Compressing 20 albums into a single representative collection can prove an overwhelming task for just about any solo artist, much less a band.
Not so for singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco.
The self-described “little folk singer” has amassed a remarkable music catalog over her almost two-decade career. And now, she’s reflecting on her creative journey with a new double-CD retrospective album, “Canon” (Righteous Babe).
“Canon” highlights DiFranco’s evolution as a music artist since 1990 through 36 songs that track along a loose chronology.
While the retrospective offers a sweeping look at DiFranco’s music, it hardly possesses any sense of career finality. In fact, “Canon” serves more as a luminous sonic marker on the road of a thriving and continuing career.
“Often times, such (retrospectives) decry the end of an artist’s productivity,” DiFranco observed during a recent interview. “That’s not so in this case. It’s sort of like this is just such a pile of records that needed to be distilled.”
“Canon” features some of DiFranco’s most potent and poignant music to date. It also reveals some interesting and effective decisions involving the playlist selection, such as numbers culled from her 1997 live album, “Living in Clip.”
“I wanted to represent `Living in Clip’ because initially I was like `Wow, do I put even newer live stuff?’” DiFranco explained. “Making music live on stage for people is really the focus of what I do. ... In the beginning, I was going to put all kinds of live stuff on there just because if you’re going to take a picture of me and my work, it should include the performance aspect. But then, I just sort of decided to distill it down to just hitting `Living in Clip,’ especially because that was a big record around that era, in terms of people discovering me.”
One “Canon” live number, “Gravel,” actually debuted on “Living in Clip” a year before it appeared in its studio form on her “Little Plastic Castle.”
“The live recording of `Gravel’ came out before the studio recording,” DiFranco said. “I wasn’t really happy with either recording of that song, the studio or live version. But, you know, they are both just moments in time. The live version seemed to be just that much more inherent, where the song sounded a little bit more like itself.”
Two numbers from her 1996 studio tour de force “Dilate,” “Napoleon” and “Shameless,” and “Both Hands” from 1993’s “Like I Said,” are among five songs that receive special attention as re-recorded material on “Canon.”
“Some of them (songs) were more like I wanted another chance to record this song, like `Napoleon,’” the 37-year-old artist said. “And then with some, there’s also the element of re-invention. Take a song like `Shameless,’ which people know, generally. Those that know my work or come to the shows know that it’s a band song - it’s an end-of-the-night rocking party song. So, to record it solo is a new thing. I never played it solo. ... And conversely, `Both Hands,’ which is always a solo song, sort of stayed in an intimate space.”
While DiFranco has made her living as a folk singer-songwriter-guitarist, her music transcends any single music genre.
Her studio forays along the way have produced an intriguing fusion of folk, rock, punk, jazz and pop - and mirrored, if not flat-out anticipated, many of the music styles of the past two decades, such as grunge and the garage-rock sound.
But as she’s grown older, her recording approach has become more deliberate and less all-out experimental assault.
“I use to have boundless energy for it,” DiFranco said about her music making. “Like, `Lets see what it sounds like if we drop a watermelon on a guitar and mike it from the next room’ - just having fun and experimenting. ... I guess I just never gave a (expletive). I would do whatever to any song. Now, I’m a little more reticent. I want to do things that will make sense in years to come. ... And, taking a little more time in the process is helpful.”
Chances are, DiFranco will look back on 2007 with deep fondness. She gave birth to her first child, Petah Lucia, in January; staged her first live performances at a landmark church in her hometown, Buffalo, N.Y., which she renovated and now owns; released a retrospective album; and published her first book.
A hard-touring artist with a firm politically progressive outlook, DiFranco dialed back her music and social advocacy activities earlier this year to have her baby. The break from the road and studio presented her with a fresh opportunity to explore projects that had sat on her creative shelf for some time, including her first book of poetry, “Verses” (Seven Stories Press).
Rather than orbit on separate plains, DiFranco’s music and incisive lyrics share a natural connection with poetry.
“The poems span something like 15 years,” DiFranco said. “It’s sort of analogous to the `Canon’ record in that way. It’s a look back on my poetry writing thus far. A lot of them (the poems) have appeared on records, and some just pulled from my journals that haven’t had a public life.”
Moreover, DiFranco sees a direct correlation between her poetry and stage persona.
“I need to feel for my performances. I write songs because I like to have new songs to play for people. But even when I’m writing poems, I have an eye towards the stage. This is my livelihood and I want to make the best, most interesting vital show for people. So, it just ends up that I didn’t write little poems or like normal size poems. I try to write a piece with enough meat in it that it can be performed on stage, and transport the audience somewhere.”
Would she ever consider a poetry-only tour? Not likely.
“I’d miss the guitar,” DiFranco said with a disarming chuckle. “It’s sort of a little vertigo there for me to think about doing the whole performance without music.”
ANI DIFRANCO TOUR DATES:
Nov. 16: 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 17-18: The Town Hall, New York
Dec. 16: Live interview, Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York
Jan. 17: IMAC Inter-Media Art Center, Huntington, N.Y.
Jan. 19: Paramount Theater, Asbury Park, N.J.
Jan. 21: Capitol Center, Concord, N.H.
Jan. 22: Lupos, Providence, R.I.
Jan. 23: The Forum, Harrisburg, Pa.
Jan. 25: House of Blues, Atlantic City, N.J.
Jan. 26: Electric Factory, Philadelphia
Jan. 31: Merrill Auditorium, Portland, Maine
Feb. 1: Flynn Theatre, Burlington, Vt.
Feb, 2: State Theatre, Ithaca, N.Y.
March 9: Langerado Music Festival, Everglades National Park, Fla.