THE READING ROOM: Ani DiFranco on Dreaming and Listening
Photo by G M D Three
Ani DiFranco has a recurring dream that she’s on an empty stage late at night, “looking into a dark, empty house.” As she heads out of the house, she wistfully reflects on the now-empty room that earlier in the evening was “teeming with life.” Is this a dream, she wonders? She reflects on this dream: “Taking center stage is something like being on the bow of a ship, facing the mighty elements alone or with swarthy crew at your side, either way, all fists are raised …Yes, that was only ever the point anyway: to be affected by each other. To be summoners of some torrential moment in which all the forces of nature can meet and startle themselves. Even in the mishap and the misery is a collective search for joy. ‘The human spirit’ people call it, though it is by no means exclusive to humans. It is ever expanding. It is infinite, whispers my recurring dream. Don’t worry.”
Singer-songwriter DiFranco’s dream moves as a shadow through her thoughtful and compelling new memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream (Viking). A born storyteller, DiFranco carries us with passion and humor through the days of her life and music, from her childhood in Buffalo and releasing her first album when she was 18 to creating her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and her relationships with Pete Seeger, Nora Guthrie, and other songwriters and activists. She weaves reflections on the power of music and activism through the memoir, pausing from her life story to reflect on songwriting or on the differences between music and words. It’s a tour-de-force of a memoir, and the best music book of the year so far.
For this week’s Reading Room, I talked with DiFranco about her memoir; next week’s column will have a full review of the book.
Why this book now? What’s the story behind the book?
I guess the idea of making a book came up a few decades ago, and I was resistant to doing it myself. We hired a couple of dudes in Buffalo, and they came on our bus and followed me. The book was going to be part bio and part DIY music handbook. That never went anywhere. A couple of years ago my manager, Pete, took me to this agent in NYC who said, “you must write this book.” Getting a little bit of push behind me helped me get started, and here we are.
What’s the difference for you between writing songs and writing this book?
My experience was very much one of contrast to songwriting. It feels so inherently different. Songwriting is like an event where it feels like I have to position myself within my skin and within the world around me and to align myself and be ready to receive what the universe has to offer me. Writing in these complete sentences was more like whittling or sculpting about an endless series of moments. I was making smaller pieces that I could shuffle like cards. I journal sporadically, but didn’t too much during the book-writing process. The first hurdle for me was memory. I’d often check in with friends whose memory is better than mine.
Were there other memoirs or autobiographies you read as models?
I discovered I loved the genre; I loved all the books I read, though the one that inspired me most wasn’t a music memoir and was in many ways much more than a memoir: Willie Parker’s Life’s Work. Parker found his calling as an abortion provider for women and describes the ways that this calling transformed into a work of service. His book helped me shake loose some of the final vestiges of shame and judgment I felt over the abortion I had when I was 19. I can look back on the inspired perspectives of some of the songs that my 19-year-old self wrote about this experience.
Can you talk a little about the interplay between music and the written word, what you refer to as the interplay between the alphabet and the goddess?
I struggled the whole time with this project between sharing ideas and telling what happened. I could feel that in the breaks in the action, so to speak, I could share some ideas. I have a love/hate relationship between words and music that I describe in this little section. Music itself is very liberating. Liberation has a down side. I have been working with this powerful tool, and I have to be aware of the danger. I can’t help but feel the relationship and be attuned to the power of the music as well as the power and limitations of the written word. I have always thought of myself as a performer first. When you speak or sing about something you are communicating to others. There are many levels of communicating songs in live performances. I enjoy the ongoing ballet of words.
In what ways has the relationship between music and social activism evolved in your own career?
One of the very consistent things in my life are the through lines of art and activism. They come from inside me and inform everything that I do. It’s been very interesting to see what the world expects of me. I feel now incredibly hopeful in a time of great political despair and danger. Having been out there engaging with society and trying to resonate with people, I experienced so much more receptivity and a heightened energy to address things. I am so happy to be surrounded by outrage.
What will readers be surprised to learn about you from your book?
Right now I really don’t know because I have tuned out the conversations of others. I have to be practiced in pretending to be alone. I feel most apprehensive about what people will say about my words that they think might be imperfect, maybe tragically imperfect.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I hope people will find out more about me. I hope they’ll feel free to be themselves. I want to encourage readers to listen to themselves; if there is something you think you know is true, then listen to it and to your voice. It’s not rocket science.