Ani DiFranco is the first to admit — having children changes everything.
"There's nothing better to make your job seem like a vacation than children," she laughs. DiFranco is on the phone with the City Paper from her home in New Orleans, where she relocated from Buffalo, N.Y. just before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
From sticking with a new hometown amidst post-storm chaos to raising two children (Petah, eight, and Dante, two) while maintaining the prolific touring and recording schedule she's kept up for 25 years, DiFranco seems to thrive on motion. A feminist icon since she herself was barely an adult — she founded her Righteous Babe record label at age 18 — the singer's catalog ranges from poetry and folk to guitar-laden punk to horns and electronica, with an equally far-ranging sense of personal style that morphed from sporting a shaved head to spiky green hair to dreadlocks.
At 44 years old, with her natural brown locks now flowing freely, a family at home (her children's father is her longtime producer and partner, Mike Napolitano), and 2014's Allergic to Water, an album that includes lyrics like, "I'm pretty much happy all the time," it's easy to wonder if DiFranco has finally settled down. After all, this is a singer who built her following not only with aggressive, distinctive guitar chops, but with a rabble-rousing message of pro-choice, anti-establishment female empowerment. Whereas her early songs might drop innuendo about a female lover or chastise a man who made uncouth advances, now she's dreamily singing about contentment.
"I definitely feel like I have a happiness in my life now that I've never had," she agrees. "I think when I was very young I was happy, but there was a lot of escape involved in that happiness. Now I don't need to escape; my personal reality is really good."
Satisfaction with her own life doesn't mean that DiFranco has become numb to injustice, however. We spoke as the world watched fires burn in Baltimore, just weeks after a white cop killed an unarmed black African-American man in Charleston.
DiFranco, for one, is fully on the side of the rioters. "It's extraordinary and I think very necessary. I want to have a riot myself, you know?" says DiFranco. "It's amazing to see white America waking up through the lenses of its cell phones. It's like, the medium is the message, man."
DiFranco says she sees the growing anger in places like Charleston and Baltimore as a "new Civil Rights movement."
"You've got to hope that this is the seismic change where we really address the fact that racism is not over," she continues. "It's pretty extraordinary to see citizens rising up. I'm very encouraged and want to support, specifically, the non-violent organizers who are trying to bring people in with real dialogue about the problem of police brutality."
Be it race, LGBT rights, or abortion, DiFranco has never bitten her tongue when it comes to hot-button issues. Rather, her songs are a rallying point for social equality and progressive values. But much like Pete Seeger — whom she befriended and performed with before his passing last year — her approach has softened from in-your-face grittiness to more subtle but still-biting commentary, masked behind a chilled-out, jazzy musical face.
That's due, in part, to the influence of her counterparts on the New Orleans music scene, where "fun and funky" is generally priority No. 1. Allergic to Water includes keyboardist Ivan Neville and her regular drummer, Terence Higgins — both staples of the city's musical pedigree.
"The community down here is world-class. How could I not be totally inspired and get down with all the people here?" asks DiFranco about her adopted home. "There's no better place for a musician to live in America."
When she visits Charleston, DiFranco's band will include Higgins and longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose. Beyond the joy of playing every night with her trio, the singer/songwriter says she looks forward to time on the road for the creative freedom it brings her.
"It's really hard to leave my babies behind, especially with a two-year-old, but it's incredible for my work. When I get off the leash from my babies, I'm unstoppable," she says. "I've been writing a lot lately, and I'm just so thrilled to know that I still can and I'm not a dried-up old bat. When you're a full-time parent, and then you get on an airplane and you have free rein to play guitar and smoke pot and read books and talk to friends and listen to music and think thoughts, well, it's sort of like I'm at songwriter boot camp when I'm on tour."