Ani meets me at her hotel in Camden and despite her understated
appearance of jeans and layers of knit scarves and sweaters, she
has a radiant presence. Fagin gloves half cover the guitarist's
nimble tattooed fingers, and from her neck hangs a silver pendent
in the shape of a treble clef. I somehow manage to resist the urge
to abandon any sense of professionalism and throw myself at her
feet, and we sit down - she picks a window seat - to chat.
Your new album, Which Side Are You On? has been three
years in the making! That's uncharacteristic?
Yeah! Well, I have a kid now that's about to turn five. So
that's what's slowed me down - parenting. And it's great being
slowed down if you're me. I think if I was guilty of anything along
the way, it was of moving too fast, spitting albums into the world
and then thinking about it later. So taking a few years, having to
continually step back from my work and get back to the day to day
business of raising a kid, it affords a lot of perspective that I
never would have taken for myself I think. I'm somebody who has the
blessings and the curse of living in the moment most of the time. I
think it makes me a good performer on stage - I've honed that skill
of being in the moment and reacting to the moment and just using
whatever the universe has to offer to make a show out of any given
This album is distinctly and overtly political. What
Yes, I'm mincing no words, if I ever did before! Over the years
I've become very aware of my boundary pushing role. It's part of my
job to go out on limbs and inspire others to do so.
My song Amendment [a song which reads almost as Ani's political
manifesto] was a piece of writing that I worked on for a long time,
challenging myself to go even further. Like, can you sing the word
abortion? What can you sing about? One of the things Amendment is
trying to speak to is that this issue of abortion is such a decice
of the right, to divide people. And until we codify abortion as a
civil right of women in the modern world and be done with it, it's
always going to be used to divide workers against themselves and
make them vote against their interests.
The song the album gets its title from was originally
sung by union workers. I take it you're in support of the Occupy
I am. I did visit one of the sights the other days and played
some songs. I'm very inspired by people who are bringing their
bodies to the cause of truth and awareness and willing to suffer
the elements and the abuse of a lot of people, there between the
cathedral and the stock exchange. And it's a daily reminder that
shit is fucked up. I did pick up on a lot of strife there, dealing
with the drug addicted and the homeless and the activists trying to
get their work done, there's a lot to deal with there. The
disenfranchised are coming and trying to take refuge there, and
there's an understandable friction and then a very difficult effort
to support these people. And these are exactly the people - the
left behind - that we're criticising the system for.
The song - which you've updated - was famously
revived by Pete Seeger in the '60s. And you actually got him to
play on the recorded track for you right?
It was a full circle experience for me, because I learnt the
song to play at his birthday party - a big benefit celebration in
New York. And I started to learn it, and then I couldn't help but
tinker with it and then it turned into this massive rewrite
- an updating of this old song. So I started putting it in my
live show and recorded it and I just thought wouldn't it be awesome
if Pete played on it. So we rendezvoused with him in Hudson near
his house. At this point he's probably 91 years old, and he pulls
up alone in his car and takes his banjo out the back. The whole
session was about 10 minutes long, like kind of field recording
You live in New Orleans at the moment. How does that
feature in your music?
Well, Katrina definitely blew through my last record. There's
also New Orleans in this record for sure - a song like J, which I
wrote during the oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico, which I
could smell from my porch when they were burning the oil from the
surface every day for weeks. It's definitely a very disconcerting
feeling to be breathing that smoke and everything that it speaks to
- ploughing forth in the 21st century still in the wrong
direction. Fossil fuels and nuclear power and all these incredibly
dirty outmoded industries.
There seems to be a lot of political disillusionment.
How are you feeling about American politics and Obama?
Well I'm going to vote for him next year. I'm disappointed like
many progressives that he hasn't been able to accomplish more than
he has but I very much I put the vast majority of the blame not on
him, because his hands are tied. Obama, if he's guilty of anything,
is conceding too much. He's trying too hard to build consensus with
people who are actually not interested in engaging at all in the
democratic process. It's those people who are the real criminals
and the real disease in the government. I think we have to take a
real look at the Republican strategies. They state openly their
only mission is to stop this man and anything he tries to do. I
think it should be illegal!
I've been to places in the world where people put their lives on
the line everyday for the right to vote. Like in Burma.
Were you playing there?
Not with amplification. I brought my guitar everywhere I went
and made music with people and that was a very deep lesson for me
about what music is, and why it is. I would come in as the rich
white American with an existence that's unfathomable to the person
I'm facing and vice versa. There's huge cavernous divides of
experience, and I would gather together with people in a refugee
camp, or in a displaced community hiding in the jungle, literally,
and people would speak a little bit and then the children would
stand up and sing, and as soon as they started singing, warmth
would enter the room - or hut. And then the guitar would come out
and then I'd start to sing and my travelling companions. And as
soon as we all showed ourselves through music we became human and
connected. It was like suddenly we were family, and all of those
veils of difference and separation completely fell.
