Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Ani Di Franco 84 credit Danny Clinch

Ani DiFranco & Leyla McCalla in conversation

03 June 2024, 15:30
Words by Alan Pedder

Ani DiFranco photographed by Danny Clinch.
Leyla McCalla photographed by Chris Scheurich.

New Orleans residents Ani DiFranco and Leyla McCalla are at very different stages of their music careers but, as Alan Pedder discovers, their ambitious new albums are coming from a shared desire to disrupt.

Ani DiFranco knows a thing or two about survival, having weathered many ups and downs since founding her iconic indie label Righteous Babe Records nearly 35 years ago.

As her latest album Unprecedented Sh!t so boldly underscores, she also understands the power of shaking things up. Relinquishing her usual role as self-producer to BJ Burton, whose work on Bon Iver’s ambitious 22, A Million she admired, DiFranco sounds compellingly revitalised: unflinchingly direct, crunchier, and more cohesive, though the songs are not intended to fit into any neat, linear narrative. DiFranco shows her own vulnerability as often as she shows her teeth, reaching towards new perspectives on the album’s central themes of identity and the egoistic structures of what we call reality.

With Unprecedented Sh!t, DiFranco says she wanted the songs to speak for themselves, but it’s not for lack of debate-worthy topics. As ever, she’s incisive in surprising ways, whether framing America’s abortion rights debate in terms of a universal and infinite consciousness on “Baby Roe” or exploring the concept of subjective realities through her pre-loved footwear on “Boots of a Soldier”. Through his sometimes thrillingly liberal use of filters and effects, Burton’s manipulation and mixing of DiFranco’s voice and instrumentation only serves to emphasise the feeling that Unprecedented Sh!t is a statement record, and it’s up to us to find our own ways through the noise.

Leyla Mc Calla by Chris Scheurich 1

Earlier this spring, fellow New Orleanian Leyla McCalla put out a statement record of her own, titled Sun Without the Heat. Like DiFranco, one of her motivations was to journey down paths previously untrodden by her earlier records, leaving any preconceived ideas at the studio door. Recorded over nine days in the Louisiana bayou with producer Maryam Qudus, McCalla and her close-knit band delved into a wealth of musical influences – Brazilian polyrhythms, jazzy Ghanaian highlife, fuzzed-out 1960s psychedelia, and more – eventually hitting their stride with what she describes as “Louisiana tropicalia.”

Speaking to McCalla, it’s clear that the many of the songs on Sun Without the Heat were born not out of simple curiosity but out of a need to recalibrate herself almost entirely. Divorce and the loss of two close family members had left her in a tailspin, and demanded that she turn herself inside out emotionally to generate the medicinal power of these ten new songs. Though Sun Without the Heat is without question her most personal record, as always McCalla looked to artists, writers and poets she admires for inspiration. Duke Ellington’s “Mount Harissa” was the impetus for the allegorical “Tree”, which builds brilliantly to a rousing cacophony, while the compassionate title track borrows lines from a speech by 19th century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. “These wounds are so old,” she sings tenderly, as if musing on her own place in the chain of harm and healing. On “Scaled to Survive” she asks, “How do you let yourself feel all the pain,” bringing that ancestral nexus into sharper relief.

Given the overlap in the ambitions and themes of their new records, Best Fit invited the two women to a virtual roundtable – McCalla at home in New Orleans, DiFranco in New York City, where she’s currently starring as Persephone in the Broadway production of Hadestown, reprising her role from Anaïs Mitchell’s original 2010 recording, released through Righteous Babe.

BEST FIT: Thanks both for taking the time for this. I wanted to get you together since I know you’ve worked with each other a little bit, and you both live in the same city, you’re part of the same community, and I thought that might be interesting to explore. When did you cross paths for the first time?

LEYLA McCALLA: You know what? I’ll start by saying that Ani is a legend and one of my all-time heroes. So that’s how I know her. As for how I first met her in person, I actually don’t remember exactly where that was. But I do remember being very flabbergasted and quiet. We got to work together on something for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival a few years ago, during the pandemic, and before that we worked together on Zoe Boekbinder’s record, Long Time Gone: The Prison Music Project.

ANI DiFRANCO: Exactly, yeah. I have a home studio and Leyla came over to contribute to that record, which was a collaboration of many, many artists, in and out of prison, trying to shine a light on this non-trivial thing of mass incarceration in America and all the humans that are in cages.

