Welcome back to Takeover Tuesday, where each week Billboard taps chart-topping artists to compile their very own playlist exclusive to Billboard‘s Spotify account. We give the artists free rein to base the list on whatever subject they choose. The only rule? Make it as creative and unique to them as possible.
Singer-songwriter, poet and activist Ani DiFranco just celebrated the release of her 20th studio album Binary, via her own Righteous Babe imprint. Despite being written prior to the 2016 election, Binary tackles very of-the-moment political themes from teaching non-violence (“Pacifist’s Lament”) to reproductive rights (“Play God”), and more. After a European stint, DiFranco returns to the US to kick off her national tour September 28th in Birmingham Alabama at the Lyric Theater.
Today, DiFranco shares her “Poetry In Motion” themed playlist, exclusively for Billboard‘s Takeover Tuesday series. Give the mix a spin below.
To celebrate her new LP, Billboard caught up with DiFranco to discuss her career milestone, the fallout from the 2016 election, her forthcoming memoir and more.
Your new record Binary is your 20th full-length. How does that milestone feel?
It feels good. It takes years these days to put out a record [Laughs]. I feel like it used to take minutes when I was younger. 25 years now. These songs date back a few years, and were all recorded in my house in New Orleans.
Was there anything different about the recording process?
A big change was that I had Tchad Blake come in for the recording process and mix the damn thing. That was a revelation. I’ve been involved in the mixing of my records from the beginning, if not totally in charge — for better or worse, mostly worse. That’s not what I do best. Finally 20 records in, I decided to call a f—king genius mixer dude, and it was awesome, to have someone come in at that point in the recording process and contribute even more creativity, and be unwedded. Tchad was not there for the recording, so he had no emotional attachment to anything, or pre-conceptions.
You worked with Justin Vernon on the track ‘Zizzing,’ how did that come about?
We met around work on the Hadestown record, Anais Mitchell’s folk opera, he said he’s been a fan of mine for a long time. I’m a little older than he is, but I’ve been a fan of his since he started making records, and just adore his music. So I had time out with his record, and my oblique strategy was just to call up some of my awesome friends and get them involved, instead of being so solitary about things. I just wrote to Justin and told him I wanted a string section on this song — but the strings are voices. And he was just like, “Yeah, I’m on it.”
His strong point is definitely harmonies.
Yeah that’s something I’ve done a lot in my day. I’ve got this telephone handset for an old ‘70s avocado green phone handset that I sing into, and I do these bullet mic choruses and they’re on every one of my records since about 15 years ago. But then it was like, ‘Well I could do this, or I could call Justin.” I’m so glad I did [the latter].
You recorded Binary before the election, but a lot of the issues on the record play into the current political landscape. How does it feel to have this come out as a response?
Well it feels pretty good to be in step. I think a few years ago, the record that preceded this one was pretty personal and inward looking. I just had a baby and was in the throws of all of that, so I’m glad that’s not where I am now in my life, zigging while the world is zagging. I’m not surprised, though, because I’ve found that my personal life and the life of my society has been pretty f–king connected from the beginning — which is why I write about it that way. It’s all one thing. I’ve always felt in sync in that way.
You did the Vote Dammit! tour last year, and spent a lot of time on voter outreach. How did your fans react to the news?
I just was at a function and saw Taleb Kweli, and the last time that I saw him was less than a week before the election. We were down in Florida doing a last ditch get out the vote rally together and then just saw him last night, and it’s like, “Here we are, still breathing.” It was really surreal for me, because I was on stage on election night. I didn’t know what was happening when I was playing, and when I got off stage, it all came crashing down. And then I was onstage for the ensuing weeks just processing in public, and saying my piece. Everyone was super emotional.
My audience is very progressive but that doesn’t mean all on the same page in any way. I think probably in my audience, you would have a large number of staunch Bernie supporters who protest-voted, who didn’t vote. And though Bernie was my favorite candidate, there was no doubt in my mind when he lost the nomination [that the right move] was to vote against fascism, you know? I think we had an amazing opportunity to stop fascism in its tracks and somehow we didn’t seize it effectively, so I was laying down some s–t on stage. It was tense. We were all trying to ride the waves.
