By Eva Fournel
I recently got to speak with revolutionary singer-songwriter, activist, and record label owner of Righteous Babe Records, Ani DiFranco, as she kicks off her Righteous Babes Revue tour alongside her fellow Babes. Ani openly discusses the realities and values of a small-business record label, what activism means to her, and shares honest, empathetic advice for young artists.
Ani (A): Hello!
Eva (E): Hi, this is Eva!
A: How are you, Eva?
E: I’m good, how are you?
A: I am good.
E: It’s so nice to meet you, even if it’s just over the phone.
A: Yeah, cool, totally, thanks for your time!
E: Well, thank you for agreeing to speak with me. I’ll be at your concert on November 9th, so I guess I’ll be seeing you there.
A: Groovy! Tell me, where am I on November 9th, where are you?
E: I’m in Boston, so I’ll see you at the Royale.
A: Ok, got you! Is that new for me in Boston? It doesn’t sound familiar.
E: There’s quite a few venues here in Boston
A: I mean I’ve been at the Orpheum like 700 times, so I’m excited for a different place.
E: Yeah, it’s a good venue and I’ve been there quite a few times.
A: Ok, ok cool!
E: So, it’s my first time going to a Righteous Babes Revue concert, so I just want to ask you a few questions about the record label, you- on the official website, Righteous Babe Records is defined as a “people-friendly, sub-corporate, women-informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock stardom and ideology before profit”. Now that’s a really inspiring message with really respectable values that I wish all major labels could aspire to. So, on a technical standpoint, what makes RBR different from all these major record labels? What’s the artist experience like there?
A: Well, gee, I don’t know, you’d have to ask the Babes. But, I think that there is, you know the head of the label, you’re talking to, you know, when the head of the label is touring with musicians who also work and operate through the label, that’s a fundamentally different situation. And I think the level of empathy, you know, for the life of a touring musician and the needs of an independent artist in the world, I mean if I’d say one thing about Righteous Babe is that artists come and go as they please. There’s no, “No you can’t get off the label, no you can’t move on-”
A: There’s freedom- understanding, I hope, for what it takes. You know, we are not a major label. We don’t have that level of funds or connections or marketing muscle. You can’t build something out of nothing in a way that a major label could, but we can support working musicians and that’s what we’ve been doing for 30 years, starting with me. For artists that are already out there, that are going to make music no matter what, we have over the years built kind of an infrastructure to support that- manufacturing, distributing records, manufacturing with merch, fulfill merch orders, all those sorts of things, helping people promote their tours, shows, their records. These are the things we’ve been up to since the beginning.
In terms of supporting indie artists, I think, that’s our game. I feel like a label is more vibrant now than it’s ever been. We have a lot of really hip, cool artists that are under our umbrella right now doing great work and when we came up with the idea for a Righteous Babe Revue, which is basically a super-group, a handful of the artists that we’re working with right now, it was really cool to watch them say, “Yeah, ok I’m down!” They’ve been getting together, rehearsing, and learning each other’s songs and becoming a band for the occasion of this tour and it’s really beautiful seeing these various women get behind each other’s music and become a unit, a unique musical being, and take that being out on the road and try something totally new together and sort of build that community even bigger, even deeper with each other.
E: Yeah, I think that’s the appeal of RBR, that it’s this big community, there’s real freedom, real support, and I think that’s what makes it different from all other major record companies. As you were talking about all these hip artists that you represent, it’s actually how I found out about Righteous Babes Revue. I was on Instagram and I discovered Gracie and Rachel and I was just stalking their social media, stalking their Spotify, and I was like “Wow, I really like this! Are they playing anywhere?” So I checked and saw that they were playing in Boston and also playing alongside a bunch of other awesome artists, yourself included. So, how do you select the artists that you represent?
