The Current presents Ani DiFranco with Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings in the First Avenue Mainroom on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
Doors 6:30 p.m. | Show 7:30 p.m. | 18+
Widely considered a feminist icon, Grammy winner Ani DiFranco is the mother of the DIY movement, being one of the first artists to create her own record label in 1990. While she has been known as the “Little Folksinger,” her music has embraced punk, funk, hip hop, jazz, soul, electronica and even more distant sounds. Her collaborators have included everyone from Utah Phillips to legendary R&B saxophonist Maceo Parker to Prince. She has shared stages with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, Bon Iver, Brand Carlile, Billy Bragg, Michael Franti, Chuck D., and many more. Her most recent albums include 2021’s Revolutionary Love, and July 2022's 25th Anniversary Edition reissue of her iconic live album, Living In Clip, both on her own label Righteous Babe Records. Her memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream was released in May 2019 by Viking Books, and was a New York Times Top 10 best seller.
Rejecting the major label system has given her significant creative freedom. She has referenced her staunchly-held independence in song more than once, including in "The Million You Never Made" (Not a Pretty Girl), which discusses the act of turning down a lucrative contract, "The Next Big Thing" (Not So Soft), which describes an imagined meeting with a label head-hunter who evaluates the singer based on her looks, and "Napoleon" (Dilate), which sympathizes sarcastically with an unnamed friend who did sign with a label. After recording with Ani in 1999, Prince described the effects of her independence. "We jammed for four hours and she danced the whole time. We had to quit because she wore us out. After being with her, it dawned on me why she's like that – she's never had a ceiling over her."
Her lyrics are rhythmic and poetic, often autobiographical, and strongly political. “Trickle Down” discusses racism and gentrification, while “To The Teeth” speaks about the need for gun control, and “In or Out” questions society’s traditional sexuality labels. "Play God" has become a battle cry for reproductive rights while “Revolutionary Love” calls for compassion to be the center of social movements. Rolling Stone said of her in 2012, "The world needs more radicals like Ani DiFranco: wry, sexy, as committed to beauty and joy as revolution."
Over the years she's performed at countless benefit concerts, donated songs to many charity albums, and given time and energy to many progressive causes. She has learned from and demonstrated beside Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, and Dennis Kucinich. In 2004, she marched in the front row of the March for Women's Lives along with Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Whoopi Goldberg, and many others, later performing on the main stage. She has beaten the drum for voter registration and turnout with "Vote Dammit" tours in multiple presidential election years, including most recently in 2016. She's currently on the board of Roots of Music, an organization that provides at-risk youth with support and musical education in New Orleans, and the creative council of EMILY’s List, which helps elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.
As an iconic songwriter and social activist, she has been the inspiration for women artists and entrepreneurs for over two decades. She has been featured on the covers of SPIN, Ms., Relix, High Times, and many others for her music and activism. She is the idol of empowered women who came of age in the '90s and continues to bring younger fans into her fold. From Alice Walker to Amy Schumer, Ani is respected by wordsmiths across milieux and generations. She blazed the trail for self-directed artist careers and has been cited by musicians from Prince to Bon Iver as an inspiration to release their own art outside of the major label system.
Ani has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including a Grammy for best album package (Evolve), the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women, the Gay/Lesbian American Music Award for Female Artist of the Year, and the Woody Guthrie Award. At the 2013 Winnipeg Folk Festival she received their prestigious Artistic Achievement Award, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg. In 2017, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from A2IM (a nonprofit trade organization that represents independent record labels) and the Outstanding Achievement for Global Activism Award from A Global Friendship. In 2021 she was named a Champion for Justice by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings
To make an anti-fascist record, you must keep kindness and compassion in the foreground. That’s just what singer-songwriter-guitarist Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings (cellist-vocalist Monique Ross and violinist-vocalist Chauntee Ross) did, along with drummer Nathan Kilen. Love Is the Only Thing—out on August 22, 2022—started when the musicians gathered at their beloved Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, WI to record a live album and a studio one. Live at the Café Carpe was released in October 2020, but the pandemic put the studio album on hold.
The bright light of family illuminates this record and all that went into making it. Its existence hinges on the way we take care of each other, from its fan-supported funding to the sanctuary of Café Carpe to the blood sisterhood of the Rosses to Mulvey’s newfound fatherhood. “This album is basically a happy family song, then a song about how fucked up things are, then a family song, then a song about how fucked up things are,” Mulvey laughs.
Fellow Milwaukeeans SistaStrings bring all the beautiful versatility of their cello and violin music, along with vocal harmonies, to the project. Classically trained string players who grew up singing in church, Monique and Chauntee were destined to defy conventions of genre and race alike, blending R&B, gospel, and classical sounds. In 2022, they performed at the Grammy Awards with Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile, two artists SistaStrings toured with during summer 2022. The Rosses will also be performing with Carlile at a Madison Square Garden concert in October.
Mulvey met the Rosses in 2016, and all three felt an instant kinship. “Peter has been the complete definition of an ally. We found a home in the folk/americana realm when we began working with Peter and that gave our career the direction it was lacking,” says Monique. Making this album at such a tumultuous time in history reinforced their role as activists just as much as musicians. “Finding refuge and rejuvenation in these songs with this group of musicians was healing and personally some sort of mission statement for why we even make music in the first place,” Chauntee remembers.
The album explores loss, tension, and the love that sees us through it. Folk classic “Shenandoah” longs for a kinder America, while “Old Men Drinking Seagram’s” is a snapshot of a small town full of hate. “Soft Animal” offers tender sensuality, while “On the Eve of the Inaugural” finds the narrator turning his care to a baby in a stranger’s car. “Song for Michael Brown” is a humble plea for compassion for Brown and for all of us living with the threat of violence and hate.
Some songs are more focused on the loneliness of the pandemic and its flipside of love and togetherness. “You and (Everyone Else)” addresses the pandemic loneliness and fear for others safety, while “Five Hundred Days” promises a happy reunion. That promise is fulfilled on “First Day of Summer,” a catchy song about a day when it’s safe to hug everybody, wait in line for tacos, and feel free again.
The record finishes with the title track, a Chuck Prophet cover. With jangly acoustic guitar, rousing drumming, bold strings, and an anthemic chorus, this is the sound of musicians having fun together. It’s also a reminder that it’s not easy to make a better world, but ultimately that work reveals our humanity. “Love is a hurting thing/ Oh, but love is the only thing anymore," Mulvey and SistaStrings belt out in the refrain. It’s then abundantly clear that the love songs and the protest songs have been about the same thing all along.