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Ani DiFranco grows up: new child, new band, new record

What has always separated Ani DiFranco from the thousands of other acoustic guitar-playing, female singer-songwriters is the pugnacity of her eloquence, epitomized by her steadfast ability to walk the talk on her declarations of independence.

Even breaking in as a bisexual feminist teenager from blue-collar Buffalo in 1989, DiFranco brooked no b.s. – not internally, through her lyrics, nor externally, in her relations with the outside world. From the start she retained control over her own music and means of production by founding the Righteous Babe Records label. Bringing the attitude of punk to the implements of folk music, her abiding message was one of uncompromising personal liberty – what she did with her body and her mind was her own damn business.

Under those circumstances, it’s easy to see how maturity could have potentially waylaid DiFranco’s artistry. Already, her efforts to expand the scope and sophistication of her music have occasionally diminished the force of her message in a series of albums beginning with “Up Up Up Up Up Up” in 1999. What happens when the message itself is mitigated by the compromises and dependencies of an increasingly middle-aged perspective?

What happens, in other words, when a feisty cult heroine like Ani DiFranco grows up?

Joy permeates ‘Red Letter Year’
The way DiFranco answers that question on “Red Letter Year” – released today, a week after her 38th birthday and three days before her gig at the State Theatre on Friday – should thrill her die-hard fan base and add a wealth of new converts to her camp. While she was recording her previous disc, “Reprieve,” two years ago, DiFranco fell in love with its co-producer, Mike Napolitano. A year later, she gave birth to their first child, daughter Petah Lucia Napolitano. The joy that she derives from their presence permeates “Red Letter Year.”

But what makes the album more profoundly heart-warming is DiFranco’s ability to seize on the transformative energy provided by these blissful changes in her life in order to hone a new band that, together with her producer-partner and the slowing of her life-rhythms, helps refine the tenor, but not the terms, of her political discourse.

“Petah gives me new things to write about, but, bigger than that, she slows down the writing process and the album-making process in general, much to the benefit. Now I’m on baby time,” DiFranco says happily, speaking from Denver, one of last week’s stops on her current tour.

Two years in the making
After cranking out more than 25 records in 17 years, she and Napolitano took two years to craft “Red Letter Year.” Thus we hear DiFranco’s ukulele mesh with new band-member Todd Sickafoose’s bass and synthesizers and guest Richard Comeaux’s pedal steel on “Landing Gear” while DiFranco coos to Petah, “you’re gonna love this world/if it’s the last thing I do.” But we also hear an all-female string quartet lend resonance and ballast to DiFranco’s straightforward vow, on “Alla This,” that “I won’t rent you my time/I won’t sell you my brain/I won’t pray to a male god/cuz that would be insane.”

The glowing vibe of “Red Letter Year” also provides more depth and ammunition for DiFranco’s argument that standing up for your political beliefs doesn’t mean you’re angry or embittered. “Yeah, it reinforces the point that you can be a joyful person and still be politically engaged,” she agrees. “Everyone knows activists are some of the most joyful, loving people you’d care to meet. That makes sense because who is happier, those working with others to fix what’s wrong or someone who is politically unengaged and feeling isolated by what is happening?”

On the other hand, DiFranco is quick to acknowledge that there is a deeper level of joy in her life nowadays, and that it began with Napolitano. “I’ve been talking to the press and giving all these different answers as to what has made this a ‘red letter year.’ But the other night as I was brushing my teeth, I realized that what has happened to me is all very much about Mike. All the rest of it – my new place [in New Orleans], my new band – are echoes of that.”

Her love for Napolitano is addressed not only in paeans like the self-explanatory “Smiling Underneath,” but in songs like “Way Tight” and “Round a Pole,” in which DiFranco battles her mistrust of dependence. “I’ll learn to fix stuff/If you will teach me love,” she sings on the latter song. “I could sing you round a pole/Like a ball at the end of a rope/Have you duckin and sluggin/Protecting your head/But I decided just to love you back instead.”

More spare and direct
Fittingly, the songs devoted to her partner tend to be more spare, direct, and devoid of guest musicians than the others on “Red Letter Year.” That allows them to be rendered in concert with more fidelity to their recorded versions. Joining DiFranco onstage is her working quartet, which includes drummer Alison Miller and vibraphonist/percussionist Richard Dillon in addition to the multiinstrumental Sickafoose.

“We’ve been a band about a year a now year and it’s been great. My music is deeper and more elastic,” DiFranco says.

Asked what songs she has especially enjoyed performing on this tour, DiFranco chooses “The Atom,” one of the more overtly political numbers on “Red Letter Year,” yet one obviously influenced by a woman who has felt a child grow from a tiny speck into a human being inside herself. In a beautiful mesh of science and spirituality, she pays tribute to the atom as “The primary design/Of the entire universe.” You can hear her perform it below.

“We are at a crossroads with the Republicans wanting to infest our landscape with more nuclear power,” DiFranco says. “I can’t get over how glorious a mission it could be for the Christian right to preserve this creation of our life, The Atom. What better way to honor life than to preserve the atom [as it is]? I really wanted to play that tune at the Republican Convention, build a bridge to the Christian right that focuses less on Christians as patriarchy. I wanted to say, ‘Here is a proposition of something we could work on together.’ ”

It was hard to tell whether she was kidding and/or serious. But the joy and sense of fun in her voice was unmistakable.
What: The Cedar Presents Ani DiFranco
When: Friday, Oct. 3, 8 p.m.
Where: State Theatre, Minneapolis
Tickets: $39 and $36, Ticketmaster

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