The Little Folk Singer

“I do enough of these interviews that they’re never really a big deal,” I said to the folksinger on the other end of my phone last week. “But I’m really trying my best to keep my shit together right now.”

Ani DiFranco, speaking from her home in New Orleans, laughed easily and often as we discussed her relationship with her fans, leaving her home in Buffalo, New York, for the Big Easy, and the delays behind her newest album, “Allergic to Water.”

“I finished the music in time — I think I finished the music in time,” DiFranco said of “Water.” “But when you get on stage live, you try to have a performance that unfolds. There’s a beginning, middle and end. And I think the same thing of an album.”

“Allergic to Water” was initially set for a September release but has been pushed back to November, leaving DiFranco out on the road in support of an album that people don’t yet have. Not that it will keep people from coming to see a woman with 17 studio albums worth of material and a unique, deeply personal relationship with her audience.

“My ace in the hole as a performer is that people will always need to go out, leave their homes and experience things together,” DiFranco added.

That live experience was something that gave her pause early in her career. DiFranco made her early name as an “angry little feminist” playing open mics in New York City. Gigs where, in her own words, she’d “go in, play for an hour and alienate everybody, then try and get a drink off one of them.”

As her fan base grew, DiFranco’s status as “feminist icon” grew with it, something that she pushed back against initially because she always felt more like she was speaking to people, rather than for them, no matter how much people tried to live vicariously through her actions.

“My whole relationship with my audience bothered me for a long while,” she admitted. “But now, I relish it.

“I’ve always loved playing in Europe, because my stereotypes don’t precede me there. It always struck me back in the day — those Little Plastic Castle (1998)/Dialate (1996) days — that was the last time I read things about me. It was all about, ‘You’re changing your look and trying to reinvent yourself,’ and it was like, ‘I’m not doing this for you. I’m never doing this for you.’ ”

Today, DiFranco is much more at ease with her place in life. A mother two times over, DiFranco has eased back on her relentless production schedule a bit. After releasing 15 studio albums between 1990 and 2006 — along with 12 live albums, three EPs and two collaborations with Utah Phillips — “Allergic to Water” is just DiFranco’s third album in the past eight years.

“I try to dedicate as much as I can to my kids,” she said. “(Husband Mike Napolitano and I) are an anomaly in terms of middle-class parents in that we have so much time with our kids. At first it bothered me that I couldn’t juggle everything, but then I realized that there were unforeseen benefits. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually good for me to slow down.’ Now it’s actually cool to chill out and step away from my work a lot.”

That’s a transition that DiFranco is convinced she couldn’t have made without Napolitano, who’s also served as her producer since 2008’s “Reprieve.”

“Mike was really the turning point for me,” she said. “I stopped a doing lot of things and started a lot more things. As much as I seem like I have my shit together, I’m like anybody else: I’m still a fuck-up. That’s where Mike comes in. My husband knows about unconditional love.” 

article originally ran in Cityview on October 15, 2014