Frisky Q&A: Ani DiFranco On Patriarchy, Motherhood & “Having It All”
When I arrived at the basement of the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts, I found folk musician Ani DiFranco in the midst of trying to get her six-month-old son Dante down for a nap. Minutes later I spotted the young baby — still very much awake — strapped into a carrier about to head out on a walk. This meshing of work and life happens daily for DiFranco, who is back on the road after having taken some time off to have her second child. Like his sister before him, Dante has joined DiFranco on tour, and the singer has been relearning how to split her time between motherhood and music.
While her son (hopefully) walked his way into a nap, DiFranco and I discussed everything from hitting the road as a mother of two, the notion of “having it all,” her ever-growing relationship with her fans and so much more.
The Frisky: The last time I interviewed you (for Bitch Magazine in 2011), we discussed the musician mama life with one kid. How’s it all changed now that you have two?
Ani DiFranco: Right now me and my fella have a married/cohabitating/single parents arrangement that seems to be happening. There’s the six, almost seven-year-old and the baby. It’s not like you have two of anything. You have one of those and one of those and they have very different needs. So, he’s [DiFranco’s husband, Mike Napolitano] kind of her go-to man, and I’m the baby’s go-to … boob. And I feel like I haven’t seen my daughter since he was born. I have so little time with her, ‘cause daddy brings her to school and picks her up and, you know, brings her to go do her life. And I’m kind of cocooning with the baby still, quite a bit. … The baby is out with me now and she’s at home and in school doing her thing.
What about your creative process? Has that changed with two kids?
You know, I mean, it’s even less likely (laughs). It’s becoming extremely rare. Like a rare bird that may fly by in a moment. I don’t get a lot of time for me, as any parent knows. I did manage to write a song the other day on the road, which was nice! But the baby on the road … babies just eat your head no matter where you are. I’ve been pretty creatively constipated I would say (laughs).
I feel like our society has this obsession with women “having it all.” How does that work/life balance happen for you?
Well, I guess it makes sense that people wouldn’t talk to men about it so much, because it’s somewhat optional for men how much of themselves they dedicate to their kids. And then for a woman, it’s like how could you possibly do anything else for a while? And you’re expected to do so much, especially women who work. It’s funny, the expression “have it all” sort of sounds like it’s some sort of big prize you can win if you have the right secret code. But it’s also maybe a big chore. I think it’s very natural when a new person comes along in this world to just become the mom’s whole world. Babies just need so much. I think the expectation for women to go back to work and keep doing the the myriad of things is very intense. I find it intense, too. How do you do it? I dunno. I think for me the most important thing, the most important ingredient, is to not expect to have it all, especially in the early days. To just be like, put down the life as I’ve known it — don’t freak out that it’s gone forever, don’t freak out that I can’t play guitar or write a song a week or go out and see this band or that movie or whatever fun things you used to be able do at a whim — and just embrace this: slow, quiet, sometimes boring, but often inspiring time of life. Just embrace it. This is it right now.
It took me a while with my daughter the first time around. I was resistant — like probably so many women — to that radical transition. You have your life and now you don’t! And then it slowly, in dribs and drabs, comes back to you, your “you time.” And the next thing you know you have a night off and you miss your kid. And you’re like “oh, shit! Adults are boring and half-way dead! Where’s the life?” So, I guess for me, it’s like … whatever. So, I don’t know if that’s an answer. But my relationship to having it all is “I’ll just have one thing at a time.”
Let’s switch gears. Your song “Lost Woman Song” was one of the first — and few! — songs about abortion that I’ve heard. In light of various reproductive rights being chipped away at and attacked, what impact do you feel songs like that have now, and do you feel compelled to write more about this topic?
On my last record [Which Side Are You On?], there’s a colossal song — I’m not even sure if song is the right word — called “Amendment.” It’s a very big piece of writing. It’s a very overt and specific call for the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified. As year after year goes by and the reproductive rights struggle continues and doesn’t get any easier in a lot of places, I feel like we need an amendment so we can take it off the table, finally. Not only are women still struggling for basic civil rights, but it’s used as such a device by the Right, by the Conservative Christian Army to divide people against their own interests, against each other. It’s used as a tool to weaken workers, people, us, and our unity. I’m still pursuing it in my writing.
When I was writing “Amendment,” I spent a lot of time on it, because I was working and reworking it. I put in my head and my mind’s eye my most conservative family members, and I was writing for them. I just really want to build bridges with my writing now more than ever. I don’t know what my motivation was in the beginning when I started writing — just get this stuff out of me, get room for myself, find my voice! Now I just want to build bridges, that’s what I want to do.
It’s funny though. When it came to recording that song, my daughter came in to the studio at one point and was like, “That’s scary, mommy. That’s a scary song.” But, the only thing I know how to do is keep talking about it. I slip the “P” word — “patriarchy” — into everyday conversation and it usually sticks out like a sore thumb. But that’s just my daily mission.
Oh, the “P” word. Just as scary as the “F” word, for some.
Yeah, I think The Right has done a very effective job of portraying “feminists” as ugly, angry, humorless, undesirable women. And women don’t even know they’re being lead into the trap when they abandon this one word. All I can think is to use your breath to counteract. Do the good work. Say the word and identify. With joy and with strength, and model an alternative.
Let’s talk about your relationship with your fans. You’ve always had this connection with them, and it seems to have grown and changed in the last two decades.
Yeah. I’ve been aware of that parallel journeying, too. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to me to see how not-unique I am. And to be thrilled by that! That’s why music is so powerful. It can show you that you are just like somebody that looks completely different from you, or is a completely different make or model of whatever. But once they open up their mouth and sing or make music, you realize, “Oh! We’re kindred spirits.” I think that’s the awesome power of the art form. I’ve been really gratified along the way to have been on this parallel journey with all kinds of, I’m going to say people — not just women, but most intensely women. To have been able to go on that ride together with the songs. It’s cool for me, too, to look out and see how we’ve all grown. You know, abortions happen and then motherhood happens. And breakups happen and marriages happen and divorces happen and babies happen and death happens. Your first [response is] resistance to the power structure and then your required taking ownership of it and being accountable. All of these phases of our lives that I’ve experienced so far, and to feel less alone through in it all through music is as healing for me as the next guy.
Has the crowd skewed older?
It’s an amazing mix these days. Sometimes I look out and I think, if you took a picture of this audience and said, “What show is this?” anyone in the world would be baffled. There’s kids, there’s grey-haired people, there’s teenagers, there’s men, there’s women, there’s parents and children, there’s gay couples and straight couples. And I think that’s cool! I like that the songs can go out and reach different people in different ways.
Your songs do translate well for different parts of life, depending on what you’re looking for.
Yeah, it is funny for me to sing an old song or speak an old poem from a very different place and hear it differently.
Do you ever look back on 18-year old Ani and go, “I get what you were thinking, but now …”
Oh, yeah! There’s this little moment in “Fire Door,” whenever I sing “Somebody’s got to be interested in who I am, just ‘cause I’m here and I’m real.” And I’m like, wow. Go 18 me! Someone? Anyone? But there are still those moments when I hear the younger me coming out of my mouth and I … smirk.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs for The Mamafesto.
[Image via Alexa Beach Photography]