A: I mean it’s a real organic process. It’s not like, you know, people submit da-da-da-da and we blah review the blah, it’s sort of like, I’m out there in the world. I am intersecting other musicians in all sorts of wild and wooly ways and sometimes I come across people that I think are wonderful who are doing shit on their own, who could use some support, and it just feels like the right fit, you know? A label like RBR and what we have to offer makes sense to them and they’re people whose work and presence in the world I appreciate. It just sort of happens organically like that.
E: Ok, yeah the values that you apply to your music, your artists, all these people that you represent, you really put it all into this label and making it something true to you. I see you promote a lot of social and climate activism through your work too, music and the label. Does the label work with any organizations directly or is this label more of just a platform to promote them on? Are there any relationships that you’ve built through your activism?
A: Oh, yeah, well I have tons of associations with tons of organizations and I do a lot of political work. Righteous Babe, we also do have a foundation that’s set up to do direct support for activists. But it’s sort of like Righteous Babe is part of my activism, you know? I support people defending women’s right to choose, I support people trying to decarcerate America and fix the broken criminal justice system. I support people doing climate activism, all kinds of stuff. And then, I support independent artists, many of whom are political, but all of whom, you know it’s almost like their existence in the world- a woman or a queer person, or just people outside of the old boys’ club of the music business- making music or singing about their lives, doing things in a different way, that’s political in of itself. To have a woman in control of her career and of her voice, her job, her life, and that’s what we’re doing and supporting. RBR is sort of another [part] of my being active in the world. Supporting the artistic arena of, you know, trying to make the world a better place.
E: Absolutely, and you know, you’re so right about just a woman herself making her own music and representing herself is political in of itself. Besides incorporating this activism into the label and the artists, you also participate in a lot political songwriting and you use your music for social change and to kind of start a conversation, so as you do this, is there a bridge between music that’s addressing the public and voicing more political, social activism and then music that’s more just Ani talking to Ani, personal music? Are they more separate or do they coexist?
A: I mean, I started writing songs when I was 14 and it was very much Ani talking to Ani and trying to figure out who Ani was and why did she feel so much like a square peg in a round hole? Like, looking around at the world, it seems so crazy and really wrong, and wondering, “Is it me?” I think- and trying to distance myself from the things I was taught and the things I was taught to assume, ways I was taught to operate, you know, even like, “A career in music means you get a record deal and you dot, dot, dot, and x,y,z”. Just, questioning all of it, like, “Really, is that the only path? Is this the only way?”
I think 30 years of doing that through my art have helped me to find myself and low and behold when you do that, and share that process with others, it can help others to find themselves. It’s a real- I just love that. To me, that just seems sort of like the fundamental process of art, where the artist puts something into the world, and the receiver of it is not only taking that into potentially their own purpose, but then by receiving it and affirming it and holding it and giving it a place in the world to live in their own heart, in their own life, you know, affirms and ignites the artist into their own purpose, and identity, and existence. This circular feedback loop of positivity and mutual affirmation that, I mean it’s my greatest joy, to have so many responses, whether it be through the mail or in-person, or people over the years who say, “Because of you, because of your music, I, dot dot dot or I started doing this radically awesome shit or I could x,y,z.” That’s my greatest joy in life, helping be apart of somebody unlocking themselves.
E: And that’s what you’d say your purpose for what you do is, igniting that spark in people and giving them a voice or helping them discover their voice.
A: Yeah, it’s never been about “Do as I do” or “Follow me”, it’s been about just being an example of somebody who’s following their own heart and proving that it’s a possibility.
E: What advice do you have to artists that are coming into this industry who are not only doubting joining the major record label world, but also doubting themselves and making it in this industry?
