Ani DiFranco has never been shy about defining her purpose, whether it be empowering young women in the music industry, battling the death penalty, or fighting for the preservation of reproductive rights. But her focus appears to have changed with the release of her 19th studio album, Binary, or so it seems from “Terrifying Sight”, in which she expresses her intent to “make a grateful sound/and back it up with a grateful soul”.
Is that her mission statement for this phase of her life and work?
“Sure! I’ll go with that,” the happily extroverted performer tells the Straight from her home in New Orleans. “Yeah, I think that I’m more conscious than I’ve ever been about not just what I’m singing about or what the hell I’m trying to express, but the place that I’m singing from, you know. Where I’m standing when I’m saying whatever it is I have to say. So, yeah, there’s probably a higher level of awareness on this record, to that effect. I’m coming from a place of gratitude and compassion, and hopefully I’ll be able to get some stuff out over the Net regarding that spirit.”
It’s not that the political is taking a back seat in her new material; Binary’s title track takes a pointed jab at “despots in diapers”, while both “Play God” and “Alrighty” call out the sexists who would deny women control over their own bodies. (“You don’t get to play God, man,” she sings in the former, “I do.”) But there’s a new sweetness here that emerges most strongly in the near-ecstatic love song “Even More” and in the overall sound of the album, with its nods to jazz and New Orleans funk.
In recent years, DiFranco says, the African-American tradition has given her a true template for making music of hope and purpose in hard times.
“On the record before this one, Allergic to Water, I have a song called ‘Happy All the Time’, and nobody knows it but me—I don’t think anybody ever asked—but it’s really a song of deference to African-Americans,” she explains. “It’s basically a song about how struggle breeds wisdom and profound grace.
“I live in New Orleans, you know, in the Deep South, among some of the longest-suffering people in North America, and the transcendence that has been a byproduct of that—jazz, for instance—has been a gift to the world.”
DiFranco doesn’t just pay lip service to that tradition: former James Brown bandleader Maceo Parker plays sax on Binary, and in Vancouver her accompanists will be drummer Terence Higgins and multi-instrumentalist Ivan Neville, two expert musicians whose New Orleans roots go back for generations.
“I’ve always been a fan of funk and of jazz, from old-timey Dixieland to the avant-garde, but living here, I think, it soaks in deeper,” the singer-guitarist says. “I’m literally soaking in it.”
That’s one more reason to be grateful—and to show that joy in sound.