In Advance of Next Week’s Show at Cain Park, Singer-Songwriter Ani DiFranco Talks About Her New Memoir

click to enlarge DANNY CLINCH
Danny Clinch
Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco says she first began thinking about her recently published memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, several years ago. It slowly evolved over time to become an account of her life story, including her childhood and the wall-less “donut-shaped” house in the Buffalo area where she grew up.

“Back in the day, we had the thought to make a handbook of sorts about being an indie musician, but that ship sailed,” she says during a recent phone interview from her New Orleans home. She performs with Lucy Wainwright Roche at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, at Cain Park. “At this juncture in my career and life and time on the planet, I was looking for a writing challenge after hundreds of songs. It was a new kind of challenge, and I have kids now, so I’m trying to stay home and not be such a road dog. All signs pointed to giving it a try.”

An accomplished songwriter, DiFranco is naturally more adept at poetry than prose, and she admits the book didn’t come easily.

“But there’s a first time for everything,” she says. “I felt along the way many moments of deep dread and panic. I thought, ‘Can I do this?’ Then, I thought, ‘I can’t do this. Why did I’d say I would do this?’ I had other moments where I saw it shaping up. I had to move through all of it. I had no idea until the thing came out whether anybody would vibe with it.”

In looking back at the early days of her career when she played coffeehouses and bars in the Buffalo area, she says it struck her that many of the songs she wrote back then had to do with “survival” and “negotiating mortal danger.”

“I’m 48 now, and it’s been long enough that I’ve been away from that life of solo young woman in the world traveling that I had forgotten how much of your energy goes to self-preservation,” she says. “[The songs] are not just about my personal love affairs. [They're about] the society I live in and the power struggles between people and the heartbreaking inequities. I have a little window of experience into the second-class citizenry of being female. It gives you an empathy for the ways in which people are prevented from becoming themselves. I only write about what really affects me, but part of that is politics and society.”

Since so much of her memoir focuses on the early part of her career (she released her self-titled debut in 1990 on her own Righteous Babe Records), DiFranco decided to revisit that past by assembling a “mixtape” of some of her early songs to accompany the book.

“We had various ideas about what I could do with the older songs,” she says. “Then, what happened is what usually happens with me when left to my own devices, and I just make something by myself. It’s a rough-and-ready indie thing. I re-recorded some songs and invited three special guests. Other than that, it’s maybe evocative of some of my earliest records when I recorded solo. It’s where the book begins and ends. It ends in 2001 when I was back to recording alone in my house. I go through these spells. It seemed appropriate to go back, and the book itself was such an adventure of going inward. That’s what I really felt when I started to record the music. The whole project is about going deep in.”

The cover art for the mixtape features retro shots of DiFranco from that time period.

“It was at was some photo shoot I did in 1993 or something,” she says when asked about the photos on the mixtape cover. “I remember the photographer in New York and going up on his roof. I don’t remember what it was for — some passing magazine. I just came upon those photos. The book focuses on the early ’90s when I was just breaking ground and trying to invent myself. [The photos] capture that moment.”

The songs on the mixtape run a wide gamut. “Anticipate,” for example, features some woozy saxophone courtesy of Maceo Parker. More funk than folk, it finds DiFranco practically rapping her way through the tune.

“I love him as a human being and consider him a friend,” she says of Parker. “He’s such a musical being. I love the way he picked upon the vocal line in the choruses and sang with me. He has such a natural way of fitting in with me.

DiFranco also teams up with politically minded singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on the sparse “To the Teeth.”

“I was a fan of his as a teenager,” she says of Bragg. “His were some of the first political songs that I encountered out there in the world. I just ate him up. I thought, ‘Thank God.’ I loved his punk rock vibe even though he was a solo songwriter. Many years later, we met doing some benefit that I can’t even remember. We’re not close and not friends but only acquaintances, but I feel very kindred to him. There’s this atmosphere of support we have for each other. It was super sweet to drop him a line out of nowhere and ask him to do this for me. When I asked, he immediately said, ‘How high?’”

Since the Cain Park concert comes in the wake of the book’s publication and the mixtape’s release, DiFranco says she’ll likely include some of those early '90s songs in her set list.

“I think since I’ve relearned those old songs, I figured I’d play a few of those songs,” she says. “Yes, I think I’ll pull out some of those ancient tunes for a change.”

Ani DiFranco, Lucy Wainwright Roche, 8 p.m., Thursday, June 13, Cain Park, 14591 Superior Rd, Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000. Tickets: $25-$45 ADV, $28-$48 DOS,

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Music News articles
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.