Part of the fault for this strange state of affairs should be hung around DiFranco's neck. When she emerged from Buffalo, New York, at the decade's dawn, she differentiated herself from other young artists with guitars and things to say via her financial acumen. She founded her own imprint, Righteous Babe Records, and unlike the owners of most other startups, she ran hers with a savvy that would have served her well on Wall Street. She also cast her battle to survive in the music industry in David-vs.-Goliath terms (Righteous Babe's phone number is 1-800-ON-HER-OWN), thereby making fans feel that by supporting her, they were also attacking the evils of corporate America. Her campaign worked all too well: The profiles of her that appeared in Time and other major publications as the years rolled on portrayed her as more Bill Gates than Woody Guthrie, and when the brain trust at Ms. designated her one of "21 feminists for the 21st century," they based their decision on her skill with a dollar instead of her ability to turn a phrase.
DiFranco, who's in her late twenties, certainly wasn't offended by the feminist tag: "I think it's a crime that people buy into the pejorative connotation of feminism," she says. "There's one word in the English language that defines a person, male or female, who believes in the right of women to become themselves, and if you make that one word a dirty word, what are you saying about the gender dynamics of the society?" But she wrote a letter to the editor of Ms. anyway, merely to remind readers that she's a folksinger first and a businesswoman second.
"So much of the discussion of me in the media never actually gets to what I do," she laments. "What I actually do seems to be an insignificant element when it comes to some people's perceptions." Hence, a considerable slice of the public is just discovering that DiFranco, who's cranked out a dozen major recordings in only eight years, is not just an interesting story but also a major talent--arguably the most intriguing folk-based artist on the scene today. She may not be able to buy her way onto most commercial radio stations (her best-known song, "32 Flavors," was popularized by another singer, Alana Davis), but that hasn't stopped her. And it probably never will.
Even in her earliest songs, DiFranco was able to communicate her opinions about a plethora of subjects, ranging from the personal to the global, with straightforward zeal. In comparison, her music consisted of simple strumming that would have seemed relatively colorless were it not for her impassioned vocals. But DiFranco worked as hard at her tunesmithing and producing as she did at maintaining her bottom line, and the results have been inspiring. Lend an ear to her most recent platter, Little Plastic Castle, and you'll discover artistic growth in every note. Her acoustic songs, such as "Gravel" and "As Is," are more varied and more imaginatively structured than her nascent efforts, and their unassuming hooks sink deeper with each listen. Just as important, DiFranco's become a skillful manipulator of a broader musical palette than she once employed. The disc's title cut begins with deliberate picking, but it soon erupts into a delightful mash of blaring horns and skittering rhythms; "Deep Dish" sashays like a zoot-suiter on the way to the hippest joint in town; "Swan Dive" whips up a swirl of heavenly background vocals caressed by the evocative wheeze of a pump organ; and "Pulse" is a fourteen-minute-plus soundscape accented by DiFranco's concertina and the gorgeous trumpeting of Jon Hassell.
In discussing the musical leaps she's taken over the years, DiFranco is rather tentative. Part of her seems to fear that by doing so, she'll appear to be rejecting a recent past that still means a great deal to her loyal followers. But after first implying that anyone who sees big changes in her work is imagining things ("I've read in a couple of places that this is my most accessible album, and I'm not sure where that comes from"), she eventually acknowledges that she, too, can tell the difference between then and now.
"Maybe I'm a little better at recording than I was a couple years ago. I guess the naivete is waning a little bit," she says. "And musically, with each passing album, I have a different relationship with the recording studio. It's starting to seem more comfortable, and I'm starting to see more possibilities. But spontaneity is still very important to me. I know that the albums that I like to listen to are the ones where people are just going for it. I'm so uninterested in polished pop perfection. I turn on the radio, and it's not like there's a single formula for songs; there are various formulas that emerge to make these same slick songs, and I find them so dull. Production like Lee Perry's--visceral, instinctual production that's just sort of "out there"--is much more appealing to me than this sort of commercial sound. Besides, I don't think I'm capable of slick even if I tried." She laughs--a frequent occurrence during a conversation with DiFranco--before conceding, "I'm probably safe there."