“No fear” has been the guiding force for singer/songwriter/activist Ani DiFranco, through her life and her career of more than 25 years.
“We just have to operate with no fear in this world. Whatever feels good to you, that’s what you should do, and whatever truth it is you see, believe in it and don’t try to hide it,” she said by phone from her home in New Orleans. “You can’t hide what you are. I think that was a big key for me — maybe the one thing that I communicate through my work that is abiding all the way through.”
That credo came to fore last week as she moved through the Mardi Gras crowd, seeing people to lip sync her songs for a Valentine’s video she was making for a social media campaign. It’s about “reclaiming love in a time of hate, anger, fear — reclaiming love in our social movement,” she said.
She approached a group of people sporting colorful wigs and beads. One guy who did some lip syncing for her project quickly chased her down two blocks afterward, asking her not to use his part, since he was in public relations. “As though reclaiming love was some radical stance that might get him in trouble,” she said.
She feeds off the love she feels from her audiences, so fueled by a new set of songs in her “Binary” collection, she’s on the road, returning to the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City on Wednesday night (2/21). Her longtime drummer, Terence Higgins, will be with her for the intimate show.
“My audience was my first family,” said the folk-rocker, 47, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and when her mother moved to Connecticut, DiFranco didn’t want to follow. So she became an emancipated minor at age 15, and moved out on her own. She explores that subject in the track titled “Emancipated Minor” on her 2008 album, “Red Letter Year.”
“My own family that I grew up in was kind of rough and brief even. I’ve grown up on the road with this community that has built itself over the years, and it’s such a great place to hang out in this world now,” she said.
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“I feel so lucky — a room full of cool people and I get so much feedback. I feel like how I get paid is in the interaction where people tell me stories of how my music intersected with them and their lives and what it meant. It really feeds me as a person. I like to be engaged, so traveling and talking to people feels so much better than sitting at home feeling crazy and alone.”
She isn’t alone at home, however. Married to her producer, Mike Napolitano, since 2009, they have a daughter, 11, and a son, 4. The kids have changed the way the prolific DiFranco works. She has released 20 studio albums, showcasing her signature staccato style, her guitar fingerpicking prowess, and her devotion to feminism and social activism. Her children have taught her something valuable in the process.
“The songwriting thing breaks down like this: They totally stand in the way of it,” she said with a laugh. “They prohibit it, and that happens for long enough that I eventually begin to realize the upsides, or the benefits after I give over to all the frustrations. I feel like just in general, I have to apply so much more patience to my life now. They’ve taught me how. And so I can do that even in my writing now — which I never could before — utilize this thing called ‘time’ and the perspective it affords. I feel like I’m on to a new era of my writing, thanks to my kids.”
In the past year, her writing has taken a new literary turn, too, as she works on her yet-untitled autobiography, which she’s hoping to finish “pretty soon.”
Songwriting is “pushed between that and my touring job and my kids. It’s pushed songmaking out for a year, which is weird,” she said, “but it’s a good challenge. ... I’m new to this book thing. I can see why people go to a cabin for a year in the woods.”
For the creation of her new “Binary” album, however, she wasn’t seeking isolation.
“I’ve made a lot of records in the solitary circumstances,” she said. “This time, I wanted community. That’s sort of what I want in general these days — more community, more comrades, more connections, so there’s a lot of people playing on this record. Even the dude who mixed it. Usually I mix my own records always. This time I just sent the mixes off, and this fella, Tchad Blake, who is amazing — he just added his own vision into the mix, and that was so cool.”
The new album features an eclectic mix of genres that speak to the messages of what’s on her mind — along with a lot of hot horns and other sounds from her homebase.
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“People say they can hear the New Orleans in my music now,” she said. “Certainly on my recordings, a lot of people from the community come and play on my records. My drummer now of a bunch of years, Terance Higgins, is from New Orleans. He certainly brings the groove from the mouth of the Mississippi everywhere we go. All of that has changed the sound and lifted it up a lot lately since I’ve been living here and becoming part of the community.”
The songs reflect her “personal journey into the yin-yang of the universe,” she said. “The more I look at everything, it just seems to be made of integrated forces — that inside of everything is a relationship. It’s also kind of connected with my feminism. I see relationships as being primary to existence. It’s my meditations on that which seem to connect up a lot of the songs on the record in my mind.”
Long known for her activism on many fronts, the political climate is on her mind and in her music on this album.
“I’m always into the political stuff,” she said. “It’s so hard to write a political song, and when I get one that works, that has energy, I’m so excited about it, because it gives me more purpose in the world. It’s me trying to contribute to putting more truths out into the world. There are so many.”
She counts tracks like “Binary” or “Play God” as the power plays on the new album.
“‘Playing God’ is about reproductive freedom seen as a civil right that I think women need for full agency and citizenship,” she said. “It’s just a civil right that happens to pertain only to women, though we’ve yet to acknowledge it as such. Songs like that make good tools when I’m moving through the world and wanting to engage with society about these things.”
WHAT: Ani DiFranco, with openers Gracie and Rachel
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday (2/21)
TICKETS: $31.50 to $51.50 (getting scarce), Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/ani-difranco/
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Anidifranco.com
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org