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Maker Interview: Ani Difranco & Brian Grunert

by Maxwell Tielman

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Image above: Photograph by Charles Waldorf.

It’s no secret that we love a good DIY story here at Design*Sponge, and there are few that compare to singer/songwriter Ani Difranco’s. The veritable high priestess of the Do-It-Yourself ethos, Difranco began her wildly prolific career as a teenager in the early 90s, singing and performing poetry at open-mic nights and releasing self-produced albums under her own record label—Righteous Babe Records. Equal parts introspective self portraiture and political commentary in the vein of Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger (with a bit more punk, funk, and jazz tossed into the mix), Difranco’s music is as varied and rich as the life that it sprang from.

I found my way into Ani Difranco’s massive legion of fans somewhat unexpectedly, when a copy of her 1999 album To The Teeth wound its way into my Christmas stocking. A far cry from the pseudo-girl power sold by my other favorites of the time, The Spice Girls, Ani’s musical ponderings on patriarchy, women’s rights, and political injustice struck a strong chord with me. After that, I became quite the devoted fan, plastering my 12-year-old bedroom with posters of the so-called “little folksinger,” lining up at record stores at midnight for new albums, and blasting tracks like “Subdivision” through my bedroom window onto the street (which, in retrospect, was probably a little obnoxious). Even today, in the age of the download, I continue to purchase Ani’s physical albums (Brian Grunert’s stunning packaging designs are some of the best in the biz!), thumbing through the liner notes while listening to each song.

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Images above: The packaging design for Ani’s eighteenth studio album, Allergic To Water.

The beautiful thing about Ani’s music, as many fans will attest, is that it seems to grow alongside you—and listening to it is almost like having a conversation with an old friend. With each new record release, we meet a slightly different person with slightly different perspectives on life, love, and happiness. Although her career over the past two decades has been a near-constant stream of recording and touring, the present day finds Ani in a decidedly more subdued place—living in New Orleans with her husband and their two children, recording music only when the timing is opportune. The singer’s latest release Allergic To Water (out today) is her first album in nearly two years and is very much a reflection of these changes in her life. More introspective and bare-bones than ever, Allergic To Water finds the singer at her most self-assured and self-aware, settling into a long sought-after comfort zone. The politics and social commentary are present, but engrained into larger themes, ones that seem simultaneously personal and universal.

While records like 2001’s Reveling/Reckoning found the singer in a frenetically creative place, Allergic To Water is in many ways Difranco’s minimalist album—a pensive, meditative look into her current mindset. Everything about the album, from its lyrical scarcity to its stark-white embossed packaging, hints at a desire for simplicity, something that is echoed lyrically in songs like “Dithering” (a tongue-in-cheek musing on media burnout) and “Genie” (an upbeat ode to letting go). Paired with beautiful, slow melodies that seem like the sonic equivalent of a rainy day, the end result is remarkably beautiful.

We are so thrilled that Ani, along with her album designer Brian Grunert, were able to take some time to answer a few of our questions about the new record. Continue after the jump to read more! —Max

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Image above: Photograph by Charles Waldorf.

 

Part 1: Ani Difranco

 

DS: Your life has changed dramatically since you first launched your career in 1990. What is a day at home with Ani DiFranco like these days?

Ani: These days I get to do my thing between 11 am and 2 pm (baby nap time) which today means turning an old trumpet into a sculpture (painting, gluing stuff to it) for an auction. Roots of Music is an awesome free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans, and they’re having an auction Nov. 7th as part of  their annual benefit.  Dr John and Quintron are also doing art projects with instruments that are no longer playable.

 Your latest album Allergic To Water is out today. It’s the first album in nearly a decade that has been completely produced and mixed by you. While there are some similarities to your previous self-produced effort, Educated Guess, the sound on Allergic To Water seems decidedly different. What informed the sonic quality on this particular album?

Educated Guess was a truly solitary endeavor, while Allergic To Water was much more collaborative.  Educated Guess was a solo album recorded and mixed at home in Buffalo on a four track reel to reel. Allergic To Water features me and my band, and was recorded in New Orleans by my ace recordist husband Mike Napolitano (except for a few tracks by Andy Taub).

While you have long been a proponent of embracing happiness, the tone of Allergic To Water seems notably, unabashedly optimistic in comparison to previous releases. Is this due to a new or different worldview on your part?

What can I say, I’m just happy all the time!

The first track released from Allergic To Water was “Woe Be Gone,” a song that informs the tone of much of the album. Can you tell us a little bit about this particular song and what inspired you to write it?

 “Woe Be Gone” expresses some revealing concepts that I encountered in a book called The Alphabet Verses the Goddess by Leonard Shlain. The book posits that the invention of the written word ushered forth the reign of left brain intelligence which then became the inventor of everything in the modern world. The book and the song are both optimistic about the reactivation of our right brain consciousness and the healing effects it will have on society.

 There are a number of symbolic devices that you have gravitated towards throughout your career. Many songs from the last decade (“Seeing Eye Dog,” “78% H2O,” and the title track of your latest albumemploy water as a metaphor. Can you tell us a little bit about this choice of imagery and what it means to you?

