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Why Is This Happening? Performing in a pandemic with Ani DiFranco: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Grammy award-winning musician Ani DiFranco about her creative process and what’s enabled her to keep making music after so many years.

Grammy award-winning musician Ani DiFranco joins for an enlightening conversation about her creative process, how she’s pivoted during the pandemic, and what’s enabled her to keep making music after so many years.

Note: This is a rough transcript - please excuse any typos.

Ani DiFranco: Even when you're not in your zone, when you're struggling with something, but if you're totally open and cool with that, if you accept that struggle. Like, if you can show it and you can include the audience in what you're struggling against, and your own process of when I'm on stage and it's pouring rain and the wind is whipping, my hair is down my throat, and the sound is terrible, and I'm being electrocuted, if I'm just in that thing and sharing it fully with the audience, they could get off on even that. (MUSIC)

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why is This Happening? with me, your host Chris Hayes. All right, a special treat today, very very personal introduction, all right? Ready for this? I have spoken on the show before about Kate, my wife, life partner, love of my life.

She's amazing in a million different ways. She's been on with the pod twice. Kate and I met freshman year of college. And when I met Kate, she had a shaved head and she was really kind of intimidating intellectually, 'cause she's super brilliant, and had really awesome and radical politics, and was in a period of her life where she was, like, reading a lotta feminist theory that she was sort of sharing with me.

And as one does when one is, you know, in love with a person and sort of early love particularly, there was, like, a lot of music swapping. I was very into, like, a certain kind of, like, sort of, like, boutique New York mix tape hip hop that I (LAUGH) was constantly foisting upon her.

And she was extremely into the brilliant singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco and sorta introduced me to Ani DiFranco. And I have these incredibly tender memories of, like, us listening to Ani DiFranco as we were, you know, kind of falling in love.

And I have been a huge Ani DiFranco fan ever since, through these two decades since. Kate and I met when we were 19 and we're both over 40 now. And the thing that's really remarkable to me about Ani DiFranco, and this I think is true of the conversation I had with Anna Deavere Smith, is I'm really, really fascinated by people who have obvious, like, intense, natural creative talent, but are able to take that natural creative talent and build a whole career out of it through kind of discipline and technique.

And I'm really, really obsessed with technique in whatever, you know, whatever world it is exhibited in, whatever task it's exhibited in, watching the Olympics and, like, finding it fascinating to, like, dig into the technique of swimmers or rugby players or volleyball.

And technique around creativity is particularly interesting to me, because creating things is so hard and so draining on the soul, and creating over a long period of time is really difficult. And Ani DiFranco is someone who has created an incredible body of work.

She's a poet, writer, she had a New York Times bestselling book in 2019. She's written hundreds and hundreds of songs. She's toured. She has a record label. She's mentored other folks. She's just had this incredible creative career, and I thought it would be such a treat and a delight (MUSIC) for me personally, but I think also for you, the listeners, if I could get to talk to Ani DiFranco. And so today that's what's happening. I'm very excited. Ani, it's great to have you on the program.

Ani DiFranco: Hey Chris, hi. I love that intro. (DOG)

Chris Hayes: Oh, good. (LAUGH) I'm glad.

Ani DiFranco: And so does the dog next door.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's okay, it's cool--

Ani DiFranco: Hopefully you don't mind him joining the conversation.

Chris Hayes: No, he'll be part of the convo.

Ani DiFranco: Okay, perfect.

Chris Hayes: In fact Kate, I think Kate wanted to pop in at some point, but she's picking up the kids from camp right now.

Ani DiFranco: Aww.

Chris Hayes: So let me ask you, can I start with this? Can you tell me how you learned to play guitar and play music?

Ani DiFranco: Wow, let's see. I started by taking lessons when I was a kid. And so I did learn to read music ever so briefly, and then I sort of did that for a few years, and then I put it all down. I don't know. I was moving on to other things, I guess maybe dancing.

I got really interested in dancing and dedicated my kid time and energy there, and put the guitar down. And then when I picked it back up as probably when I hit puberty, (LAUGH) and needed that guitar back, I had kind of forgotten how to read music and what I had learned maybe in those guitar lessons. But I think there was just enough of it maybe subliminally back in the back of my brain to, I don't know, take it from there and really kind of play by ear from then on.

Chris Hayes: Did you have, like, a natural musical aptitude then that you recognized? Like, I mean, I think a lotta people, you know, people can string a few chords together. I do that when I'm, like, at home playing music for my kids or whatever. But did you recognize something in yourself that took to it?

