by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Ani DiFranco remembers a trip she took to Burma. “I had nothing in common with these people,” she recalls. “I was a privileged American, and these were people who had been imprisoned, tortured, and who were still fighting for democracy. People in refugee camps, women’s shelters… There was such a chasm between us. And then the guitar came out. First it was the children who responded. I played a song—and suddenly, just like that, we were family.” She pauses. “That’s what music does,” she says. “It creates unity, it creates connection.”
DiFranco will be bringing that connection to the Outer Cape on August 24when she takes the stage at Provincetown Town Hall as part of her Vote, Dammit! tour. Joining her is her band, Todd Sickafoose on bass, Terence Higgins on drums, and special guest Ivan Neville on keyboards, with Chastity Brown opening the show.
Folk music may not be the driving force for social action that it once was, but DiFranco is confident of its ability to draw people into a conversation. “Music has awesome powers,” she says. “I remember in the early ‘90s, I was so uncool. This feminist with a shaved head, it was so not in vogue. I was a woman without a country, musically speaking.” She laughs. “Now, I’m the Bernie Sanders of folk music. Because I live what I say, and I believe in what I’m doing. Everything this year is about money and position and power, but look at what he showed us.”
DiFranco is making sure that the message takes hold. Building on a tradition begun by Frank Zappa (whose 1988 tour “doubled as a voter registration drive” according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review), DiFranco is urging high election-day turnout and has teamed up with HeadCount to provide voter registration tables and information at concert venues. “I’m encouraging people to take all the elections this year seriously, not just the presidency, which is all you hear about in the media,” she says. “I feel like if we all participated, we’d have a different country and government.”
She’s never been hesitant about taking on pressing human rights and social issues in her work: feminism, racism, homophobia, gun control. A new song on the tour, Play God, addresses a woman’s right to choose: “I must insist,” it says, “you leave this one to me.” In a recent interview on NPR’s The Takeaway, DiFranco reaffirmed her basic optimism. “We feel hopeless and we feel powerless. But we’re not.”
That optimism is empowering—and contagious. “Things continue to change,” she says. How does that change affect young musicians, artists trying to make a mark on the world? “Change it quicker,” she responds. “Change it harder. Change it with your own flavor. Anyone who’s out there writing socially challenging music—I say, start the wave, man!”
Two days after her Provincetown concert, DiFranco heads back to her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. for the inauguration of Babefest, an event organized by her recording label, Righteous Babe Records. “It’s one night only this year, but we’re looking at an expansion,” she says. What’s it for? “To be awake together,” she responds. “To back each other up. To be… aware of each other.” Guests are musicians, artists, and comedians at the forefront of women’s rights issues. “It’s inspiring stuff,” says DiFranco. “Lizz Winstead will be there, she’s the founder of the Lady Parts Justice League.” Winstead is also co-creator of The Daily Show. “Chastity Brown will be there. It’s an opportunity to be exposed to cool people doing cool stuff.” And raising money for still more cool stuff: part of the proceeds will go to The Roots of Music, an organization in New Orleans empowering youth through music education and academic support, as well as to Lady Parts Justice.
But first there’s Provincetown. And while the Outer Cape may be feminist-friendly territory, there is bound to be some diversity in the summer audiences who come here for the sun and the sand. “You know, I make a decision,” DiFranco says. “I can make an audience work for me, or I can let it bring me down. And actually, that kind of diversity in an audience is a good thing. People are welcome to speak up. I try to make it a dialogue—even though I’m the one who has the microphone! There are always going to be diverse experiences and opinions.” She thinks about it. “Here’s what’s absolutely delicious—when someone comes who’s not a typical Ani fan. Like the reluctant boyfriend who just came along to make his girlfriend happy. And then when I can make a connection with that person, when he comes up later and says he liked it, that’s when it’s really working.”
The reluctant boyfriend isn’t the only one she educates. She used to spend significant time onstage talking about books. “Books are an important part of my life,” admits DiFranco. “A lot of my awakening came from books.” But after a while, people started suggesting she pick up the guitar again. She laughs. “They said, how about you play the music, we’ll read the books later!” For years she wanted to find a way to talk about what she was reading—books she wanted her audiences to share. “It’s an idea I had for years,” she says, “and finally got started.” The idea is a monthly book column on her website, where she talks about what she’s reading and turns people on to literature she finds significant. Anyone can consult her monthly recommended-reading list, where she offers classics and new finds, usually accompanied by a handwritten note. She wants to talk about big ideas, to reach out to others about “books that changed me—books that opened my world and brought me closer to myself,” she says.
Which gets back to her first theme: connection. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the other side of life in your experiences,” Ani DiFranco says. “We have more that’s in common than what’s not. We just have to let the music bring us there.”
Payomet Performing Arts Center presents Ani DiFranco live in concert at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., Wednesday, August 24, 8 p.m. For Tickets ($35 – $85) and information call 508.487.5400 or visit payomet.org.