"The idea came from me and my friends sitting around saying, How can we be most effective?' This is one way I can be," DiFranco says from her home in Buffalo, N.Y. "That's something I try to do in general. Be present. Be accountable to the political environment. But I do so not even as a musician or as a public person but as a citizen. I'm aware of being in the position that people think of as super powerful, but actually, we all have incredible power much of which we don't exercise, i.e., not exercising our franchise and voting.
"There's always political tabling at my shows, progressive groups of whatever sorts in the various communities come out and connect with people," she continues. "This time around, all those groups will be doing voter registration at all the shows.
"The running theme is voting and participating --" she says, her voice taking on a self-mocking tone "-- and reinvesting in democracy this fall and forever more." At the end of the sentence, she cracks up laughing.
Fans of the political DiFranco were surprised recently when shows featuring songs from her new album, Educated Guess (Righteous Babe), weren't particularly political. Critics noticed she didn't even do "Grand Canyon," a poem from the album that begins, "i love my country / by which i mean / i am indebted joyfully / to all the people throughout its history / who have fought the government to make right." For the "Vote Dammit!" tour, she says the show will be political.
DiFranco recorded Educated Guess after her lengthy relationship with New Orleans-based recording engineer Andrew "Goat" Gilchrist ended. She recorded it herself in Buffalo and in New Orleans, where she hides from the winter. "I have a little home away from home there, and I recorded maybe half that record down there on my little eight-track," she says. "I love going there when I'm not working because I can show up anytime and there's always amazing music happening. All I have to do is leave my place to be thoroughly entertained. "
She found recording an album by herself a mixed bag. "It was liberating in its nice moments and empowering, and it was also a f--king nightmare," she says. "Without having anyone else in the room, I'd lose the inspiration to even hear the sound of my own voice. I'd play the songs halfway through, I'd get to the third verse, then go, You're an asshole. OK -- I'm going to start again,' (laughs). Why even bother if you're not singing to anyone? I guess what I'm saying is I got too -- inside sometimes, but I think I had to go way deep in to come out the other side."
The album is stripped down to her voice and guitar, which posed another set of problems. "Often it's the simple ones that are harder," she says. "You're just standing there going, Was that moment OK? Was that moment OK?' Those often get scrutinized much more obsessively and thrown out again and again and again."
One such simple track is "Platform," one of three poems on the album. In it, she says, "life knocked me off my platforms / so i pulled out my first pair of boots / bought on the street at astor place / before new york was run by suits / and i suited up for the long walk / back to myself / closer to the ground now / with sorrow and stealth." The theme of rebuilding articulated in those lines is explored in greater detail and more personal terms throughout the album.
"I've given up the notion of privacy or things being too personal a long time ago," she says. "One of my creative exorcisms is to be as real as I can and connect with people on that level. There were definitely levels of intimacy or calm that I think I reached on that record just being myself without that -- " she starts mocking her voice " -- urgent, throaty, tweaked sound I get when I'm around other people. I can hear my home alone-itude in those tracks."
After the period of privacy, DiFranco's returning to public life with the "Vote Dammit!" tour. "We must change our own lives," she says. "Change the degree to which we're willing to speak up, to make somebody else in the room uncomfortable for the sake of truth or dialogue. That is what will make a social movement, not a simple gesture then going back to life as usual."