A: I mean, if I had to narrow it down at one place in the sort of vast answer to that question, I would start with: Give yourself time. Give yourself space when you need it. I think that doubting yourself and not knowing what choice to make, that’s part of the process. What I think I did the most wrong along the way, what I would change if I could go back to baby Ani, I would, when I’m really lost, when I’m really conflicted, or when I’m really not ready to take the next step, don’t. Get the f**k off stage. Go take a month off, take a year off, take a decade off! Go, I don’t know, macramé, you know, go to Africa, help build a hospital. Whatever, if you need time to find yourself and the direction you need to go in, go. Don’t succumb to the pressure to “stay on your horse, stay on stage, make that next record, while the iron is hot”, you hear that all the time and it’s a lot when you’re young! While the iron is hot, while the iron is hot! Put away that pressure and put away those voices, and take your time. Give yourself the space you need to find your way because really, sometimes doing nothing is the right path to doing the right thing.
E: Mhm, good work takes time. The truth of being an artist I guess, especially in the major record label world, is that you make a lot of sacrifices for your artistry, and what you want to tell people is that they don’t have to make those kinds of sacrifices.
A: Yeah, I mean you would hope. Although, what I really did in reality, is self-impose, you know, deadlines. In a different way, instead of being at the mercy of business people who are just like “Get her out there, get her out there! Put her in press, get her on TV”. Instead of being pressured by people who did not think of me as a whole person, a holistic approach, I did that to my fu**ing self. That’s what I regret, but on the other hand, I was in charge of so many people’s livelihoods at the label, in my touring crew, in my band along the way. I felt like I couldn’t stop and tell everyone, “I’m taking a year off, sorry, figure it out”. You know, there were pressures coming from within me to do more faster, harder, longer than was right. So, it’s hard for people to take the time and space they need, I think, to be okay. So, that’s my biggest advice.
E: I think that’s very good advice. It’s very good advice to value your autonomy and your right to choose, and to make those hard choices for yourself.
A: Yeah, and I feel like the pandemic kind of brought that type of awareness home to a lot of us, like “Oh this stepping back from all of it feels really good, does the temperature always need to be turned up so high? Maybe not.”
E: Absolutely! See, you just got me so excited to go see your show November 9th! What should I expect? What should I be looking forward to?
A: Oh yeah, well, the Righteous Babes Revue is going to be really cool and renegade and they’ll probably do some sitting in with me and my band. My band this time around is going to be unique because Todd, my bass-playing friend and right-hand man of like twenty-freaking-five years now, he’ll be there by my side. But then, we’re working with a new drummer, Jharis Yokley.
E: Sorry, what’s his name?
A: Jharis Yokley! It’s a really fascinating name, that’s J-h-a-r-i-s and his last name is Y o-k-l-e-y. So, this is the first time that we’re ever playing together, so it’ll be really new and different. I mean drums are so key to a band and a show. It’s going to be really a new thing that’s happening, you know, we’re getting together in a couple of days to rehearse and then we’re just going to go for it!
E: Ok! I’m so excited to be there in person and hear it all live and all these songs that I’ve been listening to, since I found about it, I’m even more stoked. Is there anything you want to say to the people before we wrap up today? It could be anything, it could go back to anything else we talked about, something about the show, or life itself, go for it!
A: Yes, vote! Don’t forget to vote!
E: Vote Dammit!
A: Yeah, Vote Dammit! You know, I think the Boston show is after Election Day. Am I right about that? I can’t remember the date of it. So, the Boston audience is lucky that they will actually get to enjoy me playing music and playing guitar and singing, because all of my shows till now and up to election day is just me standing there going, “Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!”
E: I mean hey, the people gotta know!
A: Yeah, yeah, I mean we just gotta do it. So anyway, if this article is coming out before election day, that’d be the only thing I would add, is “Don’t forget to vote”. Now or never.
E: It most likely is, so people still have a chance to know. You’d be surprised how many young people don’t even know that they vote right now.
A: Mhm, Mhm, yup, so if I had one dying wish, it’d be that they did know and they exercise their franchise and change this fu**ing nation to be what it’s meant to be.
E: Thank you so much for your time, I’m so glad I got to talk to you today. I’m so excited to see you soon!
A: Cool, well thanks Eva for your time.
Ani DiFranco will be performing at The Royale in Boston, MA on November 9th.