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Ani DiFranco’s Memoirs

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Ani DiFranco NO WALLS AND THE RECURRING DREAM. Viking/Penguin

No gigs to cover and very few albums to review¬†so, during lockdown, I’ve been reading. Ani DiFranco is one of my favourite singer/songwriters and so her¬†memoirs was too important to ignore. Here’s a few excerpts and my review.

Introduction

In her new memoirs, Ani DiFranco recounts her early life from a place of hard-won wisdom, combining personal expression, the power of music, feminism, political activism, storytelling, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and much more into an inspiring whole. In these frank, honest, passionate, and often funny pages is the tale of one woman’s eventful and radical journey to the age of thirty. DiFranco’s coming-of-age story is defined by her ethos of fierce independence-from being an emancipated minor sleeping in Buffalo bus station, to unwaveringly building a career through appearances at small clubs and festivals, to releasing her first album at the age of eighteen, to consciously rejecting the mainstream recording industry and creating her own label, Righteous Babe Records.

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In this book, as in life, she never hesitates to challenge established rules and expectations, maintaining a level of artistic integrity that has impressed many and antagonized more than a few. DiFranco continues to be a major touring and recording artist as well as a celebrated activist and feminist, standing as aliving proof that you can overcome most personal and social obstacles to be who you are and to follow your dreams.

Excerpts

MAKING SONGS

People have often asked about my songwriting process and all I can say is this: It takes many forms. Intentionally so. I don’t ever want to write the same song twice so I try taking different routes to the finish line. Experimentation leads to unpredictable results and is not the path to surefire success but is a path to discovery and discovery is way more fun. I’ve always felt the predictable perfections of pop music to be numbing. They feel more like anti-art than art to me, those songs that cashiers sing along with the radio. Am I a snob? Anyway, I think my songs tend to connect with other people who also enjoy encounters with the unexpected.

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Songs can come through in something like a moment of alignment and, at those times, there is very little need for a lot of earthly intentions steering the process. Mostly my songs seem to come through while I’m in an altered state and the very best part is waking up from the trance to a feeling of profound satisfaction. I wake up to the fact that I have transformed my pain into something more beautiful and useful than it was in its original state. I wake up to a vindicating calm because I’ve allowed something to leave my body and be reborn in the world as something better. And not only that, now I have something to offer the world: a contribution.

Songs like that, that come of their own volition, often have a vitality that serves to carry them along through the world. They are born with their purpose, like some people are. But not all songs are like that. No…not even close. Other songs can be more elusive in their purposes or flat-out refuse to sign up for a purpose at all. Or they may veer off from my best intentions and invent some tragic purpose all their own. Some take a lot of wrestling to even find where they can exist. Some are epic and require sustained dedication and concentration. Those ones will challenge your stamina and leave you equally drained as satisfied. It’s true whwat songwriters say: Songs really are like children.

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SILENCES

I never was a strummer. The beauty of an acoustic guitar, to my mind, is that it’s not only a melodic but a percussive instrument. In fact, I might even say it’s a percussive instrument first. A hollow box with strings running across it is like a drum with a supernatural ability to feed tone and color into rhythm. Though many people seem to catch all the fun they desire in its melodic waters, I believe an acoustic guitar’s ability to make sound and silence sit right next to each other is at the core of its power. As with any rhythm instrument, the spaces are essential. Strumming an acoustic guitar erases the beginnings and the ends of its sounds and eliminates the spaces. It ignores the instrument’s potential to produce intense dynamic contrast. To put it opinionatedly, strumming an acoustic guitar is akin to scratching on the surface of a drum: antithetical to its nature.

This was not some sort of idea that came to me but more a feeling in my torso that came alive when the instrument that I had been holding against it really began to speak. For one thing, Michael showed me a fingerpicking pattern wherein you hold a chord with your left hand and use the individual fingers on your right hand to pluck a single string at a time in a repeating pattern. I was captivated. I practiced that fingerpicking pattern over until I could make the rhythm of the pattern flow seamlessly from my right hand and then I Practiced it some more until I could manipulate the feel of the syncopations at will. The spaces between the notes gave a shape to each sound. Feeling the instrument breathe against my body made me turn subconsciously away from the world of strumming and never look back…

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But I also had my father’s John Fahey records playing through my dreams and, thanks to Michael, I had Suzanne Vega coming in and out of my waking life. They weren’t strummers. Suzanne was something of a new breed when she appeared on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late seventies. Her songs were female and urban (not urban like Black, urban like some folk shit that ain’t “Jimmy Crack Corn” or “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”). Her style of playing was different from the boys and something about her presence provided me with subliminal proof of my own difference. Her playing told me I could find my own way with the acoustic guitar.

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I’ve been asked steadily since the early days about my musical influences and I have never been good at answering, which has always made me feel like a jerk…This is the answer I was never able to give: I began my musical journey at the intersection of Suzanne Vega and John Martyn with the drunken ghost of John Fahey flyin’ around overhead. Joan Armatrading was somewhere up ahead of me and Michael was walking by my side carrying the Beatles Complete Song Book and holding my hand. My next evolutionary leap would come a good decade later when my ears suddenly stretched wider and I heard jazz music, I mean really heard it, for the first time. Also, coincidentally, around that time I started smoking pot. Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were the melodic and harmonic masters (not to mention arresting players) that shifted my whole sense of things. Betty Carter, the singer, changed the way I sing.

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All through my twenties and thirties, I was also on a steady diet of groove music. From groovy African guitar and kora players like Ali Farka Toure, Baaba Maal, and Mansour Seck (all of whom I even got to see live) to American groove masters like James Brown and the Meters (who I didn’t). Maceo Parker (Brown’s left-hand man for three decades) became a musical comrade and teacher to me towards the end of my formative years. And then, of course, there was Sekou and Utah…but I will tell you about all of them later.

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