 I have noticed that there is a lot of water in my songs and poems. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because water embodies the feminist principle of flux and flow, and therefore is inherent to my nature.

 Your recent music, especially several of the songs from your previous album, Which Side Are You On? deal explicitly with the problems of contemporary consumer culture. I was especially struck by the lyrics in Zoo, which point to the feelings of being unable to escape what could be viewed as capitalism’s “prison.” Songs on Allergic To Water express similar sentiments, ones that I think many Americans, myself included, grapple with. As far as existing within our contemporary world, what sort of choices do you make as an individual so that your lifestyle is able to coexist with your ideals?

I don’t really buy a lot of stuff anymore (except for my kids…goddamn kids).

 In your earlier work, you make reference to an almost nomadic lifestyle, free from many material goods. As time has marched on, however, your music seems to reflect a person that has laid her roots down a bit more, embracing the small, beautiful moments that one finds at home. Has your connection with objects or “things” changed, as well? What are some objects or mementoes that you hold dear?

I inherited a lot of beautiful objects from my mother. Things that were obtained from trips to the Middle and Far East a century ago by missionary relatives. It is a cool thing to have old and storied objects passed down through families, and I’m glad to have them. But as far as acquiring more stuff, I feel quite done. (Except for my kids…goddamn kids.)

 I’ve always been a fan of the visual design that accompanies your albums, from the hand-scrawled liner notes of your earlier work to the paper-based packages of recent years. You seem to be a visual person, so it makes sense that you would want your music to translate into a visible, tangible object. Your last several albums have been designed in collaboration with Brian Grunert of Buffalo’s White Bicycle design firm. What is your design collaboration process like? What is the end goal when creating the physical look and feel of an album? Is there anything in particular that you wanted Allergic To Water’s design to project that is different from your previous albums?

 I’ve worked with Brian for many years and we have a friendship and understanding that is helpful for collaboration. Our process has whittled down to: I come with basic concepts, Brian develops them in a myriad of heady, thoughtful, conceptual ways, and then I shoot down all those ways but one. All my albums are different.

Many of your followers and fans have grown accustomed to a whiplash, album-a-year release schedule from you. Allergic To Water, however, has a relaxed, at-ease quality about it—a sense of finality almost. As the song “Genie” hints, you seem less interested in the “what’s next” and more interested in settling into the rhythm of everyday life. I’m curious about where you see your music and your personal evolution going from here. At the risk of sounding overly trite, where do you see yourself in a few years?

 A slave to a 11- and 5-year-old, instead of a slave to a 7- and one-year-old!

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Image above: The Grammy-Award winning packaging design for Ani’s 2003 album, Evolve. Courtesy of White Bicycle.

Part 2: Brian Grunert of White Bicycle.

 

DS: What are your goals when designing a record’s packaging? How do you envision people using or interacting with it?

Brian: That’s a simple question, with a layered answer. On a personal level, as a designer I’m motivated by my own experiences as a fan of music. I remember the reverence with which I would look at the album art of my favorite bands when I was a kid… I remember the excitement of peeling back the shrink-wrap. The smell of a new record, even. So, when I’m designing art for a record, I try not to forget that there’s likely a fan of that band or artist on the receiving end that’s going to be investing that kind of emotional energy, and my personal goal is to earn that privilege each time, and to make something worthy.

As a designer, I set out with each project to try and make something that hasn’t been made before… or that at least hasn’t been made quite the way we envision it. At the same time though, I’ve always found it helpful to think of myself as an accompanist on a record. No one wants the designer taking solos all over the place, any more than they want a trumpeter or drummer, or whomever, doing that… so, like I’d imagine musicians do, I try and find the pocket of the song… the central themes on the record… and support the groove, so to speak. If you do that, then you have the liberty to pick your spots to do a little noodling.

I think often about the real estate difference between a CD and LP… that basic difference in experience informs many aspects of the designs we make for records. CD packaging tends to be a more layered experience… peeling away stuff, revealing the guts. LPs tend to be more gut shots… more singular imagery that strikes you immediately. That’s not to say what’s good for one isn’t good for the other, though… that can sometimes become the goal… how can we be layered and patient, but still immediately stop someone.

In the end, the hope is to create artwork that reflects the experience of listening to the music and reading the lyrics.

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Image above: Packaging design for Ani’s 2004 album, Educated Guess. Courtesy of White Bicycle.

Can you describe what the process of creating an album design is like? How do you take something that is auditory and translate it into a physical object, something that communicates the contents within?

In terms of interaction with bands or artists, it’s a little different each time. Each songwriter handles that translation uniquely. And when we have the opportunity to work with a band or artist more than once, they’ll often approach the artwork conversation differently with each album. Sometimes a songwriter has a keen visual sense, or a specific idea of how they want artwork to look or feel. Other times it’s more of a blank slate.

It’s interesting, though, words like “composition” or “theme” or “feel” have meaning in both visual arts as well as music. It sounds a little vague or abstract, but that’s where the process usually starts. The visual metaphors in the lyrics provide a pretty great starting place, too.