But I do often think of that online concert we did for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is usually out of San Francisco but, because of the pandemic, it was going all virtual. The festival paired Leyla and I up to do a show for the cameras, and that was when I first really got to know her. We hung out in New Orleans, we rehearsed, and then we did this kind of surreal show in front of stony-faced camera people.

LEYLA McCALLA: It was totally surreal, because there was so little social time to be had with other people and then suddenly it was, wow, we’re together. That memory really stands out for me too.

It’s funny, because Ani and I both have kids that go to the same French immersion school here in New Orleans, and I would often see her and her partner dropping the kids off in the mornings. I probably discovered Ani’s music when I was around 15 years old – and I think, Ani, you must have already been 10 or more years into your career by then – so, for me, it was kind of amazing that our kids were at the same school.

I saw her from afar for a while, but I think when we finally got to talk, our conversation was so much about kids and relationships in life, and of course music, because all of that is so much a part of our reality. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m talking to one of my heroes about my experience as a mother and as a musician and it’s resonating with her.’ I remember thinking, too, ‘Maybe I’m not as isolated as I sometimes feel I am in my pursuit of this life of creativity and family and raising little people.’

ANI DiFRANCO: Totally, and I do feel like two people like us would just have naturally come together anyway, through music and through our work on social justice issues.

BEST FIT: You come from quite different musical worlds, in many ways. Are there any particular qualities that you admire about Leyla’s work, Ani?

ANI DiFRANCO: I guess one would be her ability to articulate music from the real world, music from real people, you know? As Leyla was just saying, here we are as two women who are not so different in our experiences and our struggles.

You know, when I think about my career, I feel so blessed to have come up at folk festivals. That’s how I cut my teeth as an artist. I always think about this series of folk festivals in Canada that were really world music festivals, festivals of indigenous music by all kinds of people from all kinds of places. For me, that’s the absolute height. That’s the be all and end all, when people from different cultures and different places and experiences can come together and see each other and feel each other through music.

I think that the universal language of music is so essential for us as humans, to help us get over all these ideas that we’ve made up about who’s who and what’s what, and how those relationships should be structured. Music just breaks all that down. So, I think of you, Leyla, as a practitioner and as a sower of those seeds. You come from a specific culture with a specific history and ancestry, but you are connecting and incorporating broadly, and making occasion for shared humanity to become visible and palpable, and that’s very admirable to me.

LEYLA McCALLA: Wow, thank you.

BEST FIT: Listening to your new albums, it occurred to me that both are concerned with breaking new ground and doing things differently than anything you’ve done before. And, in many ways, both are about survival. Leyla, let’s start with you on that subject. I know you had a lot of personal upheaval in the lead up to making Sun Without the Heat. What was your mindset going into it?

LEYLA McCALLA: Yeah, I definitely wanted to break new ground in my artistic practice. My last record, Breaking the Thermometer, was inspired by a lot of archival research that I did about the legacy of Radio Haiti, which was originally for a theatre project, and involved learning a lot about people who were imprisoned, exiled or assassinated. Memory was such a big theme in that work, and I did feel kind of one step removed from it all, as a Haitian American who was born in New York. Both my parents emigrated to the United States when they were kids in the 1960s.

When it came to making Sun Without the Heat, I was like, ‘Okay, I just climbed the biggest mountain I ever climbed. What is the new path that I want to take with my music? What is it that I actually want to say? What am I even going to talk about?’ Working without the framework of a concept or a historical narrative, I really wanted to see a path forward, and that’s really where the songs came from. From recommitting to my own path, both creatively and also just as a human.

I wanted to explore what my life was about, and what life is about in general, and I do feel like these songs kind of came out like prayers for that to manifest. I think with creativity, as in life, things can sometimes be crystal clear and at other times really foggy. I knew I wanted to go on a journey, and I knew that, musically, I wanted to move into a more psychedelic realm and wanted to incorporate sounds that I hadn’t previously used, like synths and piano. I’m lucky to have been working with the same band for six years now, and I know that we can make a lot of noise.

You know, I come from this background of playing old-time music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which I did for years, playing cello and bass. I’ve also played with a tonne of different singer/songwriters, and while I do love the intimacy that you can access with a smaller ensemble, this time I wanted a bigger sound. I wanted to experiment with distortion pedals and stuff like that. I had a new electric guitar and I was like, ‘Let’s plug this thing in!’

