Since forming her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, in 1990 to release her music independently of the mainstream music industry, Ani DiFranco has become an awarded recording artist, a celebrated lyricist and poet, an outspoken leader in activism and advocacy and an icon of progressive folk and feminism.
As part of her ‘Rise Up’ tour, DiFranco will perform at 8 p.m. today at the F.M. Kirby Center in downtown Wilkes-Barre with special guests Gracie and Rachel, and along with her oft publicized songwriting ability and sociopolitical stances, she’ll also be showcasing one of her less-written-about musical accomplishments: her signature guitar playing.
DiFranco’s style can oscillate from elegantly folky to aggressively percussive, and at times can deliver all of the acute staccato of jazz and robust bombast of funk. She names guitarist Susan Vega as being among her influences.
“She had a very non-strummy style; she was all about grabbing the strings,” DiFranco said.
DiFranco credits the environment in which she performed her earliest gigs as having tailored her style as much as the instrumentalists she admired.
“I was playing in these places where people had no intrinsic interest in the chick in the corner, and I think surviving that atmosphere played into my playing a lot,” she said, explaining that her punctuated plucking was geared toward getting a distracted audience’s attention.
DiFranco has graduated from the corner to grander stages where she plays for crowds intent on listening to her every word, and with her 20th studio album, “Binary,” she also put together an impressive lineup of collaborators.
In addition to her tenured rhythm section of bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, DiFranco enlisted the help of virtuoso violinist Jenny Scheinman and keyboard player Ivan Neville, and “Binary” benefits from contributions by iconic saxophonist Maceo Parker, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and former David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.
After 2014’s “Allergic To Water” took a turn toward the personal with its love songs and self-examining themes — DiFranco was pregnant and then nursing her infant son during its recording — “Binary,” released last year, finds the songwriter re-engaging her well-known political voice.
DiFranco has taken on societal subjects ranging from gender equality to civil rights to Big Pharma, and she continues that legacy on her latest record. She insists on a woman’s right to govern her body on “Playing God,” rallies for non-violence on “Pacifist’s Lament” and notes a dearth of empathy on “Terrifying Sight.”
“After years of being totally in the weeds with a high-maintenance baby, I was like, ‘I have to talk to other adults about what’s going on,” DiFranco said. “Luckily this baby released me for this moment in our society, because it’s kind of an emergency. We’re in a period of so much regression that you have to take even more of an energetic push and you feel that coming from all vectors.”
It’s not surprising that DiFranco’s lyrics have refocused on the political arena, but it is curious that she wrote the songs on “Binary” prior to the 2016 presidential election and its fallout of social turmoil.
“I’m super struck by how much songwriting comes from a place below or perhaps above consciousness,” DiFranco said. “There’s a thing that happens where I kind of go into a trance when I’m working. I tune into something that comes through. I think the place they come from is not wedded to time and space. I’ve had this experience over 30 years of writing songs.”
On the album’s title track, DiFranco champions feminism in a way that suggests that existence is based on relationships to one another and nature.
“I’m so interested in doing the work of feminism in a way that is inclusive, in a way that both men and women can participate in, that takes it out of the realm of boy and girl and a might-makes-right sense of patriarchy and brings it even deeper,” DiFranco said. “The health in a body, in an ecosystem, in a government, is about balance in a society.
“It’s not about perfection; it’s about the balance of opposing forces, with us in the masculine and feminine interplay, the positive and the negative. It’s a balance; that’s where peace comes from. I’m approaching the concept of a binary universe through a feminist lens. It’s only in a relationship that we exist. We need to prioritize relationships and strike a balance between ‘me first’ and ‘we first’ or we won’t fully realize human nature.”
Pulling elements of funk and jazz from her home of 10 years in New Orleans, DiFranco has embraced her community on “Binary” as much as she’s embraced her musings.
“My manager, when he saw me working toward this new record with politically engaged songs or community engagement, he said, ‘You should not make this record alone. You should call up your peeps and engage your community and have it manifest that way on every level. When I called up my friends, they were a diverse group of people and artists and embody my skewed ways, the funk and the jazz that have really affected me deeply and all these different friends I’ve made through this journey.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.