Posted December 12, 2011 by whopperjaw in Tunes

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco discusses which “side she is on”

Polemical though it may be, the title track to Which Side Are You On?, Ani DiFranco’s new studio release that arrives in January, finds the singer-songwriter engaging in a passionate discussion about ideology and politics as she updates the Pete Seeger tune for a new generation of activists. The noisy tune is the album’s best track (and the disc’s true heart and soul). The woozy horns, gritty guitars and found sounds all coalesce into something that resembles a Tom Waits tune. Clocking in at over six minutes, the song has an epic quality to it that shows DiFranco’s recent tendency to jam can actually enhance her music. This morning we phoned DiFranco for an interview for an article we’re doing for Hearsay Now. She was “in transit” and dropping her 5-year-old daughter off at school but wasn’t too busy to talk to us for about 15 minutes. Here’s some of what she had to say about the new album.

It’s been three years since your last studio effort. What has your life been like during that time period?

A lot of mom-ing. I have a 5-year-old daughter so that’s slowed down my musical productivity. That’s the long and short of it.

I know you were inspired to record “Which Side Are You On?” in 2009 when you played a Pete Seeger birthday party. What about the song do you find relevant today and what did you aim to do with your remake?

Well, let’s see. The song is sort of timeless. Of course, it’s based in the labor movement and as I was learning to play it for Pete’s party, I couldn’t help but update it. I think the title can be a little deceiving because the way I heard it, it’s not really about taking sides so not much as it is about being accountable. Are you going to be on the side of truth and justice or are you going to sit back?

I like the fact that even though it starts with what I think is banjo, it quickly becomes rather noisy. That’s a side of you we don’t get to see that often.

It’s such a rabble rousing tune that I put on my rabble rousing hat. I think the me that has been evidence on recordings in recent years is more of a quiet me. But that song has a take it to the streets kind of vibe. That’s why I wanted to perform it that way. That banjo intro is Pete Seeger himself. He came and played on my recording of it, so that was pretty cool.

In the lyrics are you calling on President Obama to do more than he’s done?

Yes, indeed. For me, I guess I probably had some of that naïve hope that a lot of us had that President Obama would come in and magically fix everything quickly and easily. Of course, that’s not how democracy works. In that verse, I’m trying to communicate to our government that you need to be more present and accountable.

There’s a lot of activism in the air these days. I take it that you find that to be inspiring?

Well, yeah, it’s totally inspiring. It’s so uplifting to me that there are occupiers out there, many of whom I’ve gone to visit and some of whom I’m talking to on email. There’s an incredible document produced by Occupy D.C. It’s called the “99 Percent’s Deficit Plan.” You remember this congressional super-committee that was supposed to figure out how to balance the budget and of course did nothing because congressional is completely ineffectual. Meanwhile outside on the streets, there was a super committee that succeeded as far as I’m concerned and put forth a comprehensive proposal and very well-articulated vision for how to reduce the deficit, balance the budget, save the economy and create jobs. I very much am behind this document and want to get it as far as possible, including onto the president’s desk and onto the floor of congress. We’re scheming with various Occupy organizers and there will be a march on March 30 in Washington D.C. where they’re hoping to get people from all over the country to come and make our voice even stronger. They have the dialogue going about the inequity and about the complete unfairness of the tax structure and the corporate control. At this point, the movement needs to evolve in articulating an alternate vision and I very much want to participate in that.

The rest of the album is much mellower and sounds like the work of somebody who is essentially happy. Is that the case?

Yeah, I would say so. As with all my records, there’s the personal and the political and they’re comparing and contrasting to each other, and I find that a fascinating juncture, the relationship between the two.

You seem to have found a real connection in New Orleans. I think you even recorded some of this album there. What about that music speaks to you?

It’s just a very powerful musical place. It’s a place where I live now so I get to revel in it on a daily basis. It’s a really rich community that’s diverse and spiritual and joyful, so I guess it’s affected me on many levels from what I write about from songs like “J” and even my version of “Which Side” has a verse that screams out “New Orleans.” And of course, it affects the way I record my song. I’m being surrounded by so many awesome musicians. I have the opportunity to call them up and say, “Do you want to come over and play on this track?” It uplifts the recording process, too.

When did your connection to New Orleans begin?

I guess it was the first time I played JazzFest, which was the late ’90s and I was so struck by this place and the spirit here. That’s when I started making up excuses to come back. Eight or ten years ago, I started renting an apartment because my life was in flux and I decided that in between tours this was where I wanted to be. In 2000-something, I fell in love and I got to stay for reals.

Were you there when Katrina happened?

We evacuated late the night before when the last wave of people who had cars and realized it was time to leave. We were going to stay through the storm and then we realized the power would be out and it would be hot. We went to Lafayette for what we thought would be a few days. We returned to New Orleans later that week during the flooding and it was an interesting time for me because I was experiencing tendinitis issues and taking time off, and I was in this period of just being quiet and being at home and then the shit hit the fan. I wanted to try to write a song or two and get involved and I was torn in various directions at the time.

As someone who used to record and tour relentlessly, what has been like dialing things back and what do you see yourself doing in the future?

I think that this lull in my touring – I have been trying to tour as little as possible because my daughter is about to turn five and this is the time to hang out with her and I’m focusing on that. Dialing it back like this is a good opportunity to reinvent. I’ve been playing solo lately when I do and go shows and scheming about a new band and scheming about new collaborations and a way to sort of shift gears and try some new stuff.


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