Ani DiFranco: I definitely took to it. I mean, I felt it. Aptitude, I don't know, I guess maybe that's in the ear of the beholder. (LAUGH) But I think I've come a long way, so maybe I had one part aptitude, but I think maybe even more significantly than that I just had a huge love, lust for making music for, like I talked about in my book, for you know, coming up with a chord and then putting it next to another chord.

And ooh, and then putting it next to a different chord and seeing how that feels different. And then what if you go to that chord, or what if, you know? And it was just like, it was an exploration for me, and it was a journey of discovery.

And I think I have learned a lot, way more on the journey than I sort of started out with, you know, in every way. Just about melody, about harmony, about groove. I don't think I was, like, child prodigy. I think I was (LAUGH) just so dedicated to my guitar once I really got down with it.

I didn't wanna put it down, you know? It was one of those relationships, everything that I felt and needed to process got processed through my instrument and through my voice. And so I think in that way I taught myself to be a musician more than I was born one, you know?

Chris Hayes: It's funny you say that, 'cause I think there's increasingly a school of thought that says that, you know, our notions of natural talent and aptitude are pretty misplaced, and that really a lot of times what we're identifying is someone's passion and love.

Like, people that get really good at stuff, like, the getting good at it is because they love doing it, and so they're doing it all the time, and that turns them into being good at it, as opposed to there's some, like, special, you know, part of their DNA or some special light bulb that goes off. It's like, you love doing it so you do it a lot, and then you get good at it. (LAUGH)

Ani DiFranco: Yup. I feel that, you know? And maybe that's not to say that there isn't a special ingredient in a person who goes far with something, but maybe the idea that that's special is what we could question. Like--

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Ani DiFranco: --there's actually, those special ingredients are in all of us. They're all over the place. They could, any of us could manifest in so many different ways with all the X factors. Yeah, the opportunities, the support, the, you know, just the unencumbered space for your love and your passion to grow, yeah, et cetera. Totally.

Chris Hayes: So how do you, you know, to me, one of my best friends in the world, actually a guy named Eddie Cooper who wrote the music that we play on this podcast, he's a musician and a songwriter and has a band. And, you know, to me, like, if songwriting is a skill that, like, feels to me like someone who doesn't write songs and can't write songs as, like, a superpower.

It's like meeting someone who can fly. Like, I'm just like, "Oh my, wow." And I'm like this to him, to Eddie, all the time. For him it's like you just write songs. (LAUGH) It's like, it's not that big a deal to him. To me it really does feel like magic. What's different now about how you write songs and how you wrote them when you first were noodling around with chords? Like, what's changed over time?

Ani DiFranco: I think, I gotta say, I've been writing songs, like you said, I've written hundreds for ooh, I don't know, at least 30 years. And I think of it as kind of a superpower too. Like, (LAUGH) that is, that's my superpower, dammit. That is it. That is--

Chris Hayes: It is. I think of--

Ani DiFranco: --I gotta have, everybody needs one--

Chris Hayes: --yes. It is a superpower.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, yeah. And but you know, like any superhero, you know, there's a learning curve. You know, we don't all fly straight and high (LAUGHTER) in the beginning. And I think, you know, I think a lot of things have changed along the way, and changed back again, and changed again.

And, you know, but I think one thing that's kind of been developing is I'm less easily satisfied. (LAUGH) So I hope that, you know, in one sense I wish, like, on one hand sometimes I wish it got easier, you know? Like, why isn't it getting easier?

Why isn't it automatic now after 30 years. (MAKES NOISE) There's a song. (MAKES NOISE) Ah, perfect. (MAKES NOISE) You know? It's almost like in some ways it gets harder. It gets harder because my standards get higher, and that's a good thing. And that's my hope.

I mean, I know that that is as true as anything else, and yeah, I think I can look back at some of my older songs and see where I cut corners or got impatient, you know? And that kills me. And I just don't wanna do that anymore. So I really, I make sure now that I agree with myself with every word and every moment.

Chris Hayes: I think, you know, at some level, right, any creative process that is effortless is probably not really working. (LAUGH) Like, you know, that I mean, hard things are hard to do, and doing things well is hard to do. You know, I was just working on a piece of writing, and I had a very stuck day writing.

And I was like, "Ugh, have I forgotten how to write?" And then I was just sort of reminding myself that every good piece of writing I've ever done has felt (LAUGH) hard at the time. And if it's not feeling hard, then there's something kind of missing I think a little bit.

