If you thought Ani DiFranco has mellowed out and gone away just because she got all jazzy, became a mom, and won a Grammy for Best Recording Package, then you haven't heard ¿Which Side Are You On?, her best and most politically-charged album in many a year. In conversation she's no less artfully articulate on parenthood, the death of protest music, or why the middle of the road these days is still "fucking fascist." Do not underestimate the 41-year-old, O.G. folk-punk's ability to kick your ass when she plays the Fillmore on March 27.
You're one of the most prolific artists of our time, but you took three years before releasing ¿Which Side Are You On?. Why take such a long break now? That was all about being a mom, you know? Dedicating my time to my kid. Yup, she slows me down quite a bit. [laughs] Slowed down my average pace, which is terrific. It never would've occurred to me to slow down to a reasonable pace, but because I've been forced to it's actually been very useful I think. Taking a little more time making a record.
Did your songwriting process change?
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Just more stepping back, I guess. I used to have like, free reign to go deep inside my shit and stay there. But a kid forces you out into the very real, sometimes boring, world around you, and it's great. I appreciate my job more, I appreciate being on stage more. I cut back on that, too. And making records, when I step away from the desk, I come back, I've got some perspective. That's been a missing ingredient along the way I think.
Do you think being a parent also affected it being a more explicitly political album than you've made in a long time?
Yeah, maybe. Being comfortable in one's own life means you have more time and energy to look outward, right? I guess having my shit dialed in at home means I can really dedicate myself to y'know, things like political change or whatever. More outward-looking songs again.
Why do you think protest songs have all but dried up during these fucking crazy political times?
I don't know, man. I'm really heartened by all this energy around the Occupations, even though we do indeed live in a fricking police state. And boy, out where you are it's been especially brutal! But just being out there, making people talk about the disparity, let alone changing it ... it's part of a whole cultural moment where artists are gonna get inspired to get involved. I'd love to see a renaissance of political music. It's like you said, there's no shortage of fucking shit to write about these days.
That the political song dates itself or something? Yeah, what the fuck is wrong with that? I mean, I just titled my new record after a song that dates back to the 1930s. I rewrote the verses so it's changed to the struggle today. The original verses were very much about the labor strike and the coal mining in fucking West Virginia or Kentucky or something... but the song itself is timeless, the sentiment is timeless. It's a call to action, and that's a whole process. Take the shit and update it and continually evolve it just like the political situation evolves. But if nobody puts it out there to begin with ... then there's no cultural legacy of rabble-rousing, revolutionary music to draw from, to reinvent.
Had Pete Seeger heard of you before you worked with him on that song?
Oh yeah, yeah. I've played his Clearwater festival since I was 18.
The only bad thing about that is, the more crazies the better in the Republican race. You know, he's a dark-hearted and dark-minded person, so, I wish all those kind of people didn't get so much airtime. I guess everybody understands Rush Limbaugh to be pretty far on the right, but what passes for the middle of the road these days is fucking fascist if you ask me. I think our whole perspective has gotten pretty skewed anyway, with Rush being just a symptom.
"Dude could be FDR right now/ Instead he's just shifting his weight" is one of the most quotable lines on the new album. What's been Obama's biggest failing? Do you think he'll be more gutsy in his next term?
That is the hope isn't it? I'm as disappointed as the next guy that Obama didn't enact change that was more sweeping and radical. But I try to shift focus away from him and the cult of celebrity that America is so invested in and really look at what stopped him from realizing all the good things that were attempted. Campaign financing, the tax structure is all wrong ... and then I think how Obama is failed is not answering to the people who rallied and got him elected in the first place. Is it his failing or is it ours? Because if we as a populace were really pressuring him, were really making our voice and our wishes known, so that he had somebody to point to when he's trying to make shit happen.... It's all of us together. That's the frustrating thing about democracy, you don't have a superhero to come and save you.