Ani DiFranco Relives Her Indie Rock Rise: 'I Wanted A Different Kind Of Power'

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 7:47 am

Ani DiFranco grew up in a house with no walls. "It was like a brick carriage house there. Inside there was just one room on the first floor and one room on the second floor. So it was an intimate house for a non-intimate family."

DiFranco's deep craving for intimacy led her to writing music. And the things DiFranco wanted to write were exactly what a generation of women coming of age in the '90s wanted to hear. DiFranco relives those early years in her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream.

During her adolescent years, DiFranco remembers searching for connection and intimacy she never felt at home. "As a teenager, I went out into the world armed with my guitar and my little songs and my aggressive eye contact and I was looking to connect with somebody else deeply," she says.

At one point in the memoir, DiFranco reminisces on shaving her head at 18. "It's funny to think back," she says. "I shaved it all off because I didn't want to be a sex object and there I was playing in bars you know mostly surrounded by men with drinks in their hands. And I was getting attention for not the right reasons. I wanted a different kind of power, I think."

DiFranco remembers the power of shaving her head was polarizing. The catcalling from men stopped, but so did casual pleasantries with strangers. The musician recalls people thinking she was a skinhead or punk ready to vandalize property.

"People were visibly intimidated," DiFranco says, "which, again: Here's a girl moving through the world craving eye contact, craving human connection, even fleeting connection [from] passersby, you know. And so, the fact that people no longer even would look me in the eye ... It really weighed on me and it started to accumulate in my chest. Even people who are politely nervous, just eventually enraged me."

DiFranco poured that rage into her songwriting. As she wrote in her memoir, DiFranco struggled with making music and once it was made, she hated the idea of selling it. She remembers feeling repulsed by the idea of having to sell her tapes.

"I guess people were right in that I was kind of a punk kid. I was anti-everything, I was anti-capitalist," DiFranco says.

Though she goes through many personal and professional trials in the book, DiFranco says her sheer determination always outweighed her self-doubt. "Youth is a powerful drug, you know? I was on a mission. So, yeah, I wasn't gonna let anything stop me."

DiFranco talks to NPR's Rachel Martin about finding intimacy as she has gotten older, pretending to be alone in order to write and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Singer Ani DiFranco grew up in a house with no walls.

ANI DIFRANCO: It was like a brick carriage house. Inside, there was just one room on the first floor and one room on the second floor, so it was an intimate house for a non-intimate family.

MARTIN: Her deep craving for intimacy would lead her to music. And it turns out the things Ani DiFranco wanted to say were exactly what a generation of women coming of age in the '90s wanted to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "32 FLAVORS")

DIFRANCO: (Singing) Squint your eyes and look closer. I'm not between you and your ambition. I am a poster girl with no poster. I am 32 flavors and then some.

MARTIN: Ani DiFranco talks about those early years in her new memoir. It's called "No Walls And The Recurring Dream."

DIFRANCO: Yeah, I was looking for connection - that kind of familial intimacy that I just still didn't have. As a teenager, I went out into the world armed with my guitar and my little songs and my aggressive eye contact. And I was looking to connect with somebody else deeply.

MARTIN: It's so interesting - right? - that you did. You craved it. And as a result, you really looked for people's eyes. You wanted that moment of intimacy. Was it because you felt like you were an outsider in some way?

DIFRANCO: I was lonely. And yet I realized something - recording the audiobook...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DIFRANCO: ...Version of this book. When I'm writing - whether it be these hundreds of songs or this, you know, 300-page collection of complete sentences - in order to do it, I have to pretend I'm alone. But when I sat down to record the audiobook, I thought, oh, I can't pretend I'm alone anymore. Now I'm really sharing my most intimate thoughts with whoever - which is insane. Get me out of here.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So you've always had this - this tension around intimacy.

DIFRANCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: You crave it so much, but it also scares you. I mean, the decision to shave your head - even this is about intimacy in some way, isn't it? Because when I think about a woman who shaves her head, it feels like a very powerful move. It also feels intimate. Like, hey, here I am. This is me. Like...

DIFRANCO: Right.

MARTIN: ...Take me as I am. How did people perceive that?

DIFRANCO: Well, yeah. It's funny to think back. I shaved it all off because I didn't want to be a sex object. And there I was playing in bars, you know, mostly surrounded by men with drinks in their hands. And I was getting attention for not the right reasons. I wanted a different kind of power, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A PRETTY GIRL")

DIFRANCO: (Singing) I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do. I ain't no damsel in distress.

So I shaved my head kind of as a social experiment, you know? And sure enough, no more hey, baby, you know? But suddenly I was public enemy No. 1. People thought I was a skinhead or some kind of punk that was going to break something or steal something.

People were visibly intimidated - which, again, here's a girl moving through the world, craving eye contact, craving human connection, even fleeting connection, passersby, you know? And so the fact that people no longer even would look me in the eye was - it really weighed on me, and it started to accumulate in my chest. Even people who are politely nervous just eventually enraged me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A PRETTY GIRL")

DIFRANCO: (Singing) I am not an angry girl, but it seems like I've got everyone fooled. Every time I say something they find hard to hear, they chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear.

MARTIN: You had - as you talked about in the book, you were struggling with this idea of how to make art and how to sell your art or even if you should.

DIFRANCO: Yeah, well, when I was a young, little Muppet baby version of myself, you know, I mean - I guess people were right in that I was kind of a punk kid. I was anti-everything. I was anti-capitalist, first of all. I just don't have a lot of respect for profit motive. So as an artist, you know, I had a hard time. You know, when I was living hand to mouth, you know, my first manager - as a teenager, you know - tell people you have tapes for sale. Like, no, no.

MARTIN: (Laughter) You didn't even want to do that.

DIFRANCO: I just feel like a jerk. I didn't want to. I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it.

MARTIN: What I loved about the book was that I didn't come away with an impression that you suffered from self-doubt. You kind of always knew that it just didn't matter how hard it was, you were just - this was your thing.

DIFRANCO: I think so, especially in the early days. You know, it's funny. I feel like the longer I do this thing - life, career in music, public person - the more doubt I experience.

MARTIN: The older you get, really?

DIFRANCO: Yeah. You know, maybe I come back around. I don't know, you know? But youth is a powerful drug, you know, and you're just - I was on a mission. And so yeah, I wasn't going to let anything stop me.

MARTIN: How are you with intimacy these days? Where do you seek it? Where do you get it? Is it still in making eye contact with strangers? Is it when you get on a stage?

DIFRANCO: I don't know. I am more ambivalent. I am - when I'm on stage now, I don't laser beam my eyeballs into other people's eyeballs...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DIFRANCO: ...like I used to. I mean, I used to victimize people with my eyeballs one by one.

MARTIN: (Laughter) They were like, oh, this is so intimate.

DIFRANCO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: It was more like a death stare (laughter).

DIFRANCO: Yeah, seriously. If you wanted to be in the front row, you'd better, you know, come - have no secrets with me, you know? Now I'm more gentle with eye contact. I choose my moments. And actually - I don't know. Sometimes I walk down the street without looking at people's faces, just feeling their energy as I pass. And so I don't know if I'm more withdrawn or I just have, I think, a more gentle approach to interfacing with people.

MARTIN: Ani DiFranco's memoir is called "No Walls And The Recurring Dream." Ani, thank you so much for talking with us.

DIFRANCO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFERRED GRATIFICATION")

DIFRANCO: (Singing) Deferred gratification, you are my new best friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.