DiFranco slings 2-CD set at Goliath

Artist: Ani DiFranco continues to succeed on her own - without the music industry.

April 09, 2001|By Joan Anderman | Joan Anderman,BOSTON GLOBE

In an era when alternative has become mainstream and indie says more about style than substance, Ani Di- Franco is a true maverick. An innovative musician, political firebrand and maniacal road warrior, she's become one of the most inspirational cult heroes of the past decade, in large part by systematically and successfully resisting the Goliath of corporate rock.

DiFranco has slammed the door in the face of every major label that's come courting - and that includes most of them. Instead, the 30-year-old songwriter/guitarist/vocalist has defied the odds and amassed a global following with a dozen albums in as many years released on her own Righteous Babe Records, based in her hometown of Buffalo.

DiFranco's next project is a 29-song, two-disc set - ambitious even by the prolific artist's standards - that will be in stores tomorrow. You could imagine that a work called "Revelling/Reckoning" must be the product of a time of life that's as expansive and complicated as the title.

It is.

"The way it works with art, a lot of the time, is that it's not a good sign, emotionally, when you have mounds of songs," explains DiFranco with a hoarse laugh on the phone from Buffalo. "I was moved by all sorts of profound, baffling conflicts in my life. I've been reckoning with life, with responsibilities, and back in the beginning it was just going to be one disc, `Reckoning.' [That idea] expanded to society reckoning with itself at the turn of the century."

Such an ideological evolution is familiar to fans of DiFranco, who is famously outspoken on everything from the intricacies of love to society's ills. But the heaviness became overwhelming, even for as rigorous a thinker and articulate a poet as DiFranco.

"I had to just put all that down for a minute, to breathe. That's when I started to think about the concept of breathing through it all, and that's when reveling came into it. So I began to imagine two records: one disc as the navel-gazing record and one disc as the party record. But there just wasn't that much partying going on in my psychology," she says with a laugh. "The reveling is not so much in the meaning of the songs but in the act of playing music."

When she started out, DiFranco's music was a spartan, intense fusion of folk and punk. Through the years her sound has grown to include eclectic instrumentation and more stylistic experimentation, and the new discs, especially "Revelling," highlight her deepening affection for funk, soul and jazz.

The songs on these discs are weighted heavily toward the personal rather than the political end of the spectrum. Only one, "Subdivision," is an explicit indictment of larger troubles. "So we're led by denial like lambs to the slaughter / serving empires of style and carbonated sugar water / and the old farm road's a four-lane that leads to the mall / and our dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall," she sings, commitment and disillusion commingling.

But in politics, as in music, Di- Franco maintains an unwavering faith in the power of the individual. "I have grown up around this idea that you can do what you can imagine yourself doing. Sure, it's easier for me to find ways to do it than it was for Woody Guthrie. But whatever the climate is, if it's important enough for you to be independent or fight the corporate structure, you find a way to do it."

It's her own independent vision - the adventurous music, pain-staking introspection, kamikaze guitar playing, and loud, proud voice - that's lifted DiFranco to iconic stature in the alternative music world. But the mythology, well-earned though it may be, isn't always the easiest to integrate into the real world.

"You know, sometimes I do feel burdened by the kind of default setting of my life," she concedes. "If I was any other woman and I wanted to put on a cute little dress because I felt cute that day, I could walk down the street and feel the wind on my legs. But because of who I am, everything I do is attached to this symbolism.

"I'm not complaining. I love my little life. But everyone's looking for the tiniest glimmer of hypo- crisy. Everyone's looking for chinks in the armor," DiFranco says quietly. "It's a little claustrophobic."

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