Ani DiFranco ready to make long-awaited return to State Theatre of Ithaca
On Tuesday, Ani DiFranco will return to the State Theatre of Ithaca, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter's first show at the venerable venue since 2009.
It’s also Election Day, one that’s coming at a particularly fraught time for the country.
“Well, I will explore what it's like to sing and hold my breath for an hour and a half,” DiFranco said in a recent phone interview from her home in New Orleans, where she has lived for 18 years.
“I can say that the Ithaca audience at least will have the reprieve from hearing me say onstage ‘Vote, vote, vote, vote,’ like I’ll be doing at all the other shows on this run because it will be all said and done by then,” she said. “So, I’ll playing guitar with fingers crossed and singing with held breath – that will be the job of the evening.”
The Buffalo native has long been known for her politically charged lyrics. After the “Roe v. Wade” decision came down this summer, DiFranco and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard collaborated on a song titled “Disorders” to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds, which aims to remove the financial and logistical barriers to abortion access.
“And I have another sort of reproductive freedom anthem that I wrote a week or two ago that I've been playing live,” she said.
In Ithaca, DiFranco will be joined by the Righteous Babes Revue, which features Gracie and Rachel, Pieta Brown, and Jocelyn McKenzie – all labelmates of Righteous Babe Records, the independent company that she formed in 1990.
“I feel like the label has never been more vibrant, which is super gratifying 30 years in,” she said. “We just had the idea of throwing various people on the label together and making a supergroup, and some of the Babes were down for it, so it’s really cool.
“We’re building more community through the label, not just through my live shows and around my work and songs, specifically, but through the label, watching Righteous Babe artists come together to learn each other’s songs and back each other up while driving town to town. It's just more deepening and enriching of the community that we've been building for 30 years.”
DiFranco is still playing with her longtime bassist, Todd Sickafoose, but for this tour, they’ve enlisted a new drummer, Jharis Yokley.
“We're going to meet for the first time in a couple of days when he comes down to New Orleans for a few days of rehearsal, and then we're just gonna hit the road and make it up as we go,” she said.
DiFranco’s most recent studio release was 2021’s “Revolutionary Love.”
“There was some new ground broken with that last record, for sure,” she said of the album, which she recorded in North Carolina with producer Brad Cook. “I worked with a different team, and a lot of new people, but at the same time almost got back in a lot of ways to the process of my first record, where I recorded that album in two days.
“This one started with myself and the drummer, Yan Westerlund, and we tracked the whole album in two days. And then one by one, the other players came in and augmented those recordings. In this modern world of Pro Tools and digital technology, everybody's albums, by and large, are festivals of overdubbing, and piecing things together and editing and perfecting things. But this also was getting back to the basics, with just me and my guitar and the drummer captured live in the studio.”
In July, Righteous Babe Records released the 25th anniversary edition of “Living in Clip,” DiFranco’s 1998 live double album.
While she acknowledges that she usually doesn’t like listening to her old records (“self-loathing is my predominant reaction,” she joked), DiFranco said that “Living in Clip” marked a key juncture in her career.
“I am so grateful that that record connected with so many others,” she said. “The feeling of love and celebration that surrounded its reissue really, really warmed my heart and made me take stock of the 25 years that have gone by since it was first released. The amount of the deepening of that relationship since then with my audience and the amount of building of community that has continued to happen really was propelled by that record.”
DiFranco said putting out that record “was a way in for a lot of people” who didn’t connect with her early studio records.
“So that really was a turning point for me, and revisiting it and hearing all the stories and feeling all the love that people have carried for that record and that moment in our collective lives was beautiful,” she said.
She’s already thinking about her next studio project. “I've got new songs that I'm pulling out live, because, of course, I don't wait for an album to come out to go promote it on the road,” she said. “A new song gets written; a new song gets played. I've started to work towards my next record, which I'm really excited about. I’ll be working with new collaborators once again. And I think it's going to be even more of a departure than that last one.”
In 2019, DiFranco released her memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” a series of vivid stories ranging from her childhood until she turned 30.
“That was a wild diversion,” she said. “You think a song is a radical distillation, but a memoir is even more of a radical distillation of a life. What you have there is basically a handful of vignettes. It just made me realize how much there is to life, and how many possible stories there are to tell. ... I feel like if I sat down to do it again, I'd have a whole other book, you know.”
She said the writing process wasn’t necessarily cathartic or fun, but she’s happy that she did it.
“I would say that one of the major takeaways that I am grateful for is an increase in gratitude within me,” she said. “There are a lot of painful memories and hard people that I wrote about, but somehow including them in my book made me acknowledge that even the hard people, even the people who hurt me, also gave to me.
“I was trying to write a balanced portrayal of people -- not vilify and not deify anyone --, but write about them as the humans that they are. And the same with myself. And maybe come away from the process a little more loving, and a little less locked up about some of the hard parts.”
Next year, DiFranco will publish her first children’s book, “The Knowing,” which invites “young readers to ponder the distinction between outer forms of identity and the inner light of consciousness,” according to the publisher’s description.
“It certainly isn't the monumental undertaking that a memoir was, but it was still challenging,” she said. “It made me realize that many of the devices I use in my songwriting – turning a cliché on its head or referencing a subtle double entendre, for example – just don't apply to the world of children. You have to speak in a whole other way, so that was super new territory for me.”
DiFranco turned 52 on Sept. 23 and has noted that she has been changing in lots of ways in recent years – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
But don’t call it mellowing.
“Better than mellowing, maybe it’s just that life is humbling,” she said. “Youth is very confident in itself, and that's a great energy – it's very powerful and very useful. But humility and experience all go hand in hand, at least for me, and that's also useful, you know?”
If you go
Who: Ani DiFranco and the Righteous Babes Revue (Gracie and Rachel, Pieta Brown, and Jocelyn McKenzie)
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8
Where: State Theatre of Ithaca, 109 W. State St., Ithaca, New York
Cost: $35 and up, available online here