Ani DiFranco’s new memoir “No Walls and the Recurring Dream” is essentially an unconventional journey of discovery — of beliefs, of freedom, of her contradictory self, and above all of music and its ineffable power. From her early childhood, when she instinctively willed herself into self-reliance in a family imploding inside a two-story brick carriage house with virtually no interior walls (“the donut house”), through 2001, when 9/11 and then-husband Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist’s motorcycle crash sparked life-changing revelations, “No Walls” traces DiFranco’s gradual development as a DIY “punk folksinger,” guitarist, songwriter, and thinker.
The book’s slow beginning serves a purpose: seminal childhood episodes seeded her art and politics and contrast revealingly with her career’s relentless momentum later in the book. DiFranco’s poetry and lyrics mirror her maturation.
“Poetry found an instant and resounding yes in my body,” she writes of artists who visited her elementary magnet school. “I was immediately captivated by the idea of making language communicate beyond its borders.” Adults took notice as she began writing poetry herself, and her infatuation with dance gave way to words and music, which connected her more deeply to the world: “Music was an entry point, like a passport or a key that allows you through an invisible portal into the beating heart of the world.”
At 9, DiFranco met thirtysomething Buffalo musician Michael Meldrum, who schooled her in “folksinger history in the self-adapted, half-madeup way that all history is taught,” and with whom she was soon performing folk and Beatles covers at bars and busking in New York. By 14, she was writing her own songs. At 15, she had a control freak “First Boyfriend” in his 30s, and was living as an emancipated minor even before legal papers were filed. She spent her 16th birthday sleeping in a bus station. At 18, DiFranco strode past anti-choice protestors to get an abortion; she also shaved her head (“an instinctual move on my part to exit the world of male come-ons and exact credibility and respect as a card carrying member of the American Radical Left”). The next year, 1990, she released her self-titled debut album and created her record label, Righteous Babe Records, with longtime boyfriend/manager Scot Fisher.
“I have always felt like a suspension bridge in the long road of American folk music. … The culture was moving from ‘folksinger’ to ‘singersongwriter’ and abandoning ties to the radical politics of its forebears. But to me the radical politics were the coolest part, so I was swimming upstream. Elvis Costello’s recording of Nick Lowe’s ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?’ was like my anthem. I became determined to fly the flag of Woody Guthrie in an era when it couldn’t have been less cool.”
It’s surprising to recall how revolutionary DiFranco seemed when early albums like 1995’s “Not a Pretty Girl” and 1998’s “Little Plastic Castle” began attracting national attention, at a time when “chick singers were one thing, a feminist singing was a whole other matter.” DiFranco wasn’t the only musician blazing a DIY path, but she was the rare success who demonstrated the viability — and constraints — of a music career conducted independent of corporate label support. It was simple survival: She didn’t make money from club gigs unless she had albums to sell; she couldn’t sustain a fan base without a mailing list (“my pre-internet, direct outreach to each and every person in the world who gave a shit about my art”); and she couldn’t continue to record and perform music without those fans. Streaming and 360 deals had not yet become industry realities.
More importantly, her independence as an artist and label owner reflected her political convictions — a vital distinction. Entrepreneurship was ironically opposite to her goal: “having a career in music without having to associate with businesspeople at all. I came to represent the future of the music industry, but I meant only to avoid it. … Demand before supply. That’s the reality of my supposed entrepreneurial genius.”
Her frank but loving recollections of “teachers” like Prince, sometime collaborator Maceo Parker, and folk forebears Pete Seeger and especially Utah Phillips, with whom she produced and released two albums, make for some of the most compelling passages. Even more poignant are her recollections of how Feminism 101 and poet Sekou Sundiata awakened her mind and spirit at the New School in Manhattan, where she “really learned the art of political engagement.”
The meatiest sections by far lay out DiFranco’s thoughts concerning her anti-corporate stance, voting, civil rights, human diversity, patriarchy, racism, reproductive freedom and women’s rights. She writes with candor of a supposed friend who gives her a place to crash in England then insists she “use [her] body to pay him rent”:
“It is hard to know sometimes what constitutes ‘rape.’ Rape is a black dot in the center of a dark smudge in the center of a very big grey cloud that dissipates and pales at the edges. I have found myself in various gradations of powerlessness around that dark center and never quite known what the name is for where I am. I imagine most women have looked down at some point in their life and not been able to see their own hands in the fog.”
Her sociopolitical consciousness develops in tandem with an increasingly chaotic personal life as she explores polyamory and becomes a champion of the indie artist and LGBTQ communities. Her idealism and work ethic are admirable, but there are times when it would be valuable to hear from partners, friends and bandmates burned by her exploratory zeal.
“The thing that you don’t realize (until you do) is that your self-respect is the foundation that allows you to weather all manner of adversity and struggle. When you lose your self-respect, everything else becomes impassible. My duplicities made me hate myself which made me crumbly and desperate at my core. There was just no one to blame but myself.”
That DiFranco’s stubbornness and reflexive independence seem to have been encoded in her DNA from birth fits her persona. That she also comes off at key points as heedless, blinkered by her own drive, and dangerously, selfishly reckless might surprise some fans; but to her credit she mostly owns the pain she caused others. It is a mark of moral courage, and of someone who remains an artist and student of life.
Vroman’s Bookstore presents Ani DiFranco in conversation with activist Valarie Kaur from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; $38. Info: (626) 449-5320. Anidifranco.com, anidifranco.bandcamp.com/album/no-walls-mixtape, vromansbookstore.com