Veteran singer-songwriter is out with a new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream (Viking). She has also compiled a musical companion for the book, title No Walls Mixtape, which features her revisiting 16 classic songs from her career.
DiFranco is an activist and, since the beginning, has run her own label, Righteous Babe. She recently spoke with KMUW about the writing of No Walls and the Recurring Dream, as well as the possibility of new songs in her future.
DiFranco will perform at Wave Sunday, June 2.
When did you know that you were going to write a memoir?
I changed my crew a few years back. Management, booking and such. My internal team. My new manager came along, that was the first thing he did, lock eyes with me and say, "OK. Let's talk about this book idea you've had for decades now." He got me a meeting with a book agent; she got me a meeting with a lot of book publishers; next thing I knew there was crew of people around me, going, "We've got a deadline." They sort of got behind this project and made me do it. Finally.
What about the day-to-day writing of it? Was this stuff that you had had in notebooks across the years or was this, sit down 8 a.m. to noon, with a computer and work on it?
I had nothing to go on. My journals are much more esoteric chicken scratch that maybe made it into songs along the way, but there's no prose journaling for me. I'm on too much of a high-speed adventure. I had to sit down, tabula rasa, in this deep fog of, "I can't remember" and stare into that fog for months on end, then slowly start to discern shapes. Just the remembering process, to begin with, was a challenge.
Memoir does present that challenge of, "Is this really what happened or is this …."
It's all so subjective, right?
I was terrifyingly aware of that along the way and tried to train my brain away from, "What will people think?" Starting with my mother, my brother, my near and dear who appear in this book. I was, of course, afraid that they would all go, "No, that's not right." But I have heard some confirming reports, which I'm so gratified and grateful for the love and support of my near and dear. Even a friend of mine, who appears in the book, saying, "At first I was reading [and] thinking, 'No, that's not right.'" Then I remembered, "Oh yeah. I sort of blocked that."
Did you have people you could check in with and say, "Hey, refresh me. Did this happen in this year or that?"
I did a little bit of checking in with my friend Heidi Ho who has been a traveling companion on the road for 22 years. She had some useful, "That was 1992, not 1996." But at the onset I thought I was going to fly to all my loved ones and grill them and that that was the only way I could get back there. But mostly what happened was that I just went in and in and in.
Were there things that came up — the passing of your father — that you relived as you were writing?
Oh, yeah. I didn't mean to cut you off. I'm just moaning in agreement. Lots of stopping for days to sob. Getting all the way back there was a dicey proposition. Not only the writing of it but then the recording of it. I agreed to do an audio book and sat down in front of the microphone to speak this very intimate stuff that I'd written, and I just completely panicked. I felt trapped and very panicky. I didn't know if I was going to get through those four days, but I realized that the process of writing involved a game of pretend that I've practiced now for many decades and for hundreds of songs—which is to pretend that you're alone long enough to create something. Just push, very praticedly away, the "What will happen? What will people think? What will they say?"
You just go into a space where you're alone and can speak unfettered and freely. But something about sitting down in front of the audiobook microphone made me realize, "OK. This game of pretend is over."
You mentioned that idea of "What will they think?" But do you go through that with yourself, "What am I doing? Can I say that?"
Absolutely. That's the reason that I subconsciously kicked off the book that way. I think I was trying to prepare myself for the journey of this book and talked to myself about the balance point. "How am I going to find it?" The balance point between painful truths and painful silences and how do you write from a place of respect and of love but tell the truth about what happened.
I've talked to other authors who've written memoir and I can recall asking one if he'd write a second book. He said that the first one was easy because all the people in it were dead. The second would have to be about people who are still alive.
That's an honest answer!
Or, "I've had so many great experiences I would want to write about them." Would go through the process again?
Whew. I don't know. I certainly could feel the palpable difference between writing about people in my life who have passed on and not having to worry about my perspective on them is different than their perspective on themselves. Not wanting to offend or hurt. I'm astutely aware, as a public person for many decades, what that's like. To be described and defined by others. Louder than you can even do for yourself. Here I have this platform and this microphone, the microphone of the book, and I'm exposing other people through my eyes. It's an arrogant and dicey thing to do.
I just thank Goddess for all of the support and the love that I've actually felt from some of my near and dear already about this project. The people who appear in the book. A lot of people have given me a lot of artistic license in this world to be me.
I would think that in songwriting it's easier to disguise some things because very often we're hearing music through our own prism and thinking about, "How does this relate to me?" as opposed to, "How does that relate to the writer?"
Absolutely. That's the best way to interact with art, I think. I didn't want to ruin that by telling the backstories of some of these songs because they don't belong to me once they're in somebody else's ears. One big difference between writing this book and songs my whole life is that I let people in to the process. About 20 or so people volunteered to be early readers for me and [give feedback]. It was so fascinating for me because every person's response was so different. Different people picked up on different stuff and didn't get different stuff. It reminded me that you can put something out in the world and it becomes each persons' who takes it in.
You have been an independent recording artist since the start. In a way, it was prescient because, not many years after you started making records, the industry as it was disappeared. When you look back do you say, "I was really smart in doing that" or "I was really lucky"?
I feel lucky in a lot of different ways. Just for having the perspectives that I had. A lot of it was a gift from my parents, to question the way that things are and the paths that are laid out before us. I found my own path and, yeah, in retrospect, after many years and even decades of condescension, lack of inclusion — exclusion, I guess it's called [laughs] — I feel lucky. Now I'm in this envious position [over] people who went the major label route.
I look at my friend Prince, who I talk about in this book — friend is maybe an exaggeration, but I was blessed to be in his company a little bit. I met him at a time when he was writing "Slave" across his cheek and trying desperately to get out from under the control of his major label. He was saying, "I want to come over to Righteous Babe."
It was great to be able to provide an example in the world of an alternative path.
You also made a playlist to accompany the book.
At the end of writing the book I looked at what songs came up and what people and what moments came up. Because it's a radical distillation in itself, this book. I thought it would be cool to revisit these songs again. One thing I talk about in the book is my journey through recording. Trying to document my songs over the years. I have 20 albums to my name and lots of regret about all of my mistakes that I insisted upon making. On my own. My own mistakes. In one way that was empowering, in another way I wish I had humbled myself to bringing in more help. To have people who knew how to make records better than I help me translate my songs.
It was kind of a delicious experience to go back and re-record some of these ancient songs from the early '90s mostly and sing them in my full voice and using my full body instead of whatever kind of scary, uptight situation I was in alone. This shaved-headed girl staring through the glass at a metalhead dude in a little recording studio in Buffalo. With him looking back at me, like, "Really?"
And having to document my art in that atmosphere was hard along the way.
Is your current tour reflective of the music of your past?
I think so. Also, I was able to pick up my guitar after putting down this book. I have a few new songs in the works. I might pull a few of those out, too.