A PROGRESSIVE PLATFORM: Ani DiFranco hits the road for change, sampling new work along the way

With a 2-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at home, preparation for Ani DiFranco’s winter tour looks a little different than for most musicians. “Preparing is cleaning up after them, wiping butts, making lunches, and then going, ‘Oh, shit, I gotta pack!’” DiFranco laughs.

TRUE BLUE: Ani DiFranco is set to perform at the BAC as part of her Paint Congress Blue tour. Photo by Charles Waldorf.a
TRUE BLUE: Ani DiFranco is set to perform at the BAC as part of her Paint Congress Blue tour. Photo by Charles Waldorf.

Today her struggles move beyond penning the perfect lyric. Sometimes it’s hard for her to even pick up the guitar to rehearse at home. “For some reason my kids consider my guitar the enemy: They shut me down as soon as I try to put on that hat. Music is now something that Mommy has to sneak off and do on her own.”

There was a time when DiFranco actually went on the road with her children. “I was convinced any parent who couldn’t take their kid to Singapore and back was just a lame parent,” she jokes.

Those days have long since passed. DiFranco is now hitting the road with just her guitar in tow. She will have a stopover at Wilmington’s Brooklyn Arts Center (516 N. 4th St.) on Fri., Jan. 22.

Her 2016 tour, dubbed “Paint Congress Blue,” is (not surprisingly) a reflection of DiFranco’s politics. Her music spans decades, with two dozen studio albums, several EPs and compilations. She often uses her talent as a platform for activism.

“Obviously, I’m putting out my wishes for the next election cycle,” she admits. “I’m a very political artist [with] progressive-leaning songs. My audience is certainly not conservative—and probably not even wishy-washy. I’m so upfront with my vision of the world.”

The first goal of her tour, especially in swing-state stopovers, is to encourage people to vote. While 2016 marks the end of President Obama’s final term—with the primary vote approaching—DiFranco is mindful of how powerless a president can be with a severely partisan Congress at the mercy of extremists.

“I think it’s dangerous to just focus on the presidential battle,” she continues. “Meanwhile, democracy is more complicated and the other races that are happening in these other states are as much or more important. . . . I think we have a real opportunity in coming years to make important changes in terms of climate change, criminal justice, etc.”

Despite trying to balance attention between kids, music and touring, DiFranco’s last record, “Allergic to Water,” came out in 2014. Since, she’s managed to work on not one, not two, but three new projects she suspects will be released in 2016—one of which is a passion project. It’s an album full of songs, poems and raps written by current or former prison inmates at New Folsom Prison in Sacramento, CA. Fellow songwriter Zoe Boekbinder approached DiFranco with the Prison Music Project, who then agreed to help produce the album. While both DiFranco and Boekbinder sing, there are other guests artists and the New Folsom Prison writers heard on the album. The objective is to use their stories to get communities talking about the state of prison populations and reform.

“It’s very powerful, beautiful writing and goes a long way to make the listener feel the humanity of these people who are living in cages—some of whom have made terrible mistakes in their life, but they’re people,” DiFranco explains. “I think we’re slowly becoming aware in this country that we have a situation of mass incarceration. We have more people in prison than any other country in the world, which is unthinkable and inexcusable.”

Among the Folsom writers is Spoon Jackson. DiFranco sings a song written by Jackson—who has been serving a life sentence without parole since he was 19. “Nowhere But Barstow” is based on one of many of Jackson’s poems. Jackson has published a memoir (co-authored with Judith Tannenbaum), “By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives,” and a book of poetry, “Longer Ago.”

“He’s been in prison almost 40 years now, and he is (like many of us) a very different person pushing 60 than he was at 19,” DiFranco says. “He’s just an incredible human being—very peaceful, big-hearted human being. And he’s an incredible writer.”

Proceeds from “Long Time Gone” sales will benefit re-entry programs for people released from prison. DiFranco hopes projects like these will encourage people to view all citizens’ lives as valuable.

DiFranco also has been working with Peter Mulvey, who wrote “Take Down Your Flag.” DiFranco recorded it for the web in response to the Charleston church shooting last June. “I’ve got a big pile of 12 or 13 news songs, and I’m in the process of making that into a record,” she divulges, “but my process is very interrupted these days, so I’m not sure how long it will take me to finish that one.”

Other side projects include a free music school, The Roots of Music, in her home of New Orleans. She’s served on the board of directors since its inception in 2007. The free music program serves children from low-income households. The program provides music education to roughly 100 students, with round-trip transportation and a hot meal five days a week all year. DiFranco is working on gathering musicians to help produce a Roots of Music album to benefit the program. “We’re going to try and get every musical-being in New Orleans involved and have a community record,” she says.

Community has been her driving force. The folk circuit was supportive and welcoming when DiFranco joined the ranks in the 1980s. She knew it to be bleak years for the genre, but now there’s more renewed interest in community roots music. “I remember people like Pete Seeger embracing me,” she tells. “I feel like the acoustic music [and] song world has had a whole new breath of life the last decade or so, with a lot of young, talented people coming up.”

DiFranco is touring with Hamell on Trial,  who’s known for pulling no punches politically. “He’s like a punk band with an acoustic guitar,” DiFranco praises. “It’s been awhile since we shared the stage, and when I saw that this tour was going to start in Florida, I was like ‘We need Hamell!’”

Ani DiFranco with Hamell on Trial
Friday, Jan. 22
Doors: 7 p.m.; show, 8 p.m.
Brooklyn Arts Center • 516 N. 4th St.
Tickets: $25-$40

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