I was 14 when I’d gotten as far as I could on my own with a guitar. Luckily for me, there was a man named Pete Kehoe. Pete rented a little room above the music store in Pontiac, and would shed some light for 40 bucks an hour.
Lesson 1: He evaluated my skill.
Lesson 2: I was instructed to bring in two songs to learn. In all my ambiguously gay glory/melodrama, I chose Sarah McLachlan’s “The Path of Thorns” and the Indigo Girls’ “Virginia Woolf.” Kindly, and with a knowing look, he asked me if I’d ever listened to Ani DiFranco. I stared blankly. Not a clue… no, nope… because Barnabus (my father) only allowed my sisters and me to listen to Christian music or Motown. He’d grown up listening to Motown, so that seemed all right to him. (However, just because I wasn’t “allowed” to do certain things doesn’t mean I didn’t do them. I just had to be smart about it. There were many hiding places in my room.)
Ani was forbidden fruit. She hung in the sexy balance of cartoons, magic, Smurfs, PG-13, evolution, bad words, Champagne and everything good. She was demonic. She said bad things, though not as bad as the words Barnabus discovered when he found my sister’s secret CD collection hidden in a box under the bed and read the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “The Only Time,” about fucking the devil in the backseat of a car. The CD was broken in half and thrown into the bathroom bin. So no Ani for me.
I quit/ran outta dough/couldn’t get a ride to Pontiac before Lesson 3.
It was 1996, Ani had just released her seventh album Dilate. I needed to know everything, so I called my friend Nino as soon as I got home and asked if he’d ever heard of her. He had and he’d bought her new record and he didn’t give a shit about it, so he asked me if I wanted it! I instructed him in the manner in which it was to be delivered and asked that it please be done immediately.
Now, delivering contraband to our home wasn’t easy, but good old Nino put it in a bag and left it next to the front porch so I could sneak it past my parents on that cold and glorious Michigan night. Why does sneaking have to be so fun? I digress, but you get the point. There was no way I wasn’t gonna love this record by this girl with green dreadlocks, singing about coveting “another man’s wife” that was delivered in secret… I could go on, but let’s catch up instead.
“I got a database behind my face of dithering information/Ask me anything about anything/I got a lot of shit in rotation,” Ani sings on “Dithering,” the opening track of her most recent album, Allergic to Water, her 18th studio release on her label Righteous Babe Records. If half of my brain is full of lyrics, one-third of those are probably Ani’s. My guitar player Tim Mislock and I have a game we play on late-night drives: We get big gas station coffees and put every Ani album on shuffle and try to see if we can sing every word. We would both tell you we won.
On one tour we had the great honor of playing her venue Babesville in Buffalo, a dilapidated church she saved from destruction and turned into a large venue in the main auditorium, a small rock venue in the basement and offices for Righteous Babe on the top. The staff caught on to what fanboys Timmy and I were, so they let us go up to the office and pet their bunny, pick out a t-shirt and get some autographed vinyl. We smiled all the way to Tampa.
On track three of Allergic to Water, “Woe Be Gone,” DiFranco sings about an “unexplored hemisphere lying underneath.” It feels like I’ve been on a journey exploring that hemisphere with her for the last 18 years. I feel like I’ve grown up with Ani DiFranco and watched her grow, not only as what I would call one of the most prolific songwriters of my generation, but also as an accomplished producer and a skilled guitar player. Her voice has softened, as has her approach to sounds. But still, it seems to me, you fall into either of two categories when it comes to Ani DiFranco: You either love her or you really do not. In my experience, I have found there are very few in between. I think somewhere in the ’90s she became the poster child for every “coffeehouse acoustic guitar-playing, dreaded, angsty lesbian.” For some people, it doesn’t matter that she sold out New York’s Town Hall this past weekend or that she has two children with a man. Or that over the course of 18 studio albums, she has never made the same record twice, always evolving and growing and reaching for deeper truths.
In “Harder Than It Needs To Be,” there is a slow build of horns and keys that makes you want to light up and close your eyes. In fact, half the song is instrumental — she is in no rush. When she sings, “I know I married your momma, and I married your papa, when I married you/Right now it’s clear who I’m talking to,” you can hear her smile. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
It’s difficult for me to classify where Allergic to Water falls in the spectrum of Ani records. There are moments of classic Ani zingers. For instance, in “Happy All the Time,” she sings about suffering: “I know trial brings wisdom and greatness has price/Just ask Abraham Lincoln, ask Miles Davis’ wives.” There are songs that are more funky, like “Tr’w” with its head-bobbing groove. Sometimes the production reminds me of Jon Brion’s soundtrack for I Heart Huckabees (2004) and at other times of Joni Mitchell’s more experimental records, like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977). It’s layered and rich. I’m into it.
After I listened to Dilate back in 1996, reading along to every lyric with my headphones on so as not to be found out, I sat down and wrote my very first song. I walk away from this record with a similar feeling; I need to write more, only my songs come out slower now. “You better take your lemons and make your lemonade/Life’s a rainy parade,” she reminds me.
I went to see Ani play in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago at that venue with the bouncy floor. Her bass player Todd Sickafoose put me on the list and afterwards I went backstage. I was equipped with my little record, I was going to tell her how she had inspired me. She wasn’t really hanging around — in fact no one was, and I felt awkward. I asked my friend to give them to her and he said, “Oh, let me go see if she wants to come out and say hi.” He walked across the room, knocked on a door and spoke to someone in a low voice. All of a sudden I saw her little tattooed hand reach out and take the CD and the door quickly closed again. That’s the closest I’ve ever come. Or maybe this is.