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Redefining The 'Canon': Ani DiFranco
"No hit singles. No platinum albums. No compromises." That's as good a summation of Ani DiFranco's career as any well-heeled Madison Avenue copywriter could conjure, but like all things DiFranco, this"No hit singles. No platinum albums. No compromises." That's as good a summation of Ani DiFranco's career as any well-heeled Madison Avenue copywriter could conjure, but like all things DiFranco, this promotional tag line for her first career retrospective—the 36-track, double-CD "Canon," due Sept. 11—is very much home-grown.
The pint-sized folk singer, who founded her own Righteous Babe Records in 1990, has come to define the term "independent musician." A self-described "old-fashioned girl" who built her audience "bar by bar, college by college," DiFranco has defied the odds, selling 4 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and maintaining a devoted fan base all while resisting repeated overtures by major labels.
Things have certainly changed, though, since DiFranco put out her first cassette tape in the late '80s.
"As a result of the Internet, we've got this trend now toward songs versus albums and f*cking ringtones versus songs," DiFranco says. "Perhaps that means there's more liberty for the consumer, but as an artist, I find it constricting. I don't make singles."
Still, Righteous Babe label manager Mary Begley concedes that the label has increasingly put its focus on the digital realm. "I don't have exact figures, but as you'd expect, each year digital is becoming a larger and larger chunk of our business."
Of course, marketing and promotions campaigns have also been affected. "For 'Canon' we're focusing a lot of our energy on reaching people online, more so than in the past, working with Web zines and other online outlets," she says. "We're also going to release a video of Ani in the studio that we'll probably give to one Web outlet as an exclusive for a week and then we'll put it on YouTube and the label site."
The video -- for DiFranco's iconic "Both Hands," which appeared on her first Righteous Babe release -- captures DiFranco in the process of rerecording the song, something she did with five of the "Canon" tracks.
DiFranco says, "These five were songs I knew I wanted to include, but couldn't find a single good recording of. In all honesty, if I could have, I probably would have done 36 new tracks, because I second-guess everything I've done in the studio given enough time. But these five I handpicked to represent in a more fortified way."
"Canon" is a smartly organized overview of DiFranco's career, though some listeners may be surprised at the lack of overtly political songs, especially on the highly personal first disc. There, DiFranco even includes banter from a live show in which she addresses concerns that she's made a "conscious move" away from politics. "No, man," she says with a chuckle, "it's just, I got kind of distracted."
At the time -- 1997 -- she was distracted by a relationship with sound engineer Andrew Gilchrist, who would become her husband a year later, a relationship that lasted about five years. Now, though, DiFranco has someone else vying for her undivided attention: her first child, born in January.
"Having the baby has definitely shifted my lifestyle, which I think is good for me," DiFranco says. "I had a moment of resisting, where I'd be imagining myself saying to the baby, 'What do you mean I can't get deep into my thing and lose a day -- you want to feed again?' So it's good for me to have somebody demanding I come out of my world. It's been very grounding."
DiFranco splits her time between New Orleans, where she shares a home with partner/engineer Mike Napolitano, and her native Buffalo, N.Y. She has been touring less of late, another major shift for the former road warrior. But the singer says that "it feels really good. I feel much fresher onstage. The old Ani was getting a little stale up there—there's only so much you can put out without taking in."
The artist has an 11-date tour planned for September to support "Canon" and will likely do a larger tour in first-quarter 2008, when her next album of all-original material is tentatively due.
Meanwhile, Begley says fans who pick up "Canon" in indie stores will receive a point-of-purchase DiFranco sampler, which culls tracks from her official live bootleg series. "This is the first time we've done an artist sampler like this, and it will be first come, first served," she says.
DiFranco adds, "I really feel like I've only begun to make records I can stand behind for years to come. It's such an elusive process making good recordings, but I think having a little more experience and perspective has helped me start to get there. My ongoing mission at this point is to retain my joy and gratitude no matter what else is happening. I always want to feel happy when I get up on that stage."