Like many first-time visitors to New Orleans, Ani DiFranco took one look at the city and knew she’d be back.
As the singer/songwriter writes in her new memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” “The architect’s daughter in me was swooning at the visually poetic urban landscape. ... The monkey in me approached, in reverence, each majestic Live Oak Tree. ... Meanwhile, the musician in me thrilled to each musical expression of freedom and strength of character, each expression of resistance to oppression and defeat. ... New Orleans, I should have known I would return to you someday and wade, waist deep, into your murky, sophisticated magic.”
And in 2008, she did return, settling here for good.
The Grammy Award winner has found a new groove in New Orleans. Her ordinary day sounds like that of most juggling moms. “I get up at the crack of,” she said, “and get the kids off to school with two lunches and the traffic. And then I play guitar for a little while if I’m lucky, then I get on the email train and try to be present for that. And these days, there’s a lot of interviewing. But it’s all super-mom style when I’m home, and it’s a big contrast when I hit the road.”
Iconoclastic contemporary folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco grew up in Buffalo, but has called New Orleans home for the past 14 years. Given…
She seized the moments between things to write “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” saying her kids have taught her patience. And that she writes “behind their backs, on tour, while they sleep.” It was time to reflect on her life, she said. “This just goes up to 2001. Part two is a whole ’nother girl and a whole ’nother story.”
“No Walls” refers to the house of her childhood in Buffalo, New York, where she was the daughter of an architect and an engineer. “It was a carriage house with no walls, and we lived in it as though we were a homesteading family. There was one room on the first and the second floor.
"It was the kind of atmosphere that you’d think would breed real closeness, but we weren’t that kind of family. Weird way to grow up.”
She laughs when the question of establishing boundaries comes up. “You may have noticed over the years how forthcoming I am in my music. I’m the queen of oversharing in my songs.”
That openness and honesty has earned DiFranco a devoted following for her music, as it no doubt will for this book. She recounts striking out at her own at a young age, releasing her first album at 18 and pursuing her dream with fierce devotion.
At 15, she became an emancipated minor; she slept on friends' couches and sometimes in the Buffalo bus station.
She got by with hard work.
“I was a grunt laborer, a waitress, a barista,” she said. “Kitchen jobs can be most grueling, as many people knew. But I used to make a good honest living when I was a teenager. I’m very grateful that by the time I was in my early 20s, I was just able to do music — I’m one of the rare lucky people who could turn music into a job.”
She relentlessly read and educated herself along the way, finding herself in the books she read in a class called Feminism 101 at the New School.
“I knew it right away,” she writes. “I am a part of the feminist continuum. I am entering myself.”
She paid her dues in clubs and at festivals, and finally started her own record label, Righteous Babe Records. To date, she’s released 20 albums, as well as recording many other artists.
In her memoir, lovers of her music will get an inside look at her songwriting technique and the stories behind her songs.
DiFranco has lent her good name and considerable energy to a number of local causes dear to her heart. “First and foremost,” she said, “the Roots of Music. I’ve been on the board there for decade or so. It was founded by my friend Derrick Tabb of Rebirth and also Allison Reinhardt post-Katrina.
"This all started with one man’s dedication, and over the years, it’s become this incredible force in keeping the brass band music tradition alive with an after-school program of music tutoring, academic tutoring, even hot meals. And you see these kids go from zero musical knowledge to badass in just a few years.
"Next thing you know, they’re playing at Jazz Fest or at the Rose Bowl parade, or touring around the world.”
She’s also active in supporting Lycée Francaise, the French immersion school her 12 year-old daughter and 6-year-old son attend. “I think being bilingual is such an awesome thing, especially in America, where we’re so monolingual and myopic,” she said. “My kids are learning a lot.”
The Innocence Project is another priority.
“They’re doing such essential work freeing innocent men from prison, many of whom have spent decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit, especially here in Louisiana,” she said.
“I hope that the book goes out in the world and does some of the same kind of work the songs have done,” DiFranco said. “The thing that I try to keep communicating in my songs is ‘You do you, and I’ll keep doing me.’ Believe in yourself and what you know and what you feel, no matter what anybody tells you. ... Yeah, I’m a hopeful girl.”
Book signing and discussion
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday (May 22)
WHERE: Jewish Community Center, 5342 St. Charles Ave.
TICKETS: Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania St., (504) 895-2266
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