’s no $10 mill in the bank.
The book really hits home how much the entrepreneurship was a byproduct of your determination for creative freedom. I knew those things were both conversant in your career, but I did not realize the actual relationship.
That was kind of a nauseating irony for a long time. Maybe this book will help me make my case for who I think I am, but I still [read] “singer/songwriter/entrepreneur” more often than not. It’s just like…whatever. I hope that longevity will be my answer. I can survive everybody else’s opinion and I will end up myself in my last dying breath.
Ani DiFranco’s No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir is out May 7.