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Ani DiFranco on Forging a New Path in Middle Age 

The acclaimed singer-songwriter talks to Next Avenue about her latest album, starring on Broadway, and tackling new goals in her fifties

By Sandra Ebejer
Headshot of Ani DiFranco. Next Avenue
Ani DiFranco  |  Credit: Asbury Lanes

In 1990, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco released her eponymously titled debut album on her own indie record label, Righteous Babe Records — a feat practically unheard of at a time when most artists were desperate for a hit single and a major label deal. By the end of the decade, she'd released nine additional studio albums, a live double album, and multiple compilations; collaborated with folk legend Utah Phillips; recorded with Janis Ian, Prince, and Maceo Parker; earned two Grammy Award nominations; and "saved" her hometown of Buffalo (according to the New York Times), all while confounding critics by doing it on her own terms.

It's her latest album that marks the most drastic shift from her past work.

Now, the 53-year-old is once again forging her own path as she pursues new creative endeavors. Over the past five years, DiFranco has pivoted away from the album release and touring schedule that she'd adhered to for so long in order to take on new projects. Among them, her 2019 New York Times bestselling memoir, "No Walls and the Recurring Dream"; a free digital radio station, which she launched from her basement; and her children's book, "The Knowing," for which she wrote and recorded an accompanying lullaby. In February 2024, she made her theater debut as Persephone in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Hadestown" and this August, Rise x Penguin Workshop will publish her second children's picture book, "Show Up and Vote."

But it's her latest album that marks the most drastic shift from her past work. On May 17th, DiFranco will release her 23rd studio album, the appropriately titled "Unprecedented Sh!t." For the first time, she opted not to self-produce and instead worked with an outside producer, BJ Burton, who used a variety of machines, effects, and filters to bring her politically charged, acoustic guitar-based songs into new sonic territory. She tells Next Avenue that "unprecedented" is precisely where she feels most comfortable these days. "I'm 53 and I feel like I've been reinventing it all in this decade of my life," she says. "It feels right, and things that attract me now are the things that are the most mysterious and unknown."

DiFranco recently spoke with Next Avenue about exploring uncharted waters, her new fondness for collaboration and how her mother taught her it's never too late to try something new.

You've had quite a year. How has it been starring on Broadway for the past few months? 

It's been really fun and really tough. It's exhausting, the eight shows a week gauntlet, plus press and rehearsals and notes. It's really a full-immersion sport, this Broadway thing. But it's an amazing group of people so it feels fun, because you're in it together. I think if it was a one-woman show, I would have shot myself in the head a month ago. [Laughs] But the fact that I'm surrounded by such inspiring people — it's like war buddies, you know? You show up because they show up and you have their back because they have your back. And that's what motivates you. 

Book cover of Show Up and Vote. Next Avenue, Ani DiFranco

Through your Patreon account, you've shared letters with your fans, expressing how challenging these past few months have been. You really seem to be writing through the difficulties and trying to find lessons in the hardships. When you look back on these past few months, what have you learned about yourself? 

[Long pause] Jeez, a lot of things. One is that high heels are of the devil, just as I suspected! [Laughs] You know, I guess I've learned a different type of humility. I mean, I've always been my own worst critic, like many people. I always have to answer to myself. But with this job, I have to answer to a lot of other people too, [who have] super specific direction and lots of feedback and instruction. It's serving something that is bigger than myself. It's not just my art, for which I have full agency; it's somebody else's art.  

"I guess I've learned a different type of humility."

It's humbling to not only show up and serve something that's bigger than me, but also follow directions that I don't always believe in. Sometimes I've got to do what I'm told, even though I think the way I was doing it was better. There's a lot of compromise.

Also, doing things the same way every night, doing the same show the same way and finding the space within that to not feel numbed by it. Somebody said to me, 'You went from being the painter to being the paint. How's that feel?' And I was like, [groans]. I have to not look at it that way! [Laughs] I really have to, even as the paint, splash myself around and feel free. But it is a super interesting exercise in so many ways. I'm learning a lot about musical theater at this level, which is advanced and powerful, and also a little mechanized. 


In the midst of starring on Broadway, you're releasing a new album. Your last studio album, 'Revolutionary Love,' was deeply personal, intimate, and vulnerable. Your new album, 'Unprecedented Sh!t,' is so bold and a huge departure from your past work. Can you share a bit about where you were in life — personally, professionally, creatively — when that album came out and where you are now?

Well, 'Revolutionary Love' came out during the pandemic. We were all inside cats for that stretch of time and confronting our relationships, and I think that album is reflective of all that. For 'Unprecedented Sh!t,' I really wanted to step not just outside of my house, but outside of my known way of doing things. The only idea I had for 'Unprecedented Sh!t' was I want to work with somebody new and I want to make a record in a different way, this way that had been brewing in my mind and creativity for years, but I'd never had the facility to manifest on my own because I'm not a gearhead.

"I think what I've been attempting to do in my music and my art is to find my voice."

I wanted to employ the world of machines more, because I feel like in modern recording people playing instruments is one ingredient in a huge world of possibilities. But people playing instruments is really all I've ever recorded, I really wanted somebody to [work] with that had more facility with all the gear — what are these new modern machines and how do you use them? So I found BJ Burton. Really the album was just me and him for the most part, messing with the songs and putting them in a new landscape.

There are a lot of heavy topics covered on this album, but there's a single line in one song that to me represents so much of what you cover in your art: "How the hell can anybody listen when you forget to speak?' Can you talk a bit about that lyric and that song, 'You Forgot to Speak,' and what it means to you?

