Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, a Buffalo, New York, native who launched her career from New York City in the early 1990s, says living in New Orleans changed her inner tempo.
“I’ve always been strong on place,” DiFranco said a few weeks ago. “When I meet a new person, I say, ‘Where you from?’ ”
New York City and Buffalo had everything to do with the socially conscious, fiercely independent folk-singer’s identity before she started hanging out in New Orleans. DiFranco will perform Sunday at Varsity Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
“I was a frantic New Yorker for many years,” she said. “And I really loved New York and everything it brought to my life. But then I graduated to the musical epicenter of our country, New Orleans. It’s a gift to live here as a musician. And the culture, as the climate dictates, is slower and easier. It serves me really well. I desperately needed to relax.”
The tension and anxiety DiFranco once felt wasn’t good for her music.
“It’s terrible stuff to carry into performance or music making,” she said. “My goal always is to walk out on stage like I’m walking into my own living room and talk to people who are my friends. New Orleans has helped me to filter that other energy out.”
DiFranco initially visited New Orleans between tours. She was still single at the time and searching for musical inspiration.
“When you tour incessantly, it becomes like, ‘Wow, I’ve been to every Ani DiFranco show there ever was, and I don’t get to see anybody else play.’ But New Orleans was a place I could hang out and catch amazing music on any given night.”
In New Orleans, DiFranco also met her husband, producer Mike Napolitano, at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio on Esplanade. She and Napolitano are married now with two children and their own recording studio, The Dugout.
“Due to the fact that we have a family and kids, he does very few projects, but a lot of what he is doing is local music, which is cool,” DiFranco said. “He’s helping people really get their records sounding good.”
Those great-sounding Napolitano productions include DiFranco’s latest album, “Allergic to Water.” It features DiFranco’s longtime bassist, Todd Sickafoose, violinist Jenny Scheinman and New Orleans musicians Terence Higgins, Ivan Neville, Mike Dillon and Matt Perrine.
“It’s so cool to be in the 504 and have all these awesome artists with a local phone,” DiFranco said. “It’s made my records richer, for sure. After so many recorded experiments over the decades I’ve been making music, it feels really good to have such an awesome team now, that can do the songs justice.”
About Higgins and his drumming, DiFranco said, “he’s just got that deep pocket, that groove that makes me smile ear to ear.”
Of Neville’s keyboard work, she said, “he comes in and elevates whatever you’re doing. He steps into any musical situation and feels it and expresses in that language.”
Despite her 12 years of living in New Orleans, DiFranco doesn’t presume she truly knows the place.
“New Orleans is so deep and wide that I’m still a newcomer,” she said. “I feel like I just got here.”
Far from having a temporary romantic infatuation with the city, it continues to inspire her.
“New Orleans music inspires me on so many levels, even to take the direct route to joy.”