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POP MUSIC

Sign Here, Puhleese!

Record execs are standing in line to get Ani DiFranco's signature on a contract. She's 'doing just fine' on her own, thank you.

May 05, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

It's easy to see why Ani DiFranco has record executives drooling. Not only does the 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Buffalo, N.Y., write songs as nakedly personal as Alanis Morissette's and PJ Harvey's, but she is also as defiantly independent as Courtney Love.

With her colorful, beaded hairdo and de rigueur tattoos, she looks like the epitome of '90s maverick cool. She often dresses in a black leather jacket and pants, and she wears enough decorations in her ears and right nostril to turn even the most forgiving metal detector into a warning siren.

But the thing executives may find the most irresistible about this richly talented artist is that she has spurned all their big-buck contract offers. All seven of her albums have been released on her own Righteous Babe Records.

"Yes, they've all come courting at some point or another," DiFranco says, soaking up some afternoon sun in a Mid-Wilshire park near her motel. "Some of them can't really conceive of someone who doesn't have a price. They think I'm just holding out for some magic figure.

"But I've just always felt an aversion to business people. These companies are selling records, but they could be selling microchips or oil. To me, one of the purposes of art is to challenge the system, and working within it always seemed like a compromise that I wasn't comfortable with."

DiFranco pauses as if replaying her words in her head, then makes a comical grimace.

"Oh, blah, blah, blah," she says, smiling at her own serious tone.

"Besides," she adds, with a shrug, "I'm doing just fine on my own, thank you."

True enough.

DiFranco's musical approach fits so well with the creative and commercial center of rock in the era of the Angry Young Woman that if you didn't know her history, you would suspect that she is a master pop strategist.

In "Not a Pretty Girl," the title track from her 1995 album, she declares:

I ain't no damsel in distress,

And I don't need to be rescued . . .

Wouldn't you prefer a maiden fair?

Isn't there a kitten,

Stuck up a tree somewhere?

But DiFranco was writing songs with a similar tone for years before she finally started getting glowing reviews and building a live following around the country. She will play the Mayan Theatre on June 2, one of four Southern California shows on a tour to promote her new "Dilate" album, which is due in stores May 21.

If anything, she seems uncomfortable being so close to today's pop pulse.

"I often run into all the stereotypes that go along with being a woman with an opinion. . . . The idea that if you are fiercely opinionated you are a bitch, right?" she says. "It's just the year of the angry woman thing. There is an official pigeonhole and everyone is shoved into it now."

She pauses once more, as if to again lighten the tone.

"Before," she says finally, with a trace of a smile, "it was my special little world."

Ignore the facts and tell the truth.

That's both a line from one of DiFranco's early songs and her personal songwriting code. She freely mixes and matches slices of observation and autobiography to arrive at what she feels are emotional truths.

Critics frequently refer to her songs as feminist observations, but DiFranco dislikes their being viewed as social manifestoes.

"I don't have an agenda in my music," she says. "I'm not trying to talk about women's liberation or women's anything in my songs. I'm just talking about this woman's liberation.

"What I've always tried to do was just tell my story. It's more a personal journey rather than a political statement."

One of the captivating things about DiFranco's writing is how much of that journey she shares in her dramatic tales of romantic betrayal and self-affirmation.

In "Done Wrong" on her upcoming album, she writes about a tortured relationship:

How could you do nothing,

And say, "I'm doing my best"?

How could you take almost everything,

And then come back for the rest?

"I used to feel nervous writing certain things," she says of her style, which combines punk aggression with folk introspection. "I'd finish a song and then go, 'I can't sing this in front of people.' But I eventually realized that our stories aren't that unique.

"The more I stand on a platform and say this is what I did, this is what happened, this is how I felt, the more people say, 'Yeah, me too.' To me, music is a way we affirm each other. At some point you realize you are not a freak of nature. . . . I'm just like everybody else. Somebody might just as well start admitting some of this stuff. Why not me?"

For someone who tells so much about herself in her music, Ani (pronounced AH-nee) DiFranco is defensive when it comes to the specifics of her apparently troubled adolescence in Buffalo.

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