From The Current: Ani DiFranco: Singing at a safer distance

by Christiaan Mader 

Since the late 1980s, songwriter Ani DiFranco has made up her own rules. Her approach to songwriter is frank and naked, sometimes political, sometimes personal, always honest. For nearly three decades, she’s hammered together a self-made career in open defiance of music industry trends and conventions, brandishing her feminism and daggering upstream with a jagged punk ethos. In 1990, she launched Righteous Babe records — among the very first artist-owned labels and one of the only ones to succeed — shrugging off the corporate music machine that came calling for her talents. She released her twentieth record, Binary, in 2017. She now calls New Orleans home. 

DiFranco released “32 Flavors” in 1995 on her record Not a Pretty Girl. The song dodges an easy narrative. It reads like the story of a lover overcoming scorn, but it’s about professional jealousy in the music industry. Like so much of her work, it’s autobiographical, smirky and cutting. She spoke with The Current’s Christiaan Mader about how the song came together and her writing process. 

CM: So, I know this song is 23 years old now, but do you remember where you were when you first conceived it? 

AD: No! I actually don’t.

CM: Walk me through how it came together. Was this a dash of inspiration on the back of a napkin or something that you workshopped over time? 

AD: I had had one too many experiences of working with people who seemed to be vying for the spotlight, fighting for top billing, taking a competitive stance. I felt like: does it really have to be me vs. you? 

CM: How did you know when the song was complete? 

AD: it’s an instinctual thing.

CM: You’re an earnest autobiographer in your work. When you sing “I am a poster girl with no poster” it’s hard not to imagine you singing about yourself, an emerging underground icon at the time and hitting the music scene a bit off beat of what was trending. Is it a mistake to read this stuff as about you? Is there a song version of Ani that’s different from real life Ani? 

AD: No, that’s pretty accurate explanation of that line. The song version of Ani is the same as the real life Ani, just some details may be left out and others a bit exaggerated. 

CM: I really like this song’s structure. There’s not a “chorus” in the traditional sense except the wordless hook you pepper around, but it still has symmetry. Was that a technique that you borrowed from elsewhere? Or is that just how the track evolved? 

AD: Ha! Yeah, a song without a proper chorus! I’ll do that sometimes. That’s just the way it came out. I’ve never been very wedded to standard song construction. I like to make up my own rules. 

CM: You’ve been extremely prolific. I’ve got to think that there’s now an ocean of thoughts and time between you and “32 Flavors.” How does the song strike you now? Do you feel connected to the person that wrote it? 

AD: Yeah, that’s one I still do relate to. The content of the lyrics has remained relevant in my life all these years. When I sing those same words now though, they come out different because the place I stand, the place i’m singing from is different. The words and the meaning remain, but the inflection or tone evolves. I am not as at the mercy of those types of dynamics anymore. I can sing about it from a safer distance.

Ani DiFranco performs Thursday, May 24 in Songs Over Style, a showcase presented by CC Adcock and featuring Keith Frank, Jelly Toast, Tommy McClain and Princess Shaw. Songs Over Style is a special event affiliated with SOLO Songwriters Festival. 

SOLO was created in partnership with the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation. It’s a workshop for aspirers and admirers of song craft. The festival is open to participants and passersby. 

Visit https://www.solosongwriters.com/events/ for programming and ticket details.

Madison Barras