Ani DiFranco: Hmm. Well, yeah. I know what you're saying. I mean, I would hope for all of us creatives, or I mean, I guess every human is creating something, you know, that we should be gifted moments where it's effortless, you know? Or where it feels that way, where we don't have to try so hard and we can just soar.

But then when that moment is done, there comes the next moment. And then sometimes you have to look at what you did, or scrutinize it, or improve upon, question yourself, or move on to the next level of doing what you do where you're not gonna be soaring for a while, or you're gonna just be sore.

Or, you know, (LAUGH) I think that, like, a moment of effortlessness is not necessarily an indication that you're coasting or that you're shirking your responsibility to grow. It might just be one of those beautiful moments that you've earned. But it won't last, (LAUGH) you know.

Chris Hayes: You started performing very early. Did you immediately like performing? Or did it take some overcoming to feel comfortable in front of people?

Ani DiFranco: I would say door number two more. I mean, I think I immediately needed it. I mean, I think my need to connect with people, which I, whatever, found this context of performing music in order to reach out and touch people and feel them and feel them feel me, and feel seen, and feel connected to people.

And that's what I really needed. So I was searching for that through performing music. The being on display part, the being on stage part, the performing part of performing was hard, and I sucked. I super sucked. (LAUGH) And for a while, like, a while.

And people, you know, it's not just whatever, my humility. It wasn't, I wasn't a natural extrovert or ham bone or confident. And people did reflect back to me in the early days, either verbally or just with their energy, like, "Ugh, will you stop?"

I was very self deprecating. That was the way I dealt with feeling so insecure. I would just put myself down. And that's a horrible thing to keep foisting on an audience. It just makes them wanna like, "Ugh, you just, I just, just (LAUGH) stop. Just stop. Just stop." So--

Chris Hayes: It's so true. It's funny, self deprecation works with audiences if it's coming from a person who's actually supremely confident.

Ani DiFranco: Right.

Chris Hayes: Because then it feels--

Ani DiFranco: You can laugh--

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Ani DiFranco: --with them, yes.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Then they're laughing with them and they're in control.

Ani DiFranco: Yes.

Chris Hayes: But if it comes from a person who is actually not confident, it's extremely (LAUGH) difficult to be in the presence of.

Ani DiFranco: Right. It is the opposite of what we search for in our performers. We want to see somebody free. We want to see somebody who doesn't give a (MAKES NOISE), who is just in their body and in the moment and doesn't care what people think.

Chris Hayes: And in control. I mean, that's such a huge part of that relationship between performer and audience is the joy and the thrill of watching someone in total control.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Because that's liberating for the audience, because we spend so much of our lives, you know, figuring out what we're doing in our own neuroses. And so when you're in the presence of someone, it's like you're being liberated (LAUGH) by their confidence and presence.

Ani DiFranco: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Totally. And I would add to that, 'cause I don't always, certainly I don't always feel in control or in my zone when I'm onstage, unfortunately. I wish I could say that I was. But I have heard also reflected back from people that just, even when you're not in your zone, when you're struggling with something, but if you're totally open and cool with that, if you accept that struggle.

Like, if you can show it and you can include the audience in what you're struggling against, and your own process of when I'm onstage and it's pouring rain, and the wind is whipping, my hair is down my throat, and the sound is terrible, and I'm being electrocuted, if I'm just in that thing and sharing it fully with the audience, they could get off on even that.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I'm gonna ask you, so I just wanna make a disclaimer here, I might ask you some personal questions which you obviously don't have to answer if they're too personal, A. And B, some questions that might seem like preposterously banal, but I'm curious. (LAUGH)

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, nothing's off limits with me.

Chris Hayes: Okay. So on the second part, so like, I was thinking about our conversation today and I was like, "Well, what's a work day? What does Ani DiFranco's work day look like?" Like, you know, how do you structure what you're doing? And how do you structure the time to write songs? And is it, you know, there's a certain time? Or is it when the spirit moves you? Like, what does your day look like as Ani DiFranco? (LAUGH)

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. That's a question I've, actually it's funny you should ask 'cause I've been asking myself that question lately. Because I've just moved into a new space with my family, and a new house, and there's this shack on the other side of the property that is Mommy's workspace, right?

Okay, great, this was the plan all along. That'll be my space. And I'm just, as we've now moved in, I'm realizing wait, I can't, you know, this shack, that can't be my only workspace. I have to get, wait, what do I really do? I think I was thinking of myself 20-30 years ago.