Practically, the process is akin to designing anything… sketches, followed by conversation… refinements, followed by some production explorations… layout and art and photography making… building files, print production management. Depending on the depth of the packaging (and the particular brand of fussiness) it can spread out over a good chunk of time.

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Image above: Packaging design for Ani’s 2005 album, Knuckle Down. Courtesy of White Bicycle.

Each album you design for Ani is different. The design for Allergic To Water, however, seems markedly unique compared to previous releases. What informed the look and feel of this particular release?

That’s true. Thank you for noticing!

I think that’s the product of a lot of factors coming together at once. One of the extended visual metaphors that we explored on Ani’s last record packaging was oil; there are funnels and oil slicks. I don’t think it was intentional, but it’s appropriate that water be a theme on this record, because Allergic conveys a very different mood than last time around. The songs, sort of, hit differently. So I think it was instinctive to have the artwork feel different, as well.

With Ani, regardless of what gets explored along the way, I always seem to come back to the very first conversation we have about a record. Even when she doesn’t know what she wants it to look like, she knows how it should feel.

This design is brought to you by the word, “blank.” Of course, truly blank was never an option for me… so the challenge became, “how can we load this with meaning and imagery, but make it feel blank.” Not sure if we accomplished that, but it definitely pushed the design away from a more familiar territory aesthetically. I’d describe the Allergic packaging stark and graphic. And some of the textural things that had been important to previous designs didn’t seem so this time around.

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Image above: Packaging design for Ani’s latest album, Allergic To Water.

The way that people consume and listen to music is constantly changing. These days, especially, with the popularity of download and streaming services, something like a CD package might seem like a relic from a different era. Your album designs seem strikingly at-odds with the direction that music consumption is going—they are tactile, immersive, and often contain elements that wouldn’t necessarily translate into a digital photograph. Why do you think that it’s still important to create a design that is beautiful and interactive?

I’m obsessed by this question… a full answer requires some conversation, likely a few chapters long, and more time than right now. But if I had to boil it down… when we talk about books or records, we talk about the ones we can’t put down, the ones that capture our attention, our imagination. I love the idea of listening to records “cover to cover.” That phrase itself, though, speaks to the experience of a record. It’s not just listening. Packaging isn’t just the box that’s wrapped around a record when it’s done. It’s the visual expression of the moods and concepts on the record. As a designer, I attempt to participate in that possibility, and create more ways into the songs.

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Image above: Packaging design for Ani’s 2012 album, Which Side Are You On? Courtesy of White Bicycle.

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Comments

  • Thanks for this interview. I’ve been a fan of Ani’s since I discovered her in the 90’s as a teenager. It was wonderful to hear about her current life and what informs her latest album.

    • Mary

      I pinned it via our embedded pinning button and again (as a test) from my browser Pin button. What is happening when you try? I hope you enjoyed the article.

      Grace

  • Ani!!!I was not expecting this interview, but was certainly glad to find it. The first concert that I ever attended was Ani when I was in 9th grade. I went with my sister (she introduced me to Little Plastic Castle) and my mom who were both fans. My dad didn’t want to miss out on a family event, so he invited himself along. Not counting the employees, he was one of only four men that we saw in the entire venue. Since that concert, my dad has been known to jam out to Ani in the car.

  • Thanks for this interview – I haven’t listened to Ani Difranco in years. I will definitely check out her new album.

  • She’s my absolute favorite, and although I was surprised to see her on a D*S interview, I enjoyed every bit of it! She’s is one of the only artists that I continually buy an actual album from…because of the art! I can’t wait to get my hands on her newest one. I hadn’t seen her live in 10 years until just this past year got to sit front and center in Vancouver. One of the best artists of our time, imo.
    Sarah M

  • I think I peed a little bit when I scrolled down to a picture of Ani! I LOVE HER! I’ve been listening to her since my college years (way back to 1995). IN fact, she just popped up on my iTunes the other day and I had to put her into heavy rotation for the week. Thank you so much for interviewing her. It was awesome to see what she has been up to. That girl has some serious style and always has. It’s so cool to see what she has been up to…and tell her to come back to the Aragon in Chicago. Would love to she her again soon!

  • I’m still working on moving past Ani’s New Orleans plantation faux pas and the length of time it took her to apologize and take responsibility for her ignorance. Nonetheless she did finally issue an apology that read as sincere so maybe with time…

  • Wow, never heard about that particular incident Sunshine. I just read up on the blunder, thank you for bringing it to our attention. Disappointing, indeed.

  • Aniiiiiiiiiiii! Love this. Like so many college-in-the-90s girls Ani absolutely informed my feminism, my relationship to my body, the right to have a voice and use it. And she seemed to empathize with my heartbreak and rage unlike anyone else. And she made me LAUGH about all of it. So, YAY Ani + Design*Sponge. Gotta add: This nosy fan held a small hope that we’d be seeing her dwellings after the jump. :) But this is good too. Great. (Maybe next album? ;) Thanks, Grace.

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