By Emily J. Weitz
Ani DiFranco’s gift for articulating the present moment, whether it’s the moment after a painful breakup or a tenuous conversation in the thick of marriage, is unfaltering. Now, Ms. DiFranco has two children, juggling motherhood and super-stardom as she’s juggled everything else in her life – transparently.
Her newest album, “Allergic to Water,” was recorded in the final months of her second pregnancy and the early months of her son’s life. That truth comes through, not always directly in the lyrics of her songs, but in the quality of her voice, the sound of her guitar, and the overall feeling of the album.
“Having kids definitely dictates the process,” said Ms. DiFranco. “I have to work in fits and spurts. I have to steal time in the wee hours. This record, I did a lot of overdubbing and singing while my family slept. You can hear an intimate quality to the vocals. There’s a quietness that surrounds the songs.”
You can even hear the difference from track to track. When she told me which songs she recorded late in her pregnancy (“Happy All The Time” and “Harder Than It Needs to Be”), they happened to be my two favorite songs on the album. There’s a lightness and buoyancy to the sound of these songs, even though the content is complex.
One would think that when a brilliant singer/songwriter is at home with her family, the children should just gather round the guitar and sing along. One would think the living room would always be alight with song. One would think music and motherhood existed in a happy yin yang shape. One would think.
“I would make music around my children more if they allowed it,” said Ms. DiFranco, “but both of them recognized pretty early that when mommy picks up a guitar, she gets a far-away look, and that’s not okay. Both exhibited jealousy from the beginning, and they shut me down from making music with them. There’s an excruciating period when these new beings come into my life where I have to let my work and my passion go.”
But perhaps it’s better that the worlds remain somewhat separate. Because Ms. DiFranco has to step away to create music, the role music plays in her life remains what it’s always been: an escape.
“It used to be escape from dark trauma,” said Ms. DiFranco, “and now it’s escape from babies and momming… It’s humbling and useful and I come back from grateful for my job.”
When she had her first child, who’s now almost eight, Ms. DiFranco took her on the road. For the first 3 ½ years, her daughter was there to meet her backstage. But her son was not having the road lifestyle, and she realized it was less about the world she created for her kids than it was about the kids themselves.
“Turns out it was not my genius momming skills, but the personality of my kid,” she said. “So after four tours, I fired the baby.”
It’s not easy for either of them to have the separation. When she packs up to go on tour for several weeks, it’s excruciating to say goodbye to her son.
“But now,” said Ms. DiFranco, “when I go on the road, I revel in guitar and writing and reading and talking to friends. Your time becomes so precious.”
On her last tour, she was so inspired and amped up from the time and space to create that she found herself writing a new song every other day. These songs are even newer than her most recent album, but she’ll be playing them at her upcoming show.
“It was great to realize that I am not dead as a songwriter,” she said. “I was engaged in the creative act of making a human. But this last stint I’ve written a lot, and I’m excited about the new songs.”
Things that have been inspiring her in her recent life come through on her new album, “Allergic to Water,” as well as in her newest songs.
“There are a lot of meditations on humility and patience,” said Ms. DiFranco, “things that children bring to us. The title track, “Allergic to Water,” is talking about the things that are most meaningful and life sustaining can also be the most painful. The biggest struggles have the biggest rewards and that’s the way it works and you better accept it. I wrote it the year I birthed a baby.”
Ani DiFranco will return to the Suffolk Theatre on Saturday, January 24. The show starts at 8 p.m. Go to www.suffolktheater.com for tickets.