Was there any tension with your Bernie-supporting fans?
There was a lot of tension for everybody, right? We slipped into a real adversarial culture, so all the way along, that whole 2016 was one big Vote Dammit! tour for me, and right before the nomination and the Democratic National Convention, I was just like, “Dudes, look at this. We have a choice between an actual progressive Democrat, wow, and a chick who is going to spin the tide of wrongness to a degree, and be the first chick in the oval office — which, do not under estimate the importance of that. Maybe she’s not your favorite chick, maybe she’s not mine, but that in and of itself is revolutionary, so these are some good times people. Don’t get bogged down on battling each other. This is going to be a satisfying vote no matter what option.”
You played at the Women’s March earlier this year. What was it like to come together with other like-minded artists in D.C.?
It was powerful, like you said, and then just looking at the photographs from all over the world, the number of people that came out to show the strength of the resistance — it’s really uplifting, and really hopeful stuff. It was right there for everybody to see. I was in D.C. the day before on inauguration day, and there was no comparison what side the people were on. We should not forget that Hillary got millions more votes — when we talk about her loss, that’s a byproduct of a very weird system, more than a victory of numbers. I think the power of America’s heart and spirit really shone through that day, and it felt so good.
You received the Independent Icon award at the Libera Awards, which is an amazing honor. What was is like looking back at your career from your first album in 1990 to now?
It’s pretty wild, you know? I’m talking to people, and I find myself trying to do some quick math in my head, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been writing songs for 30 years.” [Laughs.] I’ve been running a label for 27 years. It’s crazy s–t. Mostly I was just standing there in this room of the independents, and f–k it, we’re still here!
I don’t know what happens now. It’s of course more complicated than ever on that side of things, now that “music is free.” How do you run an indie label? What I have as a performer, that I have fallen back on since the beginning, is just live music. It’s my bread-and-butter, and it is again, and that’s OK for me. I wish I had more wisdom and direction to offer to my indie comrades, but I don’t f–king know.
The industry has changed so much, but it’s also still so much about songs and performance and in that sense it hasn’t changed at all.
Yeah, you can’t digitize the experience of gathering together with other people and sharing an actual moment. The music is just the manifestation of that moment that you create together — that, I think, is the most powerful form of music and so I don’t think it’s all bad that the focus is back there.
You have a memoir coming out this year. What made you want to write that now?
It’s actually an idea I’ve had for a decade or more, but I just never felt like I had the time or mental space to go there, and it’s finally felt — I have a new team of people I’m working with, and I have a new manager, and the first thing he did was just sort of take me by the hand to a book agent’s office, and said, “Sit down, talk to her.” She said, “You can do this, you should do this now.” There’s nothing like having a little bit of energy around you to give you energy as an artist. So I just said f–k it, I’m gonna try!
Still I’m about 80 pages in, and I still don’t know paragraph to paragraph if I can do this. It’s a really different kind of writing, but having written hundreds of songs, I kind of wanted the challenge, so I got one.
Was it easy to seamlessly go back and recall everything?
No. That was the first hurtle, because I don’t remember s–t. Like, at all! It’s like your past is this huge slab of big nebulous, gray-flecked stone, and you just start chipping and chipping and chipping. You remember this moment, and that moment, and then the more you think about them and try to articulate them, the more they lead you and you chip at this blur, and things slowly come into focus. I’ve been working for about six months, but I still have that same feeling as when I sat down — like, “I remember that much, but I’ll never remember anything else!” It still feels impossible on that level.
How and why did you choose “Binary” as the title of the record?
Binary is the big word for me, and something I’ve been meditating a lot on. I think it’s the nature of the universe and everything in it. Everything is in relationship with something else, and that kind of resonates on many levels. So I guess it’s that track, and it’s not disconnected with my feminism. Feminism at its core is focused on relationships, as opposed to a hierarchy or a competition of individuals; it’s a network of relationships and it’s more of the motivating force and perspective. That kind of idea — that we only exist in relationship to each other, that that’s where our focus should be — [that’s] the undercurrent of the record.