Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Goddess's Guide to Folk Rock Stardom

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
Ani DiFranco, Living In Clip

Ani DiFranco gained attention for her DIY music ethos in the 1990s, as probably the most successful musician to found her own label and release her own albums. That’s how I first encountered her. In the final fifteen years when record sales still mattered, her ability to control her own sound, marketing, and image control made her legendary. Frequently, this forward-thinking creative control overshadowed how profound her music actually was.

This recording showcases DiFranco’s uncompromising musicianship. Recorded over the previous two years, these songs display a performer notorious for her assertion that she lived to play before a live audience. Her ability to respond to audience energy, and the audience’s willingness to answer her cues, show a reciprocal relationship between both sides of the divide. Her intensely autobiographical lyrics clearly touch listeners through their immediate intimacy.

Though famous for her entrepreneurial ethic, DiFranco’s music was equally ambitious, a mix of acoustic austerity with indie rock drive. Though she never got much radio play, lacking connections to distribute payola, occasional songs like “32 Flavors” or “Untouchable Face” got airplay from radio programmers rebelling against the then-nascent ClearChannel monopolism. Her independence apparently rubbed off on gung-ho individualists, college students, and other freethinkers.

She certainly conveys this independence in her live recordings. Though self-identified as a folksinger (and in frequent rotation of venues like FolkAlley.com), her style combines folk introspection with punk clarity. She drives her own sound with just her voice and guitar, backed mostly by a rhythm section. She doesn’t invest in ornamentation or ensemble complexity—with exceptions, as she does front the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on two tracks.

Ani DiFranco
But mostly, she carries her own weight onstage. She plays with a modified clawhammer strum, the same basic style used by Bob Dylan and John Lennon. (In interviews around this time, she described teaching herself guitar with a Beatles songbook.) Her evident love of playing comes across when she doesn’t stop strumming during stage banter. And banter she does: she uses a Lenny Bruce-style conversational rapport to establish, and respond to, her audience’s desires.

Despite her acoustic folk roots, DiFranco shows herself comfortable with innovation. Tracks like “Not So Soft” or “The Slant” utilize a hip-hop recitative style which punctuates her lyrical urgency. On other tracks, like “Sorry I Am” or “Fire Door,” she allows her sound operator to loop her vocals, permitting her to harmonize with herself, in a style other acoustic artists wouldn’t embrace for a decade after this album’s release.

DiFranco has often been the most vocal and strenuous critic of her own studio recordings, describing them as “sterile” or worse, despite serving as her own producer and arranger. This is often unfair, as anyone who’s heard albums like 1996’s Dilate can attest; she’s a masterful stylist who uses studio effects without overusing them. However, even her best studio recordings do have a certain lack of immediacy about them.

Not so this recording. Her mostly acoustic performances, with session drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Sara Lee, showcase her power as a live performer. In an essay reprinted in the Utne Reader in 2002, DiFranco admitted she mostly made albums to publicize her live tours, largely the opposite of the then-accepted music business standard. She invested studio time to justify her passion for playing before a live audience.

Despite her personal lyrics, her writing is often intensely political too. DiFranco, an admitted pansexual agnostic, adopted opinions too liberal even for most mainline progressives back then, embracing her sexual inclusivity on songs like “Adam and Eve,” and confessing gender-based personal traumas with “Letter to a John” and “Tiptoe.” She was too aggressive even for most feminists: at her 1990s peak, she declined Lilith Fair, though she could’ve headlined, calling it too timid.

This landmark album pushed DiFranco into mainstream consciousness, drawing listeners’ attention to her muscular, unapologetic live performances. She dared audiences to join her introspective journey, and that largely self-selecting audience followed. Her mainstream acceptance followed, including larger venues and ten Grammy nominations in ten years. Though never a superstar, this album ushered in DiFranco’s moment of greatest artistic and commercial triumph.

DiFranco’s particular stretch of the 1990s produced several iconic women singer-songwriters, from fresh-faced ingenues like Fiona Apple to seasoned geniuses like Tori Amos. Like them, DiFranco saw her commercial star marginalized by the artistically anodyne stylings of the middle 2000s, and she’s returned to headlining the specialized circuit she once loved. She’s probably better for it. These pre-fame recordings display an artist most comfortable with intimacy and vision.

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