"What I do is I sit and I feel my feels and I write songs." (LAUGH) That, unfortunately, I am 50 now and that's, like, 5% of what I do, you know? So I've been having to get real. I need an office. It needs to be connected to the studio, to the rest of the house, with everything in it, with the mailing supplies, and the thing, and a hard drive with the thing on, and the thing, and the computer, and the laptop, and the thing, and the other strings for the thing. And the idea that I could do my daily office job (LAUGH) part of being Ani out in the shack is not (LAUGH) tenable. And I'm realizing, you know, like, right, okay, so I guess the majority--

Chris Hayes: Just a room and a guitar.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, you know? Exactly. And like, a loaf of bread (LAUGH) or something, and a bottle of wine. No. I wish I could say that was my songwriter existence. But the songwriter rarely gets to get on her horse and ride around at all anymore. In fact, I'll tell you what, on tour is when I mostly get creative time.

There's a lot of downtime on the road between sound checking and interviewing and gigging, so that is when I can play guitar now. When I'm home, a day in the life is overwhelmed by children, (LAUGH) by momming, by all of that. And then there's, of course, the emails.

There's all the side hustles that I'm trying to diversify my income with, especially post-pandemic when my touring income ground to a very sharp halt, and it was a very big deal for my operation, because I'm the breadwinner. So, you know, these days a day in the life involves working on a children's book.

It involves working on a musical. It involves all kinds of associations with other musicians and their records and their projects and their books and their, you know, so it's like many people's, a constant deluge of emails, and writing, and thinking, and developing projects.

Chris Hayes: So you just said something that I've read in other interviews in the pandemic and I wanted to ask you about, so I'm glad you brought it up, which is I came across an interview you were talking about, and you're talking about touring income.

And, you know, that's how you make money. That's a big part of how you support your family. And obviously in the pandemic that dried up. And I had this weird thought of, like, "Oh, right." Like, it just never occurred to me, like, "Well, how does Ani DiFranco make money?" Like, you know, (LAUGH) I think you exist in my head as this presence outside of, like, the banal realm of, like, you know, electricity bills--

Ani DiFranco: Of paying bills.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, exactly.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, (LAUGH) yeah, sure, sure.

Chris Hayes: And it connected to something else that I think about a lot, which is just, like, what the economics of music are like now. I mean, obviously they've changed so radically. My sense from the musicians I know in my life is that touring really has become kind of the main lifeblood of a lot of musicians, if not most. And I've got to imagine that the pandemic was just brutal for that.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. Yeah, big, big, big shock to the system. You know, I mean, I have been blessed with a live audience that's still there for me to go and play to after all these years, and so I keep doing it and I keep loving it. But I am getting a little exhausted, again, of the travel aspect, you know, that I need to go travel, physically drive town to town to sing for my supper.

And I think most of that has to do with being a mom, you know? It's so hard to come and go from my kids and keep the stability, keep the bond, keep the vibe, keep the flow going. It's very disruptive. And so I was already on the tip of trying to devise a way that the bread and butter can come not all from playing shows.

And then, of course, the pandemic was like, surprise, (LAUGH) figure it out yesterday. You know, so yeah, in one sense it's a great blessing to have an audience and be able to go and be a working musician. And no complaints. You know, of all the jobs that one could have in this world, I am so grateful.

But it's also become hard over the years, you know? And so yeah, I'm, like, trying to diversify how Ani pays the bills. It's been really challenging. In one sense it's like, I almost think, "Jeez, I'll just go get on another plane," because at my age to reinvent it all, to get right back to the hustle is also exhausting. But, you know, that's life. And I think we all have been challenged by this pandemic.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. What you just said about travel, I mean, I am not a traveling musician. But, you know, in different phases of my life I've had to travel a fair amount. Campaign years tend to be pretty brutal for that. And I've found with young kids, the older I've gotten, and the young kids, you know, there used to be part of travel that felt, you know, work travel felt, like, kind of fun.

And sometimes it would take you places you haven't been, and there was, like, a little bit of a thrill of being in a hotel, and maybe I would, like, order some room service. (LAUGH) And just all of that has just completely curdled for me, and I don't (LAUGH) enjoy any of it. And I don't--

Ani DiFranco: Curdled.

Chris Hayes: --I don't like being away from my family and my kids really very much at all.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, yeah--

Chris Hayes: So I can imagine that, you know, it's a lot harder to do that when you've got little ones at home.

