Will Ani DiFranco wear a dress?
It’s the day before the Broadway premiere of Hadestown, one of the year’s most talked about new musicals, and DiFranco doesn’t know what she’s going to show up wearing to the show’s red carpet.
“I have this closet full of ancient dresses that I wore maybe once, and I packed one and then I unpacked it. It’s like, ‘Goddamnit, Ani, if you can’t dress up for the Broadway premiere of something you helped birth then what is wrong with you?” she says, laughing. “I can’t show up in jeans. So I may be going shopping tomorrow.”
For the woman who was once considered the ultimate lesbian feminist by her diehard fans, she knows too well the furor that can erupt when she wears a dress. But, at 48, Ani DiFranco’s stopped caring what other people think or say — mostly.
“I guess that’s been part of my strategy — just to have as few misgivings as possible along the road,” she explains. “I was criticized plenty for selling out. Just put on a dress and it’s a crime.”
Not only is DiFranco in New York City to attend the show’s opening night, she’s also here to discuss her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream (she’s also releasing a “No Walls” Mixtape of songs that factor into the book and is on tour to support it). Despite having released over 25 albums and written hundreds of songs in the past 30 years — much of it confessional, raw, confrontational and emotionally complex — that tracked her perpetual growth, you can tell the indie-rock queen is anxious. That’s partly because the book details her early years growing up in Buffalo, New York, her development into a folk and feminist icon and founding her own label, Righteous Babe, which became a template for many independent artists, including Prince. But it’s also because she details many of her relationships, heartbreaks, hardships and run-ins with a few music legends.
“I’ve been through the wringer so many times, and this is definitely a new level of oversharing that I’m sure will bring new levels of criticism and opinion my way. And I’m definitely terrified,” she says, while visiting Rolling Stone’s office. “I’m really looking forward to June. You know, just getting through this.”
Some of her stories will be familiar to fans from anecdotes that she’s shared in interviews over the years — how she found herself living on the street and celebrated her 16th birthday in Buffalo’s Greyhound station, for example — but there’s a new level of detail that adds more unsettling specifics to the origin story that triggers even more questions and sympathy. Like the fact that her boyfriend at the time, who she simply names First Boyfriend, was 20 years older than her, and the impetus for the sudden homeless stint. She’s long had a reputation for being unapologetic in her songs, but in middle age, DiFranco doesn’t want to reopen some wounds that have long healed and left their scars.
She’s upfront about how tough it was excavating some of these memories and bringing them out into the bright glare of today for mature analysis. As she explains early on in the the book, “When growing up is a difficult time, forgetting becomes an important ingredient to moving forward. It is a survival mechanism.” Yet, she manages to shed new light on how a young, talented woman created enough momentum to slingshot herself beyond her town’s suffocating gravitational pull and create an entirely new solar system, populated with an orbit of planets and moons of her own devising.
As she explains during our interview, the process involved finding notes that she’d jotted along the way about experiences and then trying to “re-humanize them,” comparing it to the movie Memento and how the protagonist scratched reminders on Polaroids. “That’s such a great metaphor for my memory: I really have no idea what happened, but I have this note here in my mind that is just, like: ASSHOLE,” she says. “But the more you sit with it … I just felt like, ‘OK this person is more than an asshole. This person gave me things, too. This person is fallible like me and this person is also a good person.’ So it made me have to unpack all these old characters who I haven’t come across in decades.”
Some of the more provocative sections pertain to notable musicians she encountered over the years. After meeting Pete Seeger late in his life, she explains that his “unassuming power came from a calm sense of purpose and a palpable lack of fear,” but when she later met and toured with Bob Dylan, she was left with the opposite impression. “Bob felt like a man who lived in fear that someone would discover and expose him as a fraud,” she writes. “I am not saying he is a fraud. On the contrary, I believe his art to be a great gift. I’m just saying there is a difference between open and closed. The man forced to guard his legend carefully in order that he always have something to hide behind, no matter how brilliant he is, is not as powerful to me as the man who stands out in the open, naked and unarmed.”
She reveals that she actually had a lot more about the experience of being on the road with Dylan that she decided to cut. “After the [tours], I learned what I don’t want to do in life in many aspects,” she explains. “I picked up some little methods that I employed, like how a tour book should be — you know, back when it was on paper. … But the overwhelming experience was, ‘Whoah. Now I know where I never want to go.’ I still can’t imagine what it’s like to be deified at 20, and how that can make your whole world claustrophobic. So I just wanted to talk about Dylan the symbol, because I don’t know Dylan the man, and I don’t want to judge him. It was just my interface with the Great White Male Genius.”
The section that details her experience playing and recording with Prince is much more positive. It was when he was desperate to get out of his deal with Warner Brothers and the two had traded quotes in the press about how he should come record with Righteous Babe. Then his white limo showed up backstage after she played a set. When he invited her and Maceo Parker to swing by Paisley Park and record on his new album, DiFranco was rightfully terrified. Prince wanted her to lay down a guitar track on his piano ballad “Eye Love U, But Eye Don’t Trust U Anymore” on the spot. “He knew I was in mortal panic and he was messing with me,” she writes. “I managed to play a very basic lunk-headed fingerpicked accompaniment to his song. … The whole thing was over in five minutes.”
Here, the powerful symbol that Prince represents remains the most potent memory. “It’s so much easier to write about people who’ve passed on. I mean, I didn’t have to worry about getting it wrong for him, a person I love,” DiFranco says. “So, I just talked about him as I see him, which I’m sure is not how he sees himself. And I know what it’s like to be public property and to be defined by others so much of the time; it’s excruciating. But whether he wants it or not, he was a valued gender hero. A queer fuckin’ hero, like Bowie himself. It’s just hard to imagine, to remember the culture before that. And the amount of women he worked with — you still don’t see that now. I feel, because I got in the door a couple of times, I could see that dynamic … and appreciate how that worked for him.”
Ultimately, she reserves most of the criticisms for herself, revealing moments of doubt and self-sabotage. Although revered for her buoyant persona and strength, Ani DiFranco was fallible and often questioning her own motives. She’s upfront about the difficulty of distilling a complicated narrative into a “little readable story” and worries that, at times, she was “way too fuckin’ nice.” But overall, she hopes that people see it as “one big long letter of gratitude to everybody who made me.”
After its opening, Hadestown would go on to be nominated for 14 Tony awards, including Best Musical, the most of any show in the current Broadway season. Not bad for a little indie production that she and Righteous Babe helped “birth” into the world. And for the record: Ani didn’t wear a dress. Instead she she was sporting a white tux jacket with tails — and pants.