My mindset was really to just be more open and playful. Those were my goals. I was like, ‘Okay, I want to figure out how to keep on wanting to do this.’


ANI DiFRANCO: It sounds like I’m in a kindred space with you, Leyla. You know, I’ve made a big ol’ pile of records that are really just documents, in a way, in that they were all made by setting up microphones in front of musicians in my band, a microphone in front of my face, and recording the songs. And sure, sometimes there might be some overdubbing or some other production that wouldn’t happen at a gig, but really they are documents, and I do love that. I will always love that more than anything else in music. There is nothing I love to hear more than musicians talking to each other in the same time and space.

But this time out, for myself, I wanted to explore uncharted territory as well. I wanted to explore the world of machines. I feel like machines are so much a part of our world. I mean, look at us here now, having a three-way conversation from three different cities in two continents. That’s just how our lives are now. Our lives are dictated and lived through machines. For years, I have been longing to bring that into my art and into my music. I mean, I have sort of tried in the past, in my own crude ways. There are some songs where you can hear miscellaneous bleeping sounds, or whatever. But, working on my own, I don’t really understand what all this new technology can do. I don’t even know what half of it is called, or how it works.

This time out, I wanted to collaborate with somebody who does live in this new world of machines, someone who really knows how to make art with them, and I found that person in BJ Burton. He produced the record, and in doing that he sort of opened up new sonic worlds for me.

BEST FIT: Did you find you had to battle through any kind of self-doubt, making your first steps into these new sonic worlds?

ANI DiFRANCO: No, not at all. The process for Unprecedented Sh!t was that I would record the songs at home alone, mostly just voice and guitar, and then send them to BJ, who’d get into his little spaceship and go to Pluto with them. When he’d come back, he’d send me the songs that he’d manipulated and filtered to create these amazing soundscapes. When he sent me the first two tracks after working on them, I listened and was like, “Fuck yeah! That’s great!” He replied saying, “Well, I was thinking maybe I could…” but I said, “No, they’re perfect. Stop. This is so great.” So, yeah, there was no looking back for me.

LEYLA McCALLA: That’s awesome. I love to hear that, because that’s never been my experience. I’m always nervous and always scared that I’m doing the wrong thing. If I feel like I’m moving boldly in a new direction, I’m always questioning myself. Is it the right thing to do? Is it really what I’m trying to say? Is it honest?

That’s what I always look for in music, for it to feel honest, so when someone starts manipulating sound and distorting things, it can feel strange for me at first. Like, ‘Oh god, are we just lying here about what we’re really trying to do and say?’ So it kind of took me a minute to integrate that.

I think that’s also a reflection of where I am in my life and in my career now. I’m learning to know what I want, but also to incorporate other people’s vision at the same time. I mean, I have been practicing that for a while but I think becoming more secure in your own voice is… well, it’s just a long process. This is my fifth record. What record is this for you, Ani?

ANI DiFRANCO: It’s my 23rd. Listening to what you were just saying, I was thinking, well, that’s the crux of it right there. Because those are all really valid lines of enquiry for you, right? Like, am I trying to do something that’s not of me? Those questions are really valid and important.

The difference between you and me is that I’ve done that 22 times before, and I’ve messed this shit up so many times, in so many ways, all by myself. So, actually, I wasn’t as worried if I messed it up with this guy. I’d just be like, ‘Okay, let’s put it on the pile!’ I think, five records in, I was in just the same place that you are of having my head swimming.

Ani Di Franco 98 credit Danny Clinch

LEYLA McCALLA: It’s still very tender, you know. I’m still in that place of becoming more sure of my voice, and I can hear that in all of my recordings.

I came to music as a classical cellist. I wasn’t ever planning on becoming a solo artist, until I hit a point where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have to be front and centre in this thing in order to say and do the things that I want to say and do.' Surrendering to that has been a big part of my artistic growth. Becoming less afraid to be in the centre, and less afraid to say things like, ‘Yeah, actually, I really do like that fuzzed out bass sound.’

I think there’s a big part of me that just wants to sit and play Bach in the woods with the crickets, but there’s another part of that’s like, ‘Come on, you’ve never really lived in that classical world and you were never supposed to stay in that world.’ I’m certainly not trying to recreate something like it, either. I’m on a journey that is, I think, very individual, and sometimes that can be kind of lonely and isolating and weird. Especially now, with the way that the music industry works.

