Ani DiFranco calls herself the fairy godmother of “Hadestown,” the 2019 Tony winner for best musical. Anaïs Mitchell, its composer and librettist, calls her this too, as DiFranco discovered during a recent publicity event.
“I said, ‘OK, it’s settled,’” DiFranco recalled. “Certainly many more people have put in much more time and contributed hugely along the way, but I sort of helped get it from zero to one.”
DiFranco had already released a couple of Mitchell’s records on her label, Righteous Babe, when, some 15 years ago, Mitchell revealed that she had a play based on Greek mythology that she wanted to turn into an album. And so they did, with DiFranco singing the part of Persephone.
Now DiFranco, 53, will make her Broadway debut in that same role in February.
“I couldn’t say no,” she said in a discussion that touched on the importance of the acoustic guitar, punk and “gifts of nature.” “It was too thrilling at this point in my life and career, and at my age, to try something new and be out of my comfort zone and be challenged and grow and learn. I just knew it was a deep, resounding yes.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In my late teens I was exposed to the genre of the painting culture known as Abstract Expressionism. It was so inspiring and validating because it was this form of visual representation which was not about meticulously reproducing reality. It was about having a canvas be a window into a moment, and you can feel the sweep of the arm and the energy behind it and the torque and the velocity and the ferocity and the emotion.
Having an instrument that I — over 10,000 hours and then some — became one with has been like having another limb. Sometimes when there’s nowhere else to turn and nobody, it’s there for me. Sometimes when my own voice is failing me, my guitar can say it for me.
New York City
I moved here when I was 18 or 19 from Buffalo. I cried my way through the first year for every reason that you can imagine. I had experiences that were terrifying, that were life-threatening but also just life-changing and beautiful and culturally mind-blowing. The lessons that New York has for you around every corner — it was a big part of my young adulthood, this city.
You could be a performer without being a beauty queen. You didn’t have to be a buttoned-up, coordinated, put-together, choreographed, polished, perfected thing. There was something about the punk ethos that just really allowed that in me.
Music that has improvisation at its epicenter is so profound and essential because that’s what music-making is: watching somebody figure it out and solve the problems and face the adversities that exist on any given night, and inventing a new path to go with your fellow performers.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I started reading Audre Lorde and Alice Walker and Judy Grahn and bell hooks and Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton. These poets and philosophers and writers seismically unlocked me to myself. I grew up in a man’s world, and I was taught everything through a man’s eyes in a man’s words. It wasn’t until I read these women that I realized, “Oh, there’s more.”
When I started getting legit gigs at folk and roots music festivals, they would throw you onstage with other performers. There might be a singer from Guam, some Tuvan throat singers, some African dudes with guitars and an Eastern European choir. We didn’t share a verbal language, but we could talk to each other through music and become friends in this way.
The first time I played Jazz Fest, I thought, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” Every time I was not on tour, I would go to New Orleans, because I wanted to go where I felt inspired. Then I started renting an apartment, then I fell in love with a local, and he was my reason to stay and make a home. I’ve been there about 20 years, and the shine has not worn off one bit.
Marijuana and Psilocybin
I’ve smoked a lot of pot in my day, and I know it to be a really instrumental element of my awakening. I haven’t engaged in mushrooms as much, but I feel like it is also fundamental to human evolution. Whole genres of music and artistic movements have evolved and moved forward hand in hand with these gifts of nature.
When I moved to New York, I was at the New School studying, and I found myself reading books and talking about them. It’s like, Oh my God, this is really important stuff. The format of a book, it’s a road deeply into another person’s mind and life, to a whole other way of being, to whole other worlds, that I don’t find paralleled in any other genre of art.