Ani DiFranco: 'Little Folk Singer' With A Voice That Carries

Says her music is all about her words and the energy she brings to the sound.

MILAN, Italy -- "Little folk singer." That's how Ani DiFranco defines herself.

Accurate? On the surface. Modest? Absolutely.

But this "little folk singer" has, in the past few years, garnered a great deal of attention and wide critical acclaim for the innovations and talent she has brought to rock music in her uniquely folksy way.

In Italy to showcase her new album, Little Plastic Castle, DiFranco's first studio effort since 1996's Dilate, she spoke about her sound, her passion for all things musical and even her fondness for the land of her ancestry. "At least here they correctly pronounce my name: Ani, not Eni or something like that," she quipped.

Later, she went on to apologize for the fact that her songs are lyrically geared to English-speaking people, saying that her words are the backbone of her style.

"Music is my life, that's why I put so much energy in it," said the 28-year-old folk-rock songstress with the psychedelic hair, addressing a group of reporters after her Wednesday show at the Propaganda theater. "I'm sorry that the audience tonight couldn't understand the lyrics to my songs, because they're worthless without words."

And while it's true that DiFranco's lyrics are a major part of what drives her music and her sound, her songs as innovations in the craft of folk-rock music stand for themselves. They, above all else perhaps, pack an energy and attitude that speaks for today's youth on a social, political and personal level.

In running through the talking-blues-styled "Fuel" (RealAudio excerpt) that night, DiFranco demonstrated that energy and her knack for communicating her point via music: "People used to make records as in a record of an event/ the event of people playing music in a room/ Now everything is cross-marketing/ It's about sunglasses and shoes or guns or drugs/ you chose/ There's a fire just waiting for fuel," she sang.

"It's a true story," she explained later, referring to the song that, among other subjects, deals with the discovery of a slave cemetery in Manhattan. "But it's also about the music business. I wondered what those people would think of our society."

DiFranco arrived on the big, empty stage of the Propaganda accompanied by the same lineup she recorded her new record with, drummer Andy Stochinsky and bassist Jason Mercher. DiFranco, herself, switched between acoustic guitar and four-string tenor guitar. Dressed in jeans and a black vest, with her multicolored hair gathered in a ponytail, she busted into "Gravel" (RealAudio excerpt), one of Little Plastic Castle's most energetic songs.

During the hour-and-a-half performance, the trio also ran through some of her more well-known tunes such as "Untouchable Face" and "32 Flavors," as well as a new and as-yet-unrecorded tune called "Up Up Up Up Up." They are songs that, in dealing with topics both personal and universal, continue to set DiFranco apart from her more outright politically motivated predecessors in the folk-rock scene, while at the same time, clearly connecting her to them.

"Folk is music rooted into a community of people," she said. "Of course,

I am different from the old folk singers. I don't talk about unions or wars.

I talk about my personal experiences, but the mentality is the same."

Even her willingness to accept things that clearly go against her conscience, without putting up a struggle or sparking a movement, has made DiFranco a pioneer in the new folk scene.

When a journalist pointed out that Little Plastic Castle is distributed in

Italy by a label owned by Silvio Berlsconi, whom the journalist described as "the biggest capitalist and right-wing party leader," DiFranco replied, "Inevitably I lost some control trying to bring my music outside of America. But, anyway, capitalism is the environment in which we live. It's useless to fight against windmills."

Having visited Italy a couple of years back, this event marked the first time the Buffalo, N.Y., songwriter had traveled to her father's homeland to play live. The experience of touring the country has given DiFranco personal insight, she said. "At first I decided that this was a place like many others, but then I suddenly realized how deep my link was. I still have some relatives near Rome, where my father comes from, that I don't know yet. Someday I'll try to get in touch with them," she said. [Thurs., Feb. 19, 1998, 5 p.m. PST]