Ani DiFranco: Yes. Exactly. I think I feel exactly as you just expressed, you know? And I imagine that without kids I could keep that romance going more. I could still find a new place or I could still find a thrill in being on the lam, and I could still.

But the pull of, I mean, for me definitely having this last year where I kept my plants alive, I didn't have to come home to my dead, beloved plants. And I kept my relationship with my kids alive, and I was here for every dinner. And it just, there's nothing worth that, even the best job.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I had a very similar realization, because I just have seen my kids more in the last 18 months than I had for the previous seven years working on the job, mostly because I miss dinner every night, so I come home after they're in bed. And yeah, it really, really changes things.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after this quick break.

Chris Hayes: You left home really early. Like, sort of shockingly early, at 15. Is that right?

Ani DiFranco: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Can you tell me how that came about?

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. I mean, in a nutshell my parents had split, I was living with my mom in Buffalo, where I grew up. And she took a job in Connecticut and decided she was just gonna reinvent her life in a very different place. And this was an area of Connecticut, it was sort of rural, small town-ish.

It was not where I wanted to be. (LAUGH) So I stayed behind. So that was, I didn't, I couldn't see myself moving in with my father and brother for reasons I won't go into, and I couldn't see myself moving to rural Connecticut with my mother.

So at 15, you know, I was already playing music. I had a band. I had gigs. I had a life. I had a job. So I stayed and I just made a go of it at that point. And my mother, you know, I was already very self-sufficient. So the situation was just accepted by her.

Chris Hayes: I mean, 15 is young.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. Yeah, it was a weird journey up till then, definitely an unconventional childhood. When I was nine, my brother went to a hospital in Boston. Again, we were living in Buffalo. And this hospital required my parents to be there twice a week for meetings and to be a part of his healing.

So they, actually for a good spell, like, when I was nine, ten, 11, before they split up, they were gone most of the week. So I went from being a latchkey kid that came home and let myself in, because I had two working parents, to kind of being alone in my house. I mean, I stayed with friends mostly when they were gone during the week, but so there was already a trajectory towards self-sufficiency for me. So yeah, it was weird.

Chris Hayes: Does that, I mean, I wonder how that, how does that impact your perspective now that you're a parent, a mom?

Ani DiFranco: Well, it's mind blowing for sure, because I have a 14-year-old daughter who can't use the toaster by herself. (LAUGHTER) You know? So I don't know what happened in one generation that we should go from one extreme to the other.

Chris Hayes: I literally had this conversation with peer parents in which we were literally saying this, that like, it feels like, like, I remember our, I'm a little younger than you but not a ton, I'm in a sort of similar cohort. And, you know, you I remember going to kids' houses when we were, like, seven or eight. They let themselves in with their keys. We would, like, climb up on the counter to get the snacks. You know, and no one's, like, parents were around (LAUGH) ever.

Ani DiFranco: Yup, yup.

Chris Hayes: And that I think was, like, a bit much. That seemed like a little on the low touch end. And then now I feel like it is the opposite. It's just, like, complete high touch, almost kind of cosseted expectations of presence of parents in kids' lives. And I totally agree that it has really swung a lot (LAUGH) in those generational shifts.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, yeah, that is wild isn't it? And I mean, as a parent I have to say, my instinct is not to be a helicopter. I'm the type that yeah, let 'em walk on the wall and they'll fall. They're not gonna die, it's only five feet up, right? They might hurt themselves.

And you gotta learn to cut with a knife, and you gotta learn to use the scissors, and you gotta learn to (MAKES NOISE), you know? And I think I very instinctually and/or intentionally, you know, go, "Yeah, I'm not gonna entertain you all the time, go figure it out, you know, and go out of my sight."

And so I'm not the super helicopter parent. And yet here I have a kid who's much younger at 14 than I. And it's mind blowing to me. And I mean, I have to look around, I guess, at the whole world and see how radically it has changed. Like, I've moved into the neighborhood of my kids' school.

So these kids are gonna start walking to school about five blocks, which these days, you know, which I'm thrilled about and I think will breed independence. You know, but it's not the world of when we were kids walking to school. This is not an entirely safe neighborhood.

There are incidents. There is violence. There's guns everywhere. There's not a fabric of community with eyes on your kids for that whole five blocks. So that's a different equation than when we were young, you know? So what looks like the identical circumstance is inherently different, so I don't know.

Chris Hayes: I'm curious, your sort of political formation too at that time, because I feel like, you know, you were very young. At 15, you know, you decided to stay in Buffalo. You ended up going down to New York City. You're performing. And very early on have, you know, a very clear set of political commitments, principles. Did those come from your parents at all? How did those develop?

