Despite her frequent identification as a "folk singer," Ani DiFranco has culled from an eclectic songbook on more than 20 albums. Perhaps grounded in folk, two decades into her career, DiFranco's expansive catalog has been peppered with soul, funk, jazz, electronic music, spoken word and more. Along the way, she's crossed paths with the likes of Chuck D., Dr. John, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and many more, while espousing "to use her voice and her guitar as honestly and unflinchingly as she could."
Ani DiFranco's current tour, in support of her latest ¿Which Side Are You On?, included a stop in Cleveland, where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame caught up with her to learn more about what's inspired and influenced DiFranco over the last 20-plus years.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: What was the first record/CD you ever bought and do you still listen to it?
Ani Difranco: The first records I ever bought were cassette tapes. I remember driving across the country with a mere handful of them, which I listened to repeatedly. I had a Robert Johnson recording, I had Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, I had Prince's Purple Rain, several Joan Armatrading albums... that's about all I can remember.
RRHOF: What artists did you listen to when you were growing up and what about them appealed to you?
AD: I listened to a lot of Joan Armatrading actually, and people like Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, and a whole slew of folk singers that I knew or was coming to know such as Greg Brown, Utah Phillips, Michael Meldrum, and John Gorka. Those were probably my earliest influences. [pictured: Ani DiFranco guitar, part of the Museum's collection of instruments]
RRHOF: What do you remember about playing your first gig – how old were you, where was it, when was it, how’d it go, the crowd?
AD: I was playing gigs when I was 9 years old (1979-1980), and it's hard to say which is the actual first. I do remember my 11th birthday, which I spent on stage participating in a "Save the whales and dolphins" benefit concert in Buffalo. I remember that one particularly because the other performers brought a birthday cake out on stage for me. Michael Meldrum and Rosalie Sorrels were both playing that night.
RRHOF: Which album of yours would you say is your favorite and why?
AD: I guess my favorite of my records is the last one I released, ¿Which Side Are You On?, because I made it at home with my husband. I like the way he records my voice and guitar and his production skills have uplifted my album making. Before him, I think I hit a good album groove around the time of Not a Pretty Girl, Dilate, and Little Plastic Castle.
RRHOF: How would you describe your music to somebody who'd never heard it before? What song would you tell them to listen to first and why?
AD: I've never really known what label to attach to my music. Many have come and gone, such as "punk folk." I usually say to cab drivers or whoever is asking that I play music with a story. I have written many hundreds of songs, so it's kind of impossible to say what one defines me best.
RRHOF: Do you have a favorite concert? One by someone else? And one by you?
AD: I've seen a lot of great shows, and I can't necessarily pick a favorite, but most recently my mind was blown by the great organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. I also have no favorite show of my own. Having played thousands of shows, it's all kind of a blur.