Last summer, prolific folk singer Ani DiFranco had just begun to record her latest album in her New Orleans apartment when Hurricane Katrina began closing in. Sent packing, DiFranco gathered up the initial recordings and evacuated to her other home, in Buffalo, New York, and watched with the rest of the country as the Crescent City was devastated.
Shaken by the storm and its terrible aftermath, DiFranco has put together Reprieve, an unflinchingly political album, due in August, that expresses her frustration, sadness and sense of displacement. The way she tells it, after Katrina DiFranco could not wait to return to New Orleans, which she did as soon as possible. The serene, crisp sound of Reprieve's thirteen-song cycle sonically reflects her travels over the past year.
In New Orleans, producer Mike Napolitano had taken a loose approach, laying down tape of DiFranco and bassist Todd Sickafoose performing. "Mike, my sweetie, recorded Todd and I just playing live in my old apartment," she explains. "And then the wind picked up and all the shit hit the fan, and New Orleans turned into a war zone. I ended up in Buffalo, stranded for a few months with a cheesy synthesizer and an Omnichord." So, like everyone displaced by the storm, DiFranco improvised.
"I swear to God," she says, "I brought all my cool stuff down, and then I couldn't get back to it. So I fleshed out the record, overdubbing almost entirely on this cheesy synthesizer. It was a challenge, like, 'Two sticks, rub them together and see if you can make a fire.' It was like trying to make cool sounds out of something that's inherently not."
With DiFranco's voice front and center -- buoyed by lush piano, pump organ and acoustic guitar -- Reprieve flows, creating something organic from its live music and the synthesized samples. "From the beginning, I was thinking of building segues," she says, "not having it just be a collection of songs but a journey, somewhat seamless."
But the soothing soundscape does little to mask the political convictions underlying some of the songs.
"This record, it really speaks of this time and place: New Orleans, 2006," DiFranco says. "Like 'Millennium Theater' ends with the line 'New Orleans bides her time.' That song is a rant about the insanity of the spectacle, as opposed to what's really happening underneath. It was written and recorded months before the storm hit. So I would say it's, like, 'divinely prophetic' -- if we all didn't know that shit was coming. Including the Levee Board. Including FEMA. Including the government.
"I think it's funny how easily duped we are by the propaganda machine these days," she continues. "We're still connecting Iraq with 9/11, even though that's a complete fallacy. And it's horrific down here for many, many people, and people are saying, 'Katrina, yeah, that was a big one.' . . . But the flooding -- that was the Levee Board. That was the pump stations. That was FEMA. That was the local, state and national government. That was human neglect, racism, incompetence and greed."
As she prepares to release the album, DiFranco will once again hit the road with a stripped-down band for a series of intimate dates. While an Ani DiFranco tour is not an unusual event -- she is constantly on the go -- last year, she discovered she had tendonitis and was told by doctors that if she toured or played guitar she'd risk permanent damage. DiFranco, however, is looking forward to the trek, which includes a stop at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "It's been weird for me to be quiet and still to begin with," she says. "So it will feel good to get back in the saddle."