Ani DiFranco has found success by following her gut. Whether it’s to sign or not-to-sign with fill-in-the-blank big record label (spoiler alert: for her it is always not-to-sign), or her first go at memoir writing, she has learned to trust how she feels.
The former led to Righteous Babe Records, the small label she built in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. The latter is her 300-page freshly published memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream” — which is already topping Amazon charts in its genre.
“I have a good track record with myself,” DiFranco said during a recent phone interview from her home in New Orleans. “Certainly there have been a lot of mistakes and thwarting of my instincts, but the gut knows.”
DiFranco, with her signature plucky and percussive guitar playing, returns to Duluth for the first time since the early 2000s, for a concert on Monday at the NorShor Theatre. Her memoir has been on shelves for about a month, alongside the new soundtrack of old material she recorded.
The artist-activist will be joined by Diane Patterson, a self-described "folkgoddess" who credits DiFranco as being an influence.
DiFranco’s book is a vignette-by-vignette look at the people, places and key events from the first 20-ish years of her life. She started with an outline that she didn’t necessarily stick to, she said, then dug back into transcripts of old interviews with her Righteous Babe Records employees and a longtime friend and travel mate with a good memory.
From there, the feminist icon pieced her life back together.
“I kind of just went on instinct — like I do when I’m making songs and poems and sh**,” she said. “I did theoretically have a plan; I didn’t stick to that per se.”
“No Walls and the Recurring Dream” opens with a memory of performing post-9/11 at Carnegie Hall — sobs from the balcony echoing through the room. It was 2002 and a time of half-filled venues. She writes that the felt a pressure “to lift up the small audiences that were brave enough to come out. A pressure to make sense of it all. To make hope happen.”
The early years
She grew up in a wall-less home. She could see her parents’ bed and her brother’s bed from her own. Her school, too, was wall-less. Students gathered in clusters within eyesight of other clusters and there was plenty of space to roam.
DiFranco shows early signs of the hustle that will define her: She finds a two-month horse camp and raises the money to get there. She develops an interest in dance and, beyond her own modern dance class, is absorbed into the rest of the weekly schedule. She meets a man in the lobby of her music class and he becomes a lifelong friend and music mentor — but it starts with him just buying her a copy of “The Beatles Complete Songbook.”
She moves to New York City and ultimately rents a room from a random man she meets on the street. She travels from coast to coast playing music in an innovative way. She has relationships within other relationships. She studies and finds mentors. She makes last-ditch decisions to not sign with the big labels and then she makes her own — earning an entrepreneur title that doesn’t quit fit her style.
Entire chapters are tributes to specifics friends — humans with no name recognition and, say, Pete Seeger — and at least one revisits a hiccup in her record and she clarifies a public opinion gone awry.
In addition to the memoir, DiFranco dug back into her discography and re-recorded old songs for her “No Walls Mixtape.” One of the first things that struck her, DiFranco said of mining her past like for these projects, was how much of her early years were about survival.
“Negotiating physical peril, for instance,” she said. “That’s not the way I thought about my life in general when I look back in a brief way. When I went back and got into the songs, I thought no wonder other young women were the first to stand up and say ‘Thank goodness my actual experience is reflected in the song.’”
She’s a different person now, she said. Recording some of her old songs, she was able to see that she was not in a comfortable place, a safe place, when they were first recorded.
“I was not inhabiting my skin all the way when I was recording them for prosperity,” she said. “It was good to revisit some of those songs and record them in full voice and full body and make a document that where I stand now is a somewhat more secure and empowered place to sing from.”
DiFranco mentions instincts a lot both the book and in conversation.
“I’ve read a little bit about — not to get too freaky with this line of talk — our intestines are almost like another brain,” she said. “They’re amalgamous to the brain and there is a lot of information that literally functions as a brain in a lot of ways. That brain can be smarter and less deluded than the highfalutin brain in my soul. In times in my life when I’m conflicted and I’m going against the flow, the lower brain — the gut — starts to malfunction.”
While it will be all music here, the musician-turned-author who has logged oh-so many miles with her guitar has also been touring with the memoir and getting a new view of old cities. In the past, she’s slept on buses and rarely seen more than the inside of the venue.
“I’ve seen cities that I’ve seen many times and have a relationship with through music,” she said. “Now I see them through the world of book nerds. I have a more informed perspective on a bunch of cities that I thought I knew so well.”
If you go
What: Ani DiFranco with opener Diane Patterson
When: 8 p.m. June 10
Where: NorShor Theatre
Tickets: Start at $49.50 at jadepresents.com and the Duluth Playhouse box office