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- Posted on Oct 19th 2007 12:00PM by Jessica Robertson
As DiFranco looks back with her career-spanning retrospective, the two-disc, 36-track 'Canon,' Spinner spoke with the woman of many crowns -- musician, poet, activist, misfit and, most recently, mother -- who, in seventeen years, has proved that she's far more than the little folksinger that could.
When compiling 'Canon,' how intense was it for you to go back through your entire catalog, given its depth and breadth?
Brutal. It was hard to choose, 'cause there's so many songs. And then it was really traumatic to just listen to old incarnations of me. We re-recorded about five songs just to have something new and different on the compilation. If I had my way, I would've re-recorded them all.
One of those five songs, 'Both Hands,' undergoes the most radical reinvention.
That was a funny story -- re-recording 'Both Hands.' You know, it's a 16-year-old song or something. We recorded it with [bassist] Todd [Sickafoose] and [drummer] Alison [Miller]. 'Canon' was all done, remastered and the graphics and the cover ... And we were going over the lyrics -- me and my manager -- and he's like, "Well, 'Both Hands' -- you sang that one really differently. Should we change the lyrics?" I was like, "What?" And he said, "Well, that verse you left out." The album was supposed to come out in a couple weeks. I was like, "Oh, no!" I forgot to sing the third verse or something. Through the miracle of technology, I went and dropped in the third verse.
Do you forget your lyrics often?
Yeah. It's kind of one of those performance skills that you learn -- how to cover your own ass when you have no idea what you're doing. [laughs]
In tandem with 'Canon,' you released 'Verses,' which is your first book of poetry and illustrations. How vulnerable did you feel given that you're a musician and lyricist first?
That's definitely where I'm hanging the insecurity. You gotta have some place to hang that very big hat. [Painting and drawing] is something I've always done, and we thought it would be cool to sort of break up the words with images and have some color going on. It is a very vulnerable thing for me to have my stuff that's just hanging around my house suddenly out there in public. And this kind of art form, I've always used just as a release, without ever having to think, "What's somebody going to say about this?" or "How are people going to react?" And then I foiled my own peace.
Describe that girl who started Righteous Babe Records at 18 years old, out of the trunk of her car.
Well, that girl got a big dose of independence and empowerment -- from mostly my mother, but both my parents. My family was kind of a mess and I was an independent kid. I grew up in Buffalo, and at 16 I told my mother I was moving to New York. Well, first I was going to Planned Parenthood and I was gonna get on the pill, and then I was moving to New York. And she was just always one to say, "OK, I trust your judgment." By the time I was 18, I started traveling around. I didn't have a car just yet, but I was taking trains and buses, and doing little gigs around New York City. Then it sort of expanded.
And how has that girl changed?
I am wisened. And weary. I feel a little less eager than I once was, which I miss. I miss that girl that was just so new in it -- every moment. Now I have to really reach for it when I get onstage sometimes. I've been doing it so long. But I've learned a few things along the way about myself -- to be able to do things like distinguish "Is this a bad day just in my head, or is this a bad day?" And not put my trip on other people so much. Things that kind of make me a happier person now.
Last summer, you were given the Woman of Courage Award by the National Organization for Women -- the first-ever musician to be honored. How does it feel to be a feminist icon?
It feels great. I cried my way through that little ceremony. It was pathetic. It's very cool to be affirmed in that way. You spend so much time and blood and sweat trying to make a good change in your own life, if not in somebody else's, and you're out there kind of plowing around. And especially if you're a young girl with green hair or something, and most of your interactions with the establishment of the world is "justify yourself." It's not the albums sold, or whatever it is that they write about. It's feeling less alone.
I met a lot of really cool women and it was interesting, too, because I felt kind of alone in my age group. I met the leaders of NOW and they're all fifty-somethings and even older -- like, second-wave feminists. And then [I met] a lot of teenage women just coming into themselves. But women around my age, it was like, "Where are we?" What happened to feminism and the feminist movement for 10, 20years there? It got so stepped on. That's a concern of mine. I've been surrounded most of my life by other young women who don't identify as feminists. And it's just ... creepy.
What about female sexuality is so threatening?
Women owning their own sexuality, I suppose, is threatening because it's a big commodity within patriarchy. Men need us. So it puts us, really, in a position of power. So, for us to really own it means we get a little bit of that power back. I think, also, birth. I just had a kid and that's another big revelation of mine -- the power of creation. Procreation is in women's hands and that's another very profound thing in human terms. Women have been pretty effectively ejected from that seat of power in this culture.
It was at the NOW Conference that you announced that you were pregnant with your first child, daughter Petah Lucia, who's now 9 months old. Was that announcement planned?
Yeah, I thought it would be a good babe-a-licious place to come out with that. I had just finished my first trimester, [so I was] sort of in the clear. I thought that would be a cool place to make that announcement.