Ani DiFranco: Definitely. Yeah. I did not arrive upon my wokeness on my own, to whatever degree I am awake. My parents were old school in some sense. They were older, literally. My mom was 50 and my dad 60-ish when I was born, you know?

Chris Hayes: Oh wow.

Ani DiFranco: So no, sorry, 40 and 50. But, which was unheard of at that time, 50 years ago, you know? Like, everybody thought they were my grandparents. So in one sense they were old, but in another sense, very forward thinkers, bless 'em. Holy cow were they progressive.

Even, you know, the Italian immigrant that was my father, and then my mother is basically a Canadian immigrant. But they were just aware people, very progressive, very engaged, especially my mother. Very engaged. And I think just gave me a bedrock for understanding my citizenship, for understanding that I was part of something bigger, and that there was work to be done. That there was something to be accountable to that was bigger than me. There was a society. There was a nation. There was a community, a culture. And this was all very real to me from the beginning.

Chris Hayes: What was your relationship like with them as you got older?

Ani DiFranco: They were very supportive. You know, and like, as we were saying, like, very, you know, it was beyond leniency. Like, very early on they weren't granting me permission (LAUGH) to be me, to live, to do my thing. It was just happening. So in that sense, you know, that was a form of support, of just like, "You do you. You got it, I trust you."

You know, that is a big thing to communicate to a kid, and they did that. So that, you know, that carried through even as I, probably in my late teens, in my 20s, sometimes worried them from afar I'm sure. You know, but they never tried to clamp down.

They never tried to, you know, take control at any point or tell me how to do my life. They just remained supportive from afar. So it was always, you know, and sometimes that literally, blessedly, translated into money. Like, I would go visit my mom and she'd always hand me some cash before I left, you know? Just like, without saying anything, without making a deal, without shaming me or making me feel I owed her one, just like, "Here kid." You know, so the relationship was always pretty great.

Chris Hayes: When you were, you know, a sort of independent kind of folk singer/songwriter starting, 18, 19, 20, you know, there was a sense I think that your politics were sort of completely antithetical to, you know, the establishment, for lack of a better word.

Ani DiFranco: The "Me" generation.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, totally. (LAUGH)

Ani DiFranco: The '80s, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And then, you know, there's a sort of, I'm really curious how you think about the arc of the kind of politics that you've held for your life over the last 20 years, where there's this strange thing in which in some ways it feels like they've become much more mainstream. There's other ways in which, like, you know, they also feel like they're kind of co-opted sometimes.

Like, you can imagine, like, Raytheon tweeting an Ani DiFranco (LAUGH) song or something. You know? Like, or like, you know, Boeing is, like, you know, they've got their tweet about whatever LGBT pride. Or like, there's ways in which the kind of strongly kind of anti-commercial, you know, anti-capitalist and left, radical vision that has animated you was so sort of outside the mainstream.

And parts of it have kind of been brought into in ways that I think represent progress, but also kind of troubling. I don't know, I'm sort of having a hard time articulating this, but it was something that I wanted to talk to you about because you've watched the arc of this over the last several decades.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. I think you're doing a fine job-- (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Thank you.

Ani DiFranco: --of speaking to it, sir, and I agree. But I guess my perspective would be that I will take the degree of co-optation for the ever-expanding, you know, embracing of diversity, for the ever-expanding awareness of diverse realities and lives and existences and perspectives. I mean, I never could've imagined at age 18, 20 that the words "white supremacy," for instance, would be spoken on the TV every day. It's incredible.

Chris Hayes: Right?

Ani DiFranco: It's so great. I mean, the fact that, let alone "gender diversity," or you know, whatever it is. You know, I hope we get to the word "patriarchy" soon. And I just, I can't believe that the things that me and the crazies or the sidelined, the marginalized peoples have been talking about all along are beginning to enter the dominant discourse.

I just think it's incredible. I just am so, you know, and people, you know, and we should talk about these things, the tension between, you know, the blossoming of it in the culture and the co-optation of it, you know? And really try to stay vigilant and not just be a soundbite, but really get behind the ideas behind these words, and really bring those out as well.

You know, and people, you know, when they say, "What do you think about Beyoncé flashing 'feminist' behind her?" I mean, you know, like, sort of, which I'm not saying is what you were doing, but fishing for some level of criticism. You know, "Is that really feminist? Should it, is that just," no.

