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9 Quick Questions for Ani DiFranco

Singer-songwriter takes on Broadway in ‘Hadestown’

spinner image ani difranco against peach-colored ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Danny Clinch)

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, 53, has always used her music to express strong opinions on race relations, politics and women’s rights. She’s currently using that strong voice to portray Persephone in the Tony-winning folk- and jazz-infused musical Hadestown. The play, staged at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, intertwines the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice with that of King Hades and his wife, Persephone. Here, DiFranco shares the physical challenges of a Broadway show, her newfound appreciation of silence and her favorite ways to relax at home in New Orleans.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a Broadway performer?

Oh boy, it’s a long list. Different things move to the top in different moments. I’ve had a lot of physical challenges. I’ve lost 14 pounds — and I’m tiny — in the last three weeks. And it’s not just sore muscles. It’s hip sockets, it’s foot arches, it’s spasming in my haunches. … I take a lot of Epsom salt baths. I’m buying stock in Epsom salt. More than that, even, is that I didn’t expect the level of exactitude that the leaders of the show [demand]. … The rehearsal schedule has been pretty intense. It’s until 10 o’clock at night sometimes. It’s afternoons, it’s evenings, it’s different every day. … There are 10 billion instructions per song, per moment, per beat. … I’m trying to exit the phase of just being panicked [about] remembering every instruction in every moment and getting back into my body, and back into a sense of myself and a sense of singing and dancing and being free.

spinner image ani difranco as persephone in the musical hadestown
DiFranco is currently starring as Persephone in the Tony-winning Broadway musical ‘Hadestown.’
Michael Reynolds

Do you remember the first Broadway show you saw? And do you have a favorite?

I think the first Broadway show I ever saw was A Chorus Line. I hadn’t really seen many Broadway shows until recently because my daughter [Petah, 17] is a fan. And so I’ve seen more shows in the last five years than ever. Hamilton — it’s just unparalleled. Hadestown as well. Hamilton and Hadestown both have brought some much needed energy from the streets … the way music works and feels and lives outside of the theater district. Hamilton may be more in the hip-hop sense, and Hadestown more in the folk Americana sense of bringing these new flavors onto the scene. There’s a breath of life that comes through shows like Hadestown and Hamilton.

Have you developed any pre-show rituals over the years?

In my previous 30 years of performing [musically] as me, I do tend to keep to myself a little bit. It’s not a set ritual, but it’s a vibe thing — kind of all day. My touring companions … they get together with friends for lunch and they go to a museum and they might go on a hike. Me, I’m just in my dressing room, thinking about the set list, honing in. From the time I have my cup of tea in the morning until sound check, I’m thinking about what songs I’m going to play, what things I want to talk about, or maybe what’s on my mind. And then when it comes to the hour before the show, I tend to just stay in that space in my dressing room alone, clearing my mind.

Are you constantly listening to music?

Yes and no. Maybe not in the way that I once was, where I was just constantly immersed in music. Now I am immersed in silence a lot as well. In fact, my new favorite thing is [that] I’ve got these earbuds … with the noise canceling [feature]. I put them in sometimes with nothing playing and walk down the street in quiet, which is almost what I need now more than music.

When you do listen to music, what’s your go-to?

No go-to. I really am an omnivore when it comes to music. This week one day there was a gentle snow falling as I was walking to work, and I was listening to Erik Satie. Another day walking to work, I just really needed to get motivated and try to find my confidence, and I was listening to Leikeli47. She’s an awesome hip-hop artist that I love. Her energy, the subtle ways that she uses her voice — or maybe the right word for it is prosody — the way that she communicates so much emotionally and culturally through these subtle inflections of her voice is creative, unique. And again, just the energy, the sort of ferocity that she comes with — just all of it. It’s hard to define. It’s this sort of X-factor thing with her. I just really love all kinds of music.

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When you’re back home in New Orleans, what do you like to do in your free time?

Working in my garden, cooking, being a mom, being outside, going for a bike ride on a beautiful day, playing with the dogs, chasing them — just the simple things. Definitely gardening is something I already really miss in New York. It’s being surrounded by green and having dirt under my nails. It’s been hard over the years because I’m the absentee gardener. I’ll go away for weeks at a time to go on tours, and nobody in my family sees the plants. So I would come home to wanton death and destruction. Summer tours are a thing, so it was hard to maintain a vegetable garden. I had just gotten into this phase where I was sort of home more than ever … [and] was just investing in my garden more than ever, and now I’m [away for] seven months. I sent my many potted plants off to adoptive homes, to foster homes. I bid good luck to many of the plants that are in the ground.

Have you noticed physical changes in your 50s, and are you doing anything differently to stay healthy?

Well, the noticing part, yes. But the being disciplined, and taking the bull by the horns, and developing new habits to counteract those things, not so much. My husband [producer-engineer-musician Mike Napolitano] goes to the gym every day without me. I’ve always been lucky that I’ve been sort of fit and don’t gain weight as easily as some, and so I’ve been able to cheat the discipline. And my job — I used to be just always on the road — so that was my gym. A lot of exercise is embedded in my performances. That just made me not have to think about it for many decades. I tour significantly less than I used to prior to this Hadestown immersion. I was still kind of in denial. This Broadway [job] is kicking my a - - , and I’m hoping that once I get in this kind of shape, I’ll be more motivated to maintain that.

You’re working on a new album, and a documentary is being made about your life [1-800-ON-HER-OWN]. Any other projects in the works?

Another children’s book. This was something I did for the first time a few years ago [The Knowing] and the second one is coming out this August [Show Up and Vote]. So I’m excited about that.

So it sounds like you don’t have plans to retire anytime soon?

Retiring from the road to some degree. But, even while I’m [in New York] doing Hadestown, I’m signed up to be an artist in residence. I’m sort of teaching a songwriting class at a [local] high school. [It’s] wonderful. … I’m entering more of an era of diversification, you know, changing it up. I need the change and collaboration, I think, because the 30 years of being Ani in the world was very solitary — I don’t know if solitary is the right word — but it was all coming from me. Now I’m collaborating in a lot of different ways with a lot of different people, and that feels exciting.

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