Iconoclastic contemporary folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco grew up in Buffalo, but has called New Orleans home for the past 14 years. Given that, did she experience conflicting emotions as the Saints thrashed the Bills last Sunday?
“Luckily, I never really attached my identity to my football team, so it was easy to endure,” she said this week, laughing, from a tour stop in Los Angeles.
Ivan Neville, the New Orleans keyboardist who is on the road with her, rocked his Saints jersey on game day. Her (joking) response? “You better change by showtime, buddy.”
DiFranco and her band will close out their current tour on Sunday in her adopted hometown at the House of Blues. Neville’s jersey isn’t the only outward sign of New Orleans’ impact on her and her music.
Early in her career, her provocative lyrics and statements on politics and sexual identity resonated with a deeply devoted fanbase. She built her record label, Righteous Babe Records, into an independent success story that used the profits from her own record sales to showcase lesser-known, like-minded artists.
Her New Orleans relocation paralleled other evolutions in her life, chief among them motherhood and not being in her 20s anymore. She initially settled in Bywater, only to move Uptown when she got pregnant 12 years ago and “panicked: ‘We need a house! We need a yard!’
“That lasted about five years, and then we were like, ‘Yeah, no, we need freaks more than we need a yard, so we’re going back to our natural habitat.’”
She’s now happily ensconced in Bywater once again with her husband/sound engineer, Mike Napolitano, and their two kids.
She doesn’t plan to leave. “Where do you go from New Orleans?” she said. “I think any kid that grows up in New Orleans is just lucky right out of the bat.”
Not surprisingly, she found the drummer she’d always wanted in New Orleans. In 2012, Neville recommended she check out Terence Higgins, whose extensive resume includes many years with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Higgins has occupied her band’s drum chair ever since.
“Like Spinal Tap before me, I’ve had a hard time with drummers,” DiFranco said. “I’ve got a certain kind of groove that comes out of my spleen, and finding my likeness out there in the world of drummers has been hard over the years. I’ve worked with a lot of great drummers that brought different things to the table, but never the perfect fit.
“Terence is so great on every level. He’s a joy to travel with and play with. He’s got that deep, wide, New Orleans groove in his DNA. But he also can interpret songs. He can speak many musical languages. He’s a real listener, and he just finds the spot where he fits.”
Even better, “whenever the pressure is on the hardest, he has a way of being the eye of the storm. He gets even calmer. Which is really beautiful to me, and I’ve learned a lot from it. Keep your cool, no matter what.”
DiFranco has become better at that herself since moving to New Orleans. “I was a frantic New Yorker most of my life. My bio-rhythm slowed down a notch when I hit New Orleans, which affects my music and whole life. I settled in to the grace of life in New Orleans.”
Perhaps not coincidently, DiFranco’s newer songs are not as intense, which the 47-year-old also attributes to “just growing up."
“The lyrical content is still fairly intense, but I think my delivery is more calm and focused. Youthful vim and vigor and outrage are all very useful energies in society, important for social change. But there’s also gifts of age. I think I’m just getting to know them now.
“I’ve become more acutely aware of not just what I’m saying in my songs, but where I’m standing when I’m saying it. In order to get over, it helps to come from a place that does not scare people or put people off or anger people. I’m developing new, crafty ways to say the same hardcore s--- that I’ve been saying all along.”
She released her 20th album, “Binary,” in June. Recorded by Napolitano — the “first person to capture my voice well” — at local studios, it features Higgins, her longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose, Neville, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and such special guests as funk sax legend Maceo Parker.
For the first time, she didn’t mix the recorded music herself. Instead, she turned over the chore of setting the levels of the various sounds to someone else. And she’s glad she did.
“That was a revelation to me. I’ve always mixed my own records, just because I’m a DIY girl to the core. To have Tchad Blake, this genius at mixing, step in totally fresh and objective, and add his flavor at the end, was really thrilling. It really made me think that I’d been missing out a lot on that level.”
With “Binary,” she had a team. "I had people to bounce off of on a level that I’ve never had before. After all these years of being really independent and really on my own out there, I have more of a will for community.”
And she’s found that community in New Orleans.