If anyone could rest on their laurels, it’s Ani DiFranco.
The legendary singer-songwriter, activist, photographer, record label owner, and foundation starter has seemingly done it all. But she didn’t get where she is today by playing it safe — more on that later — and she isn’t going to start now. In fact, DiFranco’s creativity is fueled by her ability to be comfortable taking risks and dealing with challenges, like in 2019 when she published her literary debut, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir. She described the writing process as feeling like she was in slow motion, a complete 180 in comparison to the fast and furious instant feedback provided by the audience when she is on stage.
“I position myself in the universe and a song comes through — a book for me was more like whittling. It was a whole other mysterious form of writing for me that felt much more like sort of manual labor than lightning,” says DiFranco about the process of writing her recent memoir.
Without this audience reaction in real-time, she felt somewhat divorced from her book’s reception and didn’t know if it had been well received or appreciated. Her anxiety was unwarranted however since it became another risk that paid off, this time by way of a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller.
So, how do you maintain a satisfying and successful creative career?
According to Ani DiFranco, you start by failing.
“Our mistakes are how we learn and to not make mistakes is to be playing it safe, which is not what I find interesting in art, or any other path,” she says.
From the very beginning, risk taking has been a source of inspiration for DiFranco. 20 albums ago, instead of following the pack, she forged her own path. Back then, independence wasn’t the music industry buzzword that it is today. In 1989, when she launched Righteous Babe Records at the age of 19, there weren’t conversations about how the internet could and would redistribute the power of the recording industry. It was a world where major record labels held all the power and non-traditional routes were less traveled.
“I’m just not one to be told what to do,” she says. “It was more about not wanting to participate in systems that I disdained. The interests of big business and capitalist intentions are sort of contrary to the interests of people and art and especially envelope-pushing, socially challenging art. I didn’t want to compromise one for the other.”
While sometimes, she wonders how her career would have been different had she signed to a major label, looking back, she’s happy with the choices she made. Choosing to be independent over joining a major label meant no commercial pressure on her music, and no bureaucratic standard of success, giving her the freedom to write the music she thought was missing in the world. So although she’s reflected on where she’d be now if she’d signed with a major, she’s confident she made the right decision.
”The interests of big business and capitalist intentions are sort of contrary to the interests of people and art”
“It’s hard to even speculate how different it would have been. I wonder myself, of course, if there would have been some benefits to going with a record company and that sort of traditional route. You know, there are some things I have missed out on along the way. But then it’s hard to imagine doing what I’ve done on a major label,” she says.
And, since she has her own label, she can nurture artists in developing a signature sound and style that’s free of the molding of record executives who are keen on creating the next big star and take little time to acknowledge authenticity. Over the years, she’s produced and released records from Andrew Bird, Arto Lindsay, and Anaïs Mitchell, to name a few.
“We are an artist-run label, I’m the head of the label. So, one thing you know when you’re on Righteous Babe, is that you are free. Nobody is going to tell you what to do, and nobody’s going to tell you you can’t leave when you want to leave,” she says.
What’s the latest challenge DiFranco is taking on? Balancing family life with being a musician and a creator. Now a parent, DiFranco has scaled back on some of her touring to spend more time with her family while also creating space to share her music and connect with her fanbase.
“This touring thing, it’s so much harder to leave home, and to come back, transitions are so difficult for children. But, on the other side, it’s what I do — go on the road and travel and play, to do what I love.”
Like most creatives balancing the day-to-day with her dreams, there are logistical issues to sort out. However, hitting the sweet spot between making music, touring, and having a family has given DiFranco even more gratitude for the life she’s created from scratch. Plus, with Patreon, she’s found a new path towards reliable income and a way to connect with her fanbase even when she’s not on tour. Her patrons gain access to two exclusive new songs every new moon, and a video every solstice. Premium membership even includes an opportunity to access a soundcheck at a show of their choice.
“Patreon can help me strike a balance where I can still be creatively alive and not lose touch with myself as a musician and not lose touch with my audience and pay the bills, but also, you know, be present enough for my family when they need me the most,” she says.