From me, the idea that Beyoncé would identify as a feminist hugely, publicly, in lights, is so great. It's so beautiful. And whatever degree of suspicion we're gonna have along the way that people are, that there's lip service happening here or there, or they're not following through, is nothing compared to even maybe the first step of collectively embracing the language, the language of change. If we can't say the words, we can't embody the concepts. So if we start by saying these words together, we're on the path.

Chris Hayes: I think that's an extremely wise (LAUGH) way of looking at it. And I mean, partly I'm biased because I think that's my sort of way of looking at it too. But I also think there is something interesting, which is that I think part of this grew out of the politics of punk, to a certain amount.

But I think in the late '80s and '90s particularly, there's real fixations on authenticity and, like, and selling out versus not selling out, which I feel like was one generation's ago version of some of the kind of, like, you know, factional disputes about who is on what side of which line ideologically.

That was our version, you know? And I do think that that, like, that has bled out a little bit in a sort of useful way. But I think that, like, I do think, you know, this is clear in your most recent album, Revolutionary Love, and you've said it in other interviews about just, you know, trying to be both, you know, the different squaring of the circle that comes from being principled and righteous and militant in what you believe in, and also not being, like, a judgmental asshole who is alienating and constantly finding ways to, like, cut people out as opposed to bring them in.

Ani DiFranco: Yup. Yeah, wow, it's funny, you're asking, I don't know, I love what you're bringing up. It's connected I feel like to things I've been thinking about lately. I had a conversation where I was trying to build a bridge, I was trying to build a bridge of understanding between two very disparate perspectives.

And I was very strategic in what I expressed, in how I expressed it. And I spent the rest of the day reeling because I suppressed my urge to get angry, to go on the attack, to point the finger, even though I felt outraged at a lot of moments, and I felt the residual, you know, just outrage.

And I spent the day questioning what is it to be, yeah, this business of authentic versus strategic? And how do you find that balance? Because just screaming, "How could you? You should be ashamed," (LAUGH) you know, is not gonna get us where we need to be together, right?

So yeah, it was incredibly humbling. But you know, my poet's brain, when life gets really hard for me in these moments of, like, trying to communicate in effective or useful ways, you know, and utilize my outrage without having it overwhelm the situation, or thwart the bridge being built, you know, my sort of, my brain leans towards metaphor, towards analogy.

And I try to see everything as an exercise of living and feeling and understanding beyond myself. I just thought about okay, so wow, this is a little inkling of what it might be to be Black in America, for instance, to be subject to an assumed authority, an assumed power that has legit power over you, that you have to, you know, you have to engage with.

But are they really more powerful? Is their authority legitimate? The humility it takes to engage with that power and to try, in every moment, to not let your outrage, you know, hit the face of that other person so that they can, and to do everything you can to be heard, to be seen.

The humility, you know, that was what I was trying to access. And I think those are great exercises for me, Ani. This is the work you need to do, you know, to more deeply understand what it is like to have to answer to someone. You know, I've led an incredibly free, incredibly privileged life, you know? But like most of us, I am not totally free. I am not totally, you know, I do have to answer to certain things, to certain forces, to certain people. And those are our workshops, you know? It often starts with our families, right?

Chris Hayes: Well, it's funny you say that, because a Dylan line I always quote, I quote, I'm sure Tiffany who's listening, because I've quoted it in editorial meetings, is that, you know, you're gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, it may be the lord, (LAUGH) but you're gonna have to serve somebody.

And, you know, that's, I mean, that's a real lesson of adult life is that no matter what you think about freedom, there's no such thing in any purse sense, because there's gonna be obligations and dependencies, and you're gonna have to negotiate them. And that's just an unavoidable part of being a human being. And sometimes those can get, I think particularly if you're, like, a creatively-minded and independent person, (LAUGH) can be really tough to deal with.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, yeah. But I do hope that, you know, I'm getting closer to my humility every day, you know? I feel that way. And I hope that I can bring more of it into my songs, you know? And which is not to say that my youthful frickin' rage was not also very good, useful, powerful energy.

Chris Hayes: Oh yeah--

Ani DiFranco: And I think useful that when you're so sure of yourself, and you have something to say, and you wanna say it so loudly, and that's essential for change in our society. But I think as, now that I'm getting older, I have new ingredients to work with, and I don't have as much of the old ingredients.

And so I'm hoping that, you know, I think you can hear it on my new record, that, you know, I'm trying to make sure I'm singing from the same level as anybody who might choose to listen. I'm not putting myself above. You know, I want to stay open to everybody. That's the sort of revolutionary love that I'm questing for.

