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Songwriter Ani DiFranco on 'Hadestown'


Ani DiFranco is no stranger to reinvention. Over the course of more than three decades and nearly two dozen studio albums, the folk artist has experimented with jazz, hip-hop and funk. She's even collaborated with Prince. But her biggest reinvention might be taking place right now on Broadway.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Way down, Hadestown, way down under the ground.

DETROW: DiFranco is starring as Persephone in the Tony Award-winning musical "Hadestown." The show is a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that explores love, power and even climate change. And while performing in a Broadway musical is entirely new for DiFranco, the experience is also something of a reunion. Long before its Broadway run, "Hadestown" was a concept album conceived and written by Anais Mitchell, and Ani DiFranco first sang the role of Persephone on that album.


ANI DIFRANCO: (Singing) Brother, what's my name? My name is...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our Lady of the Upside Down.

DIFRANCO: (Singing) Brother, what's my name. I'll tell you my name - Persephone.

DETROW: Ani DiFranco spoke with my colleague Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I mean, was it even a thing in your head that one day this actually was going to be a Broadway show and that you would give new life to this character on stage?

DIFRANCO: Absolutely not.


DIFRANCO: (Laughter) I - of course, I never thought I'd have kids either, and I found myself squeezing a couple out all the sudden.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DIFRANCO: It just things - you know, and preparing for this show on Broadway felt a lot like preparing for birth, too. Like...

MARTIN: Same work.

DIFRANCO: ...There's a date.

MARTIN: Oh, right. Yeah.

DIFRANCO: It's - something radical is going to happen. I really hope, you know, we all survive. But - you know, and it's not too painful. But it's just going to happen.

MARTIN: And there's, like, only so much prep you can do.


MARTIN: And you might feel like you keep needing to do other things to get ready because you know everything's going to be different on the other side. But...

DIFRANCO: And really mostly what you need to do is calm down and believe in yourself.

MARTIN: Did anyone check to see if you could dance before they gave you this role?


DIFRANCO: That is such a perfectly worded question.

MARTIN: I just feel like there might have been some producer...

DIFRANCO: Yeah. Right, yeah.

MARTIN: ...That was like, Ani DiFranco, awesome. It was meant to be. It has to happen. Can she dance?

DIFRANCO: Yeah. Folksinger, are we sure?

MARTIN: Right.

DIFRANCO: Are we sure? It was apparently Anais' idea that I be called in at this juncture once again to get involved. And Anais' only words were, I know you can dance because of all those dance parties we had on tour buses, you know?

MARTIN: Because that's the same.

DIFRANCO: Because, yeah...

MARTIN: A hundred percent.

DIFRANCO: ...Because that's the same.

MARTIN: For the record, for those who haven't seen you in this, you're good. You're real good.

DIFRANCO: Oh, shucks.

MARTIN: You have agency of your body, and you're moving it in these ways. I'm like, oh, yeah, you - this is a totally natural thing for you to move your art through your body that way...


MARTIN: ...In heels, which is not your normal footwear at all.

DIFRANCO: No, indeed.

MARTIN: Yeah. So you don't live in New York. You live in New Orleans...

DIFRANCO: In New Orleans, yeah.

MARTIN: ...And have for a long time. But New York is a big part of your origin story, your memory. I mean, those years in New York were tough. That - you were trying to...


MARTIN: ...Figure out what you were doing, and those were not easy times. And now here you are...


MARTIN: ...In this full circle kind of moment.

DIFRANCO: Yeah. I mean, I was just thinking the other night about why I stopped dancing, and it was when I moved to New York. I was 18, and I had no money. I remember going to some dance studio that I loved. I can't remember the name of the choreographer or technique, but it was - all the music was made by the teachers. They would beat out or vocalize, and it was all weird time signatures. It was all in 9 or 11, the movements and the sequences, and I was really into it. I wanted to keep pursuing dance, but I couldn't afford to take classes. And so that made me consolidate to music, you know, which I could practice all on my own.


DIFRANCO: You know, I can practice playing guitar for free and writing songs. And so that's what happened there. But yeah...

MARTIN: You just became a musical icon because it was the cheaper route, really.

DIFRANCO: It was the cheaper way. Folk music is free.


DIFRANCO: Yeah. You know, necessity is part of how we build ourselves. But yeah, just I was thinking the other night, it's amazing to be here with money to buy food...

MARTIN: Those things.

DIFRANCO: ...Wherever I want, you know? It's a whole different experience.

MARTIN: But that - Ani, I mean, I have to tell you it is a little bit of a dissonance - a cognitive dissonance for me because in my mind in my, like, 20-year-old version of me and who you were to me at that time, it was not a person who was going to star on Broadway. And we all contain multitudes, so there's no reason that you couldn't be both, like, this hardcore feminist icon and also love, like, you know, "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" or "The Music Man." I don't know. But, I mean, were you a fan of musical theater?

DIFRANCO: Not really, no. No, I'm a hard sell.


DIFRANCO: So "Hadestown" is definitely an exception. But yeah, just signing up to sing the same songs every night and in this...

MARTIN: I was thinking about that, yeah.

DIFRANCO: ...You know? I mean, touring - everything is different every day. You find yourself in a different space, in a different, maybe, country with a different - you know, it could be a rock club or a bar or a soft-seat like the Walter Kerr or an amphitheater or a church or a...

MARTIN: And you can draw on that. And that - those...


MARTIN: ...Are all inputs that affect your show.


MARTIN: And it's your show, so you can say whatever you want. But you can't really do that (inaudible).

DIFRANCO: Yep. Right. This is so different. It's about no matter what the audience is giving back or not, you scale that same peak, and you get to that same lookout. And you figure out how to go there. One of the blessings of it is it's a collective effort. I've never been on stage with so many people. Also, you know, I'm still pretty new, so I do find my awareness expanding every night. You know, I have more bandwidth to pay attention to more things as I am less just focused on getting it all right and, you know, all the instructions I've been given and all of the things.


DIFRANCO: So every night I notice a little more, and that's - you know, like, oh, look at what that person's doing while I'm doing this, you know? How interesting. Oh - you know, I remember it was about three nights in before I realized, oh, look whose hand I'm holding while I'm doing these steps that I'm not messing up, you know? Like, yeah...

MARTIN: Right. Well, not that you need me to validate you, but you're nailing it.

DIFRANCO: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: And you should be really proud of this new thing that you're doing, you know? It's cool.


MARTIN: Ani DiFranco - singer, songwriter, she is also a Broadway star. I'm just going to say it. She is starring in "Hadestown" on Broadway through midsummer. It's been a real thrill for me. Thank you, Ani.

DIFRANCO: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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