Yeah, it's super personal to me. Like, whenever I pull a tarot card, it's something about the voice, and whenever somebody talks about my chakras, it's all [puts hands up to throat] — there's something right here in my throat. That is where my life's work is, to free it. And I think what I've been attempting to do in my music and my art is to find my voice. I'm still not as great at it in the one-on-one or offstage as I am onstage where I've been practicing a way of doing it.

I actually wrote [the song] for a theater piece, which doesn't exist — parentheses yet — but it was written from the point of view of a character who is a badass reproductive rights lawyer, who's a brilliant woman, but who doesn't speak up in her marriage and doesn't speak up in her life. But she finds this way to speak very powerfully in a courtroom and unleash the voices of many women. So that was the context for writing it. It's from the perspective of a woman who has things to say, but just can't find what it takes to say them.

Despite the fact that you are a visual artist yourself, you did not do the illustrations for either of your children's books. You didn't produce this new album yourself. You're starring in 'Hadestown,' which is a show written and directed by others. Do you feel as though you've reached a point in your life where you feel more comfortable handing over the reins?

Yeah, absolutely. I think my life of charging boldly forth and doing it myself whether or not I know what the hell I'm doing has carried me most of the way to here, and I definitely feel weary of that as my process at this point. I don't want to be the only one generating the ideas. Which is not to say that I haven't collaborated in many ways; other people's ideas have come into play over the years. But, you know, the buck has always stopped [with me]. So, yeah, I'm definitely opening myself up to deeper levels of collaboration and sitting in the design room with other people. And sometimes not even being in the design room, like 'Hadestown.' I'm just along for the ride.

Album cover. Next Avenue, Ani DiFranco

On this record, [BJ and I] worked remotely. I would record the songs and send them to him, and he would do what he would do. And it was such a laborious process to go back and forth over email that there was no micromanaging him in this project. He did what he did, and sometimes I'd say, 'Oh, maybe a little to the left?' And then he'd go with what he thought of as left, and that would be that. I really had to just say, 'yes, and' with him, though not every detail is how I would do it. It's definitely an exercise in letting go, which I think I'm way more interested in and acclimated to now.

One might listen to your music and assume that you are wholly self-confident and lacking fear. Do you have anxiety or imposter syndrome when taking on something new? How do you break through those feelings?

Yeah. I had no idea if I could be a lead in a Broadway production. I really didn't. Other people felt very confident on my behalf. 'Oh, you got this!' But I didn't know that at all. I don't think that was a given, that my performance experience would lead me to do this well. And I have discerned that the 'Hadestown' apparatus were not in the business of pumping me up or stroking my ego or going, 'You're gonna be so great!'

Every rehearsal was, 'Nope, nope. Not like this. Not like that, like this.' Right up to my put-in, the dress rehearsal on the afternoon of my opening night, it wasn't like everybody cheered afterwards and said, 'You got this! You're gonna be great!' They said, 'Okay, here's the list of notes.' And it's still that way. [Laughs] I'm several months into performing and still I get emails of, 'A little to the left,' you know. They don't send you emails [saying], 'You're so amazing' or anything.

"I had no idea if I could be the a lead in a Broadway production. I really didn't."

So one thing I've had to learn to do in this process of being in this musical is do that for myself — find the confidence. It makes me aware of how much I've looked externally for affirmation in my life, of how much somebody else cheering and going, 'You're amazing' is what I use to believe I can continue on, do it again, do the next thing.

Within the context of this Broadway gig, they're just not in the business of doing that, so I've realized I have to do that for myself. I have to cheer myself on and believe that I am doing good and believe that I can do this. Because on a daily basis there's a roller coaster of showing up with the self-possessed roar that I need to have when I run downstage for that first time in act one. I have to have full body, 'stop the world, I have something to say' kind of energy. I've had to learn how to get myself there in this job.

Also, the audiences at 'Hadestown' — it's not an Ani audience that showed up to see Ani with love in their pocket. It's a cross section of people from all over. I need to win them over. [My character] needs to get into their hearts, and that's my job to do it. It's not automatic and it's not easy. So, again, I have to do that without somebody else propping me up.

You have the new album, you're ending your time with 'Hadestown' in June, and you have your next children's book coming out in August. Are there any other big projects on the horizon?

Well, yeah, the theater piece that I alluded to. I got commissioned to do it, and that was part of what led me to say yes to being a part of 'Hadestown.' I was thinking, "I need to learn what a musical is, how it works, and what it's like to put it on." So I'm here as a student of theater, specifically, if not life. I was sort of in the weeds with 'Hadestown' for the first few months, exhausted by it, but I just started to work on my own piece again in earnest. So that's kind of where my creative juices are flowing these days.

So many of your new endeavors have occurred in middle age. What advice do you have for those who want to shake up their career or try something new, but feel like it's too late in life?

It's never too late. I didn't even have to discover that because I watched my mother in her fifties move to a different state, leave everything and everyone she knew. She was an architect at the time, and she moved from Buffalo, which is where her family and all her life had been, and she moved to Connecticut, got a job at a firm, and then a few years later quit architecture and became a house cleaner because she was so burdened by her career at that point and realized 'it's making me sick.' She jumped ship from her life in various ways and just started over and then started cleaning people's houses in Connecticut. And now she's moved back to Canada. So I know from watching her that it's never too late to start over and follow your spleen.

Contributor Sandra Ebejer
Sandra Ebejer lives in upstate New York with her husband, son and two cats who haven't figured out how to get along. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Real Simple, Writer's Digest, Shondaland and others. Read more at or find her on Twitter @sebejer

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