Ani DiFranco fudged the facts, just a little, when she titled her latest CD Red Letter Year. For those keeping track, the record’s timeline actually spans the months between August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and January 20, 2007, when DiFranco gave birth to her daughter, Petah Lucia.
That’s an aberration DiFranco has no problem owning up to. “It’s a poetic year,” she says with a laugh, reached on her cellphone while getting ready for an Ithaca, New York, concert. What’s more important to the iconic singer-songwriter, and to her legions of fans, is that Red Letter Year doesn’t deviate from DiFranco’s habit of telling the unvarnished truth in her songs.
Like all of her previous efforts, the new disc encompasses the personal and the polemical: the title track mocks the late Bush administration’s ideologically crippled response to Katrina, while “Emancipated Minor” tears a page from DiFranco’s teenage diary to serve a bigger message about sexual self-determination. Where Red Letter Year departs from the template, though, is in the warmth of its music, which mirrors the new openheartedness of its maker.
Even DiFranco’s admirers will admit that the diminutive musician has at times sounded shrill, but no more. Her once-ferocious strumming has also given way to more expansive sonic landscapes, with strings, horns, and electronic textures fleshing out the bandleader’s arrangements.
“I think my biorhythms are starting to slow,” the 39-year-old DiFranco explains. “You can hear it in the voice of my guitar, and in the overtones when I sing. My voice maybe resonates on a lower, more peaceful plane.”
And she stresses that Red Letter Year is more than a document of musical transformation. “There’s a kind of coming-of-age feeling in my life,” she says. “I might be leaving behind maybe some of the eagerness and some of the fortitude, but I’m moving into more humble territory, and finding new things to bring to the political table, including humility.”
Motherhood and marriage are part of that. “I feel that a lot of the inner peace that I’m enjoying and bringing to my work these days has to do with my husband coming into my life. I had to answer the question ”˜Red Letter Year: what does that mean? What is that about?’ many times before I realized that the simple answer is ”˜Mike, my partner,’ ” she says, referring to sound engineer Mike Napolitano, who coproduced the new disc with DiFranco. “All the new places that I sing from are places that he helped me discover, you know. There’s nothing like the grounding of really good love.”
Rest assured, however, that while DiFranco is mellowing, she’s not getting soft. More than ever, she’s determined to work toward the betterment of her society, and when it comes to her next record, she says it’s going to be “political with a big P”.
“And now that we have some forward momentum in my country,” she adds, “political and life-affirming are not mutually exclusive in song.”
Ani DiFranco plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Tuesday (October 27).