An indie pioneer

The latest CD from new mom Ani DiFranco has 36 of her classics

November 08, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Much has been written about Ani DiFranco's uncompromising artistry and sharp business acumen. At 18, when most people her age were moving into college dorms, the urban-folk artist started Righteous Babe Records, her own label. Since then, the Buffalo, N.Y., native has released 17 albums with combined sales of more than 4.5 million. Her company, started with just $50, has become one of rock music's most successful indie labels.

In the 17 years since the release of her self-titled debut, DiFranco has graced the covers of numerous magazines: Spin, Ms., Relix. She has garnered praise for her adventurous music and her visibility in political movements benefiting women and gays. For nearly 20 years, she has been a celebrated maverick artist, constantly touring and tirelessly pushing her music forward.

But now DiFranco, a mother of a 9-month-old daughter named Petah Lucia, has taken a breath and is looking back. Her latest release is Canon, a two-disc retrospective. Long requested by fans, the set features 36 DiFranco classics ("Fire Door," "Buildings and Bridges," "32 Flavors") plus five re-recorded songs.

The process of selecting the cuts was "traumatic; it was awful," DiFranco says with a laugh. The artist headlines Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday night. "It was like going through boxes and reading your old yearbooks. And all I could hear were all the things I wanted to change."

Coinciding with the September release of Canon, DiFranco published Verses, her first book of poetry and artwork. She said the process of writing the book was also difficult but rewarding.

"My poetry is intended as spoken word," says the singer-songwriter-musician, who last week was at home in New Orleans. "Whenever I write, I think about how the poems fit into the context of my work as a musician. I wondered if the songs and the poems would sound stupid on paper. But I'm pretty happy with how the book turned out. There wasn't a single typo, which is more than I can say for the albums," DiFranco says, cracking up.

Although she's amusingly self-deprecating about her body of work, the artist's early music has held up well over the years. The unflinching autobiographical lyrics, bold melodic changes and playful rhythms give her alchemic folk approach a timeless urgency. Her open music embraces subtle elements of soul, hip-hop and funk.

Since her rise in the mid-'90s, DiFranco has collaborated with other progressive artists, including Prince, Utah Phillips and sax soul great Maceo Parker. Although much of her work, especially the early material, is accessible and memorable, DiFranco's musical direction is still too daring for mainstream audiences. But she has never wanted to compromise her music, anyway. Over the years, she has rejected many potentially lucrative offers from major labels. DiFranco's fiercely independent outlook perhaps presaged the recent do-it-yourself direction acts such as Radiohead and Jamiroquai have taken with the distribution of their music.

"I'd like to tell you that I divined the future in that regard, but I'm a day-to-day kinda gal," the artist says. "Me staying independent was about not being willing to work for a corporation. I'm just not down for that commercialization of music. But it's interesting to see all the ways the industry is changing and how artists are putting their own music out there. I just wanted to make the music I wanted to make."

But now that her schedule has drastically changed since the birth of baby Petah, DiFranco's music is moving in different directions. She's working on two new albums: one is a collection of new folk-rock songs, the other is a set aimed for infants.

"My baby likes to have some kind of noise while she sleeps," DiFranco says. "I was thinking, what if you had a record that could soothe an infant but was interesting to listen to? It'll be a chill-out record for babies of all ages."

The artist says she hopes to get both albums done by early next year. But "I don't know now," she says with a chuckle. "I'm on baby time, so I'm not setting deadlines."

See Ani DiFranco at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $37 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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