There's a lot of political angst in this album, but it
no longer has the personal angst of your previous work. The
personal songs in this seem to have a sense of wholeness. Would you
say that's reflective?
I'm so grateful that I've evolved into a different place in my
relationships and I've learnt how to love and I have a family. For
those of us who come from families with bad examples - my parents
were very unhappy, and my family was not much of a family - it's
been a lot of unlearning of behavioural patterns for me. You have
to be patient with yourself and keep on it. And I lucked into a
marvelous teacher, my partner, as one of the songs say - "There's a
room in Albacore to which you hold the key." There was something
inside me that he unlocked. And that was the possibility to love
and be loved and be happy. And it's changed my whole life. I'm
healthier, my immune system functions, all of those kinds of
nagging physical issues that were starting to compound each other
have slowly dissipated as I've become happier and more content. And
I'm nicer, I'm less critical of other people. It's funny, as I was
undergoing this shift in my life, I got a lot of responses of like,
"Oh now you're all content and soft and squishy, you're going to
lose your edge aren't you?" But if you're riddled with holes that
you're desperately trying to fill, you have very little energy to
give to the world around you, to apply to a bigger cause. I think
happiness is great fuel for working for the greater good, not just
your own survival.
There's a song about age in there too, and getting
happier as you get older. For me, that struck me as a very feminist
song, because as a woman I think there's a strong narrative of
Yeah, you can smell that clinging from people a mile away, when
they think that their youth is the key to their happiness, and
artificially preserving it the key to their value. Or whatever. Boy
for me there's nothing like knowing myself. You know, it blows my
mind that I got to be at least 35 before I understood how my
reproductive system worked. I wasn't given the information. It's
kind of insane. Even keeping a menstrual chart. For instance, it's
like, woah, everybody sucks, let's consult my calendar - okay,
that's why! Okay, so let me not put it on the rest of the world.
Let me just sit with this awareness. I am feeling now the pain of
creation, the pain of nature, the pain of the universe which is
real and which women are made to feel more deeply on a daily basis
than men. And that's the blessing and the curse of being female.
Let me step back and understand this system from a broader
perspective and not create personal drama out of it.
And you're a mother now. How does your feminism inform
bringing up a daughter in this world?
So I'm raising this girl in a very genderless - not
hyper-gendered - way. The world is thrusting pink clothes in
my direction and I'm going and dying them all black, which makes
the whole family's clothes grey. Just trying to make herself aware
as a person, as a human, and not being trapped in a box of gender
earlier than need be. And then at three and a half she goes off to
preschool and five seconds later comes home a princess. It's huge!
It's deep. And it's encouraged by all the commercial forces. But
like anything it's based in a reality. There's a fundamental
difference in the nature of male and female, and that was really
reinforced by my kid. Very early on she was interested in gender -
she talked about it from the age of three, and she's now almost
five. She started with, "So mommy, you're a girl. And daddy is a
boy." And she'll go through her whole preschool class, and she'll
get to her classmates and say, "And Kayla is a girl and Christian
is a boy, but Josephine is both." Yeah, kids know everything they
need to know before it gets socialized out of them. That gender is
important, that it has to do with your essential nature, and that
it is also fluid. That is, I embody male and female, you embody
male and female, and there are different balances, and you can
change and evolve. And it's so interesting to me the way she has
just been very interested in that for years, and never once has she
brought up colour to me. Never once was there a talk of this person
is black and this person is white. I think she's aware as a very
intuitive naturally thinking human that that is not where your
fundamental nature lies. It's cool being a mom!
And what's next?
I'm going to get back on my touring horse this year. I've been
working as little as possible for as long as possible, but I've got
a new record and bills to pay! So more travelling, and
collaborating with some new musicians in New Orleans.
Oh and one more thing I forgot! I'm painting again! When I was
young I used to love to make art, visual art, and it's very nice to
get back in touch with the atrophy side of my creativity.
Touring must be tough with a young
It is hard. For the first three and a half years I brought my
daughter with me on tour. And that was wonderful and strenuous, but
now she's in school so I leave her behind. And that's hard in a
whole new way. I used to joke - but not fully joking - when people
asked me if I wanted kids some day; I'd say "Yeah, I think I'll
make a great dad some day." And now, careful what you wish for,
because that's sort of what I am! I come and go, I'm the
breadwinner of the family. And it's put a distance between me and
my family. And it's hard for her to say goodbye to her mom for a
week or two. And it's been an emotional ride, this coming and
going, for both of us. So it's a balance.
Which Side Are You On is available now
Visit Ani's site to order a copy here