On your last album, 'Reprieve,' you said on the title track, "To split yourself in two is just the most radical thing you can do." Was that foreshadowing?
I find that my writing often precedes my life. I used to think it was kind of spooky, but now I understand it. It seems like an indication that our intelligence is so much deeper than our thoughts, and what we are thinking about or what we understand intellectually is just a fraction of what we know. I already met the father [engineer Mike Napolitano], and I think inside of myself I knew where I was going with it, although it wasn't in my mind.
And how did you decide on the name "Petah"?
When I was pregnant, we went to an art show at the Albright Knox Gallery in the modern art gallery in Buffalo, and we saw a show of a sculptor named Petah Coyne. Both me and my partner really dug her work. It was just really beautiful and visceral -- alive. We both sort of took note, "Petah, that's a cool name. Never heard that before." I'm, of course, being sort of a part of the unique name society. I thought I'd pass on that particular torture of nobody can say it, nobody can spell it -- fun, fun, fun. [Laughs] I have the little flyer from that art show and I didn't realize at the time, but it was called "Above and Beneath the Skin."
How has motherhood changed you?
Many ways. I probably couldn't even verbalize them all just yet. She's brought a lot of peace to my life, which is really good for me. I think I had a nanosecond of resistance in the beginning. Like, "Wow, now I have to give you most of my time and energy, and I can't spend all day in the studio, or with my guitar, or tripping on my own thoughts." She's always there going, "Yo, let's go play with grass." Though I resisted, I realized that I need to step away from my work and myself. She's doing me a service.
The last time we spoke, you were promoting 'Reprieve.' When you were recording that album, it was interrupted, unfortunately, by Hurricane Katrina. Describe New Orleans now.
Boy ... sad. It's especially sad because it's very much like it was a month after the hurricane. There are activists who are helping people reconstruct their homes and get food. The communities are pulling together. In that way it's awesome. All kinds of people have come down to help, which is beautiful to see. But it's the only help. You look at what the relief efforts were right after the storm hit and it's pretty much the same as today. The government has just abandoned the people of New Orleans. It's about half-populated now. I would think that a lot of the poor folks who haven't been able to come home just won't ever be able to come home. The city is depleted, it's blanched. A lot of African-American folks were especially not taken care of. There's a lot of talk these days about "Save the music of New Orleans. Save the music." A lot people are donating money for a musician's village, which is cool, but the music grows organically out of the communities. So if you don't save the whole community, how does the music have its natural continuum? I hope that the government of our country, maybe, if there's a shift in Washington, will better reflect what I think the sentiment and the will of the people. I think the people of America, by and large, are like, "Go help -- help those people." Why are we throwing money away, killing people in the Middle East, when we could be saving people in our own country?
And what does it say about our democracy, too?
Yeah, what democracy, huh? A couple of stolen elections, an abandoned section of the country, a complete disregard for the poor, and illegal wars. It's very hard for young people today to even believe in democracy, let alone participate. The disillusionment is really understandable and I think it's gonna be very hard to surmount. Unfortunately, that we're gonna have to. The way out of this is to reinvigorate our belief -- get involved once again and make it meaningful. It's on our shoulders.
In the 2004 election, you supported Dennis Kucinich. Are you doing the same for 2008?
Yeah, he's still as cool as he ever was. I can't tell you how many times I hear, over and over, "Well, he was the coolest. I watched the debate and he made the most sense but he's unelectable." Again, that disillusionment. People just don't even believe anymore that you can vote for a guy and he can be president. It's all about the money and the power. You have to believe something before you can make it so. I hate to see us progressives in this country shooting ourselves in the foot, just accepting the media celebrity game that they play with the supposedly electable people.
And what do you think it says about our country that we have an African-American male running against a female for president?
I think it says that maybe we're finally starting to grow up. This will be a fascinating election for sure because the forces of racism and sexism are pretty huge in our society. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. I would be happy to have either of those makes and models in the White House. But much more than that, I vote for the person and where they stand on issues -- not what package they fit in.
Throughout your career, you've been very honest, intimate and brazen. Is there anything that you will not put forth for the public's taking – it's just non-negotiable?
When I look back on my records, which I've just had to do, I definitely see myself obsessing over certain topics: Monogamy, for instance. Certain issues -- that kind of forbidden love that keeps coming up in my work. Sometimes I get outside of politics and I can get mired in personal stuff. The only thing that I've probably intentionally kind of left out is my family. There's a lot to be written there, but the few things about my family that have leaked in to my songs ... it just makes it harder for me to be with my family. They didn't really sign up to be exposed like that. I did.
The only thing that I really knew about your family was your father's passing a couple of years ago.
Yeah, it was a pretty unhappy family, and in that sense, I probably have stuff to give other people who have had those types of experiences, just in terms that feeling less alone thing that music is good for. But it's a difficult one.