Ani DiFranco on Babefest, Activism and Being a Bisexual Icon: 'Let's F--king Be Here Now'

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco has been synonymous with women’s music since her humble beginnings as a Buffalo, NY street busker in the late ‘80s.

Although other singer/songwriters like Cris Williamson, Holly Near and Meg Christensen had been more explicit in their love songs about other women a decade before, DiFranco’s usage of female pronouns in her poetic, finger-picking folk-pop songs made her a new queer icon for Generation X: a celebrated out and proud bisexual whose love of tank tops, tattoos, and androgynous hairstyles gave her the kind of cool edge queer women were looking for. And her tragic songs about broken relationships, or being forced into ill-fitting boxes, rang true with an angsty generation, fitting neatly along the lines of riot grrrls and alternative rock bands with outspoken front women.

Now 47, happily married to her husband of eight years, with 20 albums under her consistently large belt and a successful indie record label in Righteous Babe, DiFranco is somewhat removed from the nostalgia of the decade where she debuted her first albums -- including 1998’s Little Plastic Castle, which was her highest charting release to date, peaking at 22 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

She released her 20th studio album, Binary, over the summer, and is now preparing for Babefest, her all-women’s music showcase happening in Provincetown on October 8th during the city’s annual Women’s Week celebration. DiFranco will be joined by poet Andrea Gibson, and performers Rae Sanni and Gracie and Rachel, as well as hosting an activism component in conjunction with Care2, which will feature three panelists who will “provide a step-by-step guide to grassroots organizing focusing on using local activism to make a difference in your city.”

DiFranco’s music has always been political, with song lyrics about gun control, racism, and sexism factoring heavily into her repertoire, so fans have come to not only expect a marriage of activism and music from her, but to embrace it. There’s no real separation of her playing and her personal politics, which is something DiFranco admits can be daunting at times. She spoke with Billboard about putting together a women-focused festival in today’s hyper-patriarchal climate, and how she feels about ‘90s nostalgia.

Billboard: Babefest seems like an exciting experience to put together. Can you tell me about how it first became a thing?

Ani DiFranco: Just trying to think of new ways to generate more community inspiration, political motivation in the world. So yeah, we started last year with the first official Babefest and just kind of tried to gather people together around the idea of political action and music and art and how one can inspire the other. I guess just trying to sort of get people together, you know? Meeting each other, talking to each other, making new relationships—I think that’s kind of where change comes from in this world.

There are so many different causes and things to be angry about, and things to care about now. As you’re putting together the line-up or crafting your own set-list, how do you navigate what specifically you want to focus on?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. Everybody out there in this world’s trying to do something positive and affect any kind of positive change is welcome and invited. I don’t start out with a “I wanna focus my lens on this” [attitude]; it’s more like, you know, we kind of start with some people that we know that are doing shit, that are saying shit, and send out some invitations.

One of the organizations that’s gonna come is Emily’s List. I guess maybe I’m contradicting myself, but one thing I do think I would love to sort of put out there with Babefest was not only strategies, and ways and examples of how you can participate, [but] how you can support candidates -- how you can become a candidate, you know? Like, do you think this all fucked up? Try to work from the inside with your good ideas. How about getting involved with electoral politics yourself? I think that would be amazing if we got more and more progressive people inspired to participate in the political arena.

So I’m excited to have Emily’s List talking on that level to the audience, too. We will take you, if you have good ideas and you have what it takes, and we will back you throughout a campaign. Think about it!

Why is still so important for spaces like Babefest, with all women on the line-up, and where the focus is uplifting women in music and activism?

Well, I’m somebody who feels that patriarchy, in a word, is the foundation for all of our modern social diseases. Here we are in a moment in America where fascism is visiting our shores, threatening our democracy -- I mean, there’s no more archetypical example of patriarchy gone amok than fascism, you know? And I just feel this moment, this political moment, almost more than ever before... We need to finally, once and for all, address patriarchy as a fundamental imbalance that underlies all societies around the globe. And I think women, you know, are gonna need to lead the charge, as always with this kind of work.

As we sort of get closer and closer to this tipping point, to this crisis point, I think it becomes more and more important for women to stand together and say “Patriarchy exists whether we choose in society to admit it, to acknowledge it, to look at it and address it.”

So yeah, we better do so. I don’t think every woman on stage at Babefest is going to talk about patriarchy, but I think what happens when you hear a lot of women speaking together, speaking in succession -- a lot of voices forming a chorus -- is it sort of de facto addresses patriarchy, because you’re being infused with another perspective. You’re sort of exploring the world of the alternative and activating it and it giving it voice. I just want to be a part of the momentum of the resistance, which I think is apparent to all [as] being led by the female.

Lilith Fair and other women’s festivals that have amplified women’s voices -- many have not found the amount of support, especially financial support, that they’ve needed to thrive. Is that something you think is because of the patriarchy, essentially? And on a smaller scale, how will Babefest be able to be a success and hopefully continue?

We’re pretty small so far, and we’re totally seat-of-our-pants. I don’t know what Lilith Fair faced exactly, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily sexism that crushed it... I think it’s hard for anybody trying to do something in this world. I’m not a conspiracy theorist: “It’s all the patriarchy trying to crush us!” I just think it’s hard; it’s hard to organize. It’s hard to pull off these kinds of events -- and hopefully the energy, like the energy of political activism, political participation, resistance, feels like it’s higher than ever these days. So I hope that Babefest and all the other actions and festivals that are out there right now are gonna do OK, and that people really want to get involved.

You've always been a huge queer icon—and you identify as bisexual, correct?

Yeah, sure -- I mean you know, I’ve been with a dude going on 15 years so. But sure, bisexual all the way. [Laughs.]

I mean -- it’s awesome, the support and the love and the gratitude that grows up immediately around my work when I was first came out of the gate, when I was 18, started writing my own songs and getting out there. My fellow feminists, many of them dykes, were right there for me from the get-go. On the other hand, it’s been hard, you know. I get held to a standard that sometimes -- you know the way it is. People come down on their own harder than they come down on the actual people above them, with the boots on their necks. The infighting, sometimes -- that stuff has threatened to pull me down sometimes. But you know, everybody has their row to hoe, and I gotta believe if you’re not getting criticized and you’re not getting things thrown at you, then you’re not shaking it up enough.

There’s been a real romanticizing of the ‘90s recently, and that’s when you really sort of sprang out with your first albums and magazine covers. When you look back on that time, what do you feel?

I guess every generation has their nostalgia, so thank God we’re over the ‘80s because that music was not for me. [Laughs.] So now the dance clubs will be spinning ‘90s tunes for everybody to go and relive their youth to.

But yeah, I mean I guess it’s romantic in a personal way, because that’s when I was young and unfettered; that’s when I was breaking ground, literally, driving to new places, new cities. Everything was a new experience.

So, yeah, it was incredible. I had a great ride. But I’m not nostalgic for it, in that sort of macro-cultural, “Oh, if only we could get back there” way at all. I guess I feel like I’m doing some of my best work now, and hopefully ahead of me. And I think at this time in our country is a time -- yes, it’s a time of great peril, but it’s also a time of great potential; great, great potential. And that kind of precipice doesn’t come along every decade, every generation. It was not there in the ‘90s, you know? It’s here now. So I say let’s fucking be here now.

Ani DiFranco’s Babefest will take place October 8 at Provincetown Town Hall.