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Independent spirits
Getting to the roots of Ani DiFranco’s Knuckle Down, plus Jolie Holland comes to town

There’s never really been much question about Ani DiFranco’s integrity as an artist. From her earliest days as a punked-up folkie with an acoustic guitar, combat boots, day-glo hair, and an ambiguous sexuality through her experimentations with jam-band groovathons and jazzy improvisations, and right back to her heralded recent return to the girl-with-a-guitar singer-songwriter fold, she’s maintained a level of independence that’s almost unheard of in the music business. More important, DiFranco has made a point of creating new challenges for herself every step of the way, both in her music and through her Righteous Babe record label, which has grown from being a way for her to release her own music to becoming home to an eclectic roster of unusual artists, only some of whom share her folk-punk style.

So it comes as a minor shock to see the name of another strong-willed singer-songwriter — Joe Henry — alongside DiFranco’s in the production credits for her new Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe). It marks the first time that DiFranco has relinquished such a large degree of independence in a major creative endeavor. And yet, seen through the lens of DiFranco’s obvious need to create new challenges for herself in her work, Henry’s presence makes sense. He is on the surface the antithesis of DiFranco — a soft-spoken, easy-going, roots-rock traditionalist to her strong-willed, high-strung iconoclast. Henry, who records for Epitaph’s Anti- imprint, is a songwriter’s songwriter, a student of the craft who doesn’t show his hand so much as his handiwork. DiFranco is more a creature of instinct, an artist who lays her emotional cards on the table and lets ’em ride. What they share is a work ethic. "Those of us who have parents who are workers learn how to work," is how DiFranco puts it when I catch her at home in Buffalo, just a few days before she heads out on the tour that’ll bring her to the Orpheum on April 29. "I got pretty lucky on that front."

As DiFranco describes it, she found a soul mate in that regard in Henry when she invited him to open a couple of shows for her about a year ago. "We have synergistic personalities, so we became fast friends. We’d hang out after shows, drink wine, and talk about music. And one of the things we talked a lot about was making records. And we found out that we had really similar sensibilities. So I took that as a sign that it was time for me to come out of the self-imposed solitude I’d been in for a few years. I mean, I’ve collaborated with many different people in the past, but this is the first time I’ve had someone quote unquote ‘producing.’ "

At first, Knuckle Down shows few signs of Henry’s involvement: the disc-opening title track begins with just Ani playing fast and furious on acoustic guitar, letting out a torrential downpour of stream-of-consciousness poetry in a breathless, playful voice that latches onto random syllables and pulls them apart in a fractured falsetto: "That’s just my cowgirl alter ego/Riding on her bar-room bull/Dripping with the sweat of irony/As the cowboys whoop and drool." No signs here of Henry’s country comfort or rootsy flavorings — "Knuckle Down" is pure, undiluted DiFranco. But it isn’t long before the pace slows and some of Henry’s sonic sensibilities begin to shade the sound of the album. Violin and slow-picked acoustic guitar frame a more reflective DiFranco on the second track, "Studying Stones." "There’s never been an endeavor so strange/As trying to slow the blood in my veins/To keep my face blank/As a stone that just sank/Until not a ripple remains," she sings, and you have to wonder whether the struggle she’s describing might reflect the creative friction that results when the sensibility of an Ani DiFranco and a Joe Henry rub up against each other.

But as Knuckle Down unfolds, a certain synergy does begin to take shape. Henry and his team of backing musicians and engineers add tasteful rootsy touches to songs that are built around DiFranco’s acoustic guitar, and DiFranco tailors her lyrics and delivery to make room for Henry’s embellishments without ironing out any of her trademark idiosyncrasies. "Sunday Morning" is a simple, sensual rumination on a warm weekend day spent in bed with a lover, "Both of us reading and looking up occasionally . . . sheets still warm, kitties swarming, around our feet." The song is a custom fit for the kind of restrained atmospheric instrumental embellishments that are a Joe Henry staple, and for a string-bending guitar solo that never strays too far from the vocal melody. This isn’t Ani DiFranco’s country album, but it does find her roaming freely and quite comfortably through rootsy terrain. And it features some of her most polished lyrics and economical songwriting. It’s clear she took Henry’s æsthetic into account when she wrote the album, and that she’s risen to the challenge of impressing a fellow songwriter, even if she’s not the kind of person who’d make such a boast.

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Issue Date: February 4 - 10, 2005
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