Chris Hayes: You're working on a children's book?

Ani DiFranco: I am.

Chris Hayes: That sounds fun.

Ani DiFranco: It is. I'm not gonna draw this book, which I was disappointed by. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Oh, did someone have to--

Ani DiFranco: My publisher--

Chris Hayes: --break that news to you?

Ani DiFranco: Yes, (LAUGH) they did. (CLAPPING) My publisher came along and said, "Well, we're gonna," you know, again, I've been working on all these side hustles. And they're like, "Okay, yeah, we'll get behind your book. Here's a little advance. But we're gonna get a professional illustrator, okay?"

And I was like, (MAKES NOISE). But I did have fun writing the words, and I actually wrote a song that is gonna also be a book. I was trying to just make a book, and then, you know me, it just ended up, the task was to make a lullaby book. And so I literally made a lullaby. But I think I'm pretty pleased with, I think it really works as a book and a song. So I'm excited.

Chris Hayes: I think every parent has, you know, when you become a parent you start discovering, you know, really rediscovering children's books, obviously. You're reading them to your kids. And you get really into the ones that you love. And you also find that, like, I found that with kids books, A, there's a huge variety.

Like, some are great, and some are really not. And then there's also a crazy stickiness, where like, there'll be a book, like, my favorite example of this is Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, which is, like, this very simple, silly conceit that, like, is just wildly sticky with my kids. Like, they all loved it. They all wanted to read it a million times. There's a kind of magic that's a little like songwriting, because--

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, definitely.

Chris Hayes: --like, a song can be really simple and just stick. And not even be, like, it could be a simple three chord song, like a million other three chord songs written before it, but stick. And like, kids books are the same way. It's like some kinda alchemy that makes a great kids book versus a not great kids book. But it's unclear sometimes what it is. But then you show it to kids and it's like, whoa. Like, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is just a great kids book. I don't know why.

Ani DiFranco: Yeah. For reals, I know. I don't think I understand that alchemy any more than you do, pal. So it's fascinating, it's challenging. I don't know if I'll make something that connects, but yeah, I mean, Mo Willems, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, he's got it.

Chris Hayes: He does, yes.

Ani DiFranco: He's the rock star--

Chris Hayes: Yes, correct, yes.

Ani DiFranco: Not since Dr. Seuss have we been so--

Chris Hayes: He's got it. I don't know what it is.

Ani DiFranco: He's got it, yeah. And it really, yeah, and like you say, you don't need a lotta words. You don't need sophisticated concepts to tap into something so deep, you know? "I just kissed my baby, I feel like a king." You know, and it's like you're in that moment, you know? I'm jumping. (LAUGHTER) But, you know, it's just like there's a way that you can say it and deliver it that connects, and he's got it for reals. We'll see if I have any feel for the kids book oeuvre.

Chris Hayes: Is music, playing music, and writing songs something you just think that will be a part of your life no matter what stage of your life you're in?

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. I really do. Yes, I think so, you know? As long as the universe allows it. Like, even as overwhelmed as I've been lately, and just bogged down in the grind and the multitasking, you know, like, I'll stop and I'll get the far away look, and I'll type into my phone an idea that came to me.

And I get so excited. I get so excited still by the possibility of making that idea into a song, of building on it, of, you know, I just felt it the other day. And so I know that that, and like you said, I too am, like, getting more and more off on having a craft that I've honed for 30 years. And to be able to do that thing that you've practiced so much, and failed at so much, and grown through so much, it's still thrilling.

Chris Hayes: Ani DiFranco is a Grammy Award-winning musician, singer/songwriter, founder of Righteous Babe Records. Her newest album released in January is Revolutionary Love. Author of No Walls and the Recurring Dream, (MUSIC) which was released in 2019. It's a New York Times bestseller. And author of a forthcoming children's book, which we'll see.

Ani DiFranco: Yes, that's right.

Chris Hayes: We'll see if it's any good. You just never know. (LAUGH)

Ani DiFranco: Yeah, right.

Chris Hayes: Thank you. Thank you so much--

Ani DiFranco: We can't tell--

Chris Hayes: --that (LAUGH) was such a pleasure.

Ani DiFranco: Oh, thank you. The pleasure was mine.

Chris Hayes: Once again, huge, huge, huge thanks to Ani DiFranco. That was really a trip. That was really, really cool. I tried to keep it together, I think I did a pretty good job. You can tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com.

Why Is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway. It features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.