As I said earlier, I feel like the goal, for me, is to continue to want to do make music, and to continue to feed into it and be fed by it, and that has nothing do with the actual functioning of the business. I’m just like, ‘How do I stay connected to the source of my inspiration?’

ANI DiFRANCO: That sounds like a really good answer. It sounds like the perfect answer to all the questions, to me. Maybe the first step is something you’ll regret in 10 or 20 years, or whatever, but who cares? If it excited you in the moment and it made you want to go headlong into the next moment, that’s what’s important. All those explorations? That just means you are alive as an artist. So, you know, I think it can get to the point where all the questioning can be debilitating, and I think you’re right on the nose with what the answer is.

BEST FIT: How do you stay connected to the source of your inspiration, Ani? I read an interview the other day where you sort of expressed an idea that you were struggling to find the motivation to continue to make albums.

ANI DiFRANCO: Oh, did I say that out loud? [laughs] Well, yeah, 23 Ani DiFranco records… that seems like plenty.

Speaking from my own perspective as an artist, I’m way less driven to write songs at this age than I was, say, 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I want to explore other things. That’s why I’ve been writing books, and sort of why I showed up in New York to be part of the Hadestown musical. I’m also working on a theatrical piece myself.

I feel like I’m at a place in my creative life where I need to branch out. I’ve had one medium that I’ve been working with, and I feel like I have thoroughly explored it. Now I’m inspired to reach for other mediums.

BEST FIT: It makes perfect sense. I’m glad that we have this one, even if you never make another. Back to Unprecedented Sh!t, like Leyla, you wanted to make the album quite playful sounding even though a lot of the songs deal with the kind of issues that people have come to expect from an Ani DiFranco record. I thought it was interesting that, although much of it is political, there’s a sense that it’s also about stripping away all the divisiveness of politics and remembering what it means to be a person, on a very basic human level. Evolving into our true nature, as you sing on “New Bible”. Is that something that’s become more and more important to you as you’ve gotten older?

ANI DiFRANCO: I think so, yes. Threaded throughout the record are the themes of identity and the power and importance of knowing who you are, where you came from and who your tribe is. It’s about looking at the whole structure of the human world that we’ve created, knowing who your opponents are and asking what are you actually fighting about.

Again and again, in these songs and in my life, I keep coming back to what feels like an even more essential truth, or certainly an equally important truth, which is that all of that shit is made up. Who we truly are is spirit, and the structure of that really is oneness, you know? We might look like three individuals with names and identities and in some kind of structured relationship, but we’re really one thing becoming itself by inventing all these relationships, and all these struggles and ideas.

"I’ve had one medium that I’ve been working with, and I feel like I have thoroughly explored it. Now I’m inspired to reach for other mediums."


I find it really important, this awareness that’s been blooming inside of me, even when it comes to, say, doing political work. Look at the song “Baby Roe” on this record, which is a song talking about reproductive rights but through a different lens. It’s only because we as humans as so mired in ego and identity that we are projecting our ego into a foetus inside of a woman. Consciousness does not need to be born at any specific time or into any specific being to be manifested. Forced reproduction is not necessary for consciousness to manifest. It’s happening to its fullest, no matter who gets born when.

We as a country should not be forcing women to give birth, because instead of creating consciousness what we are creating instead is trauma. That trauma then blooms out around these individuals and traumatises the beings that are brought into this world without being wanted, and so on. That trauma is going to take generations and generations to heal and to dissipate, and it’s going to be hard work. And that happens every time we impact other humans with these types of traumas due to the stories we create. Stories that become religions, that become governments, that become societies.

So, yeah, I think that really understanding our oneness, understanding the illusion of time and identity, and understanding that all ego tells us is made-up stories is an important ingredient to get from where we are to someplace better.

BEST FIT: Leyla, you’ve talked before a bit about how disconnection from our nature is something that’s relevant to your own work, which also comes from a place of trying to inspire faith and hope and community thinking. What are your thoughts on what Ani’s saying here?

LEYLA McCALLA: I mean, there’s so much about it that resonates with me, and there’s also so much that I have questions about.

It’s hard for me to accept that we are not all born equal, and I think that’s something that I grapple with a lot in my work. Like, how did I get born in this life with all of this privilege but not those privileges? I don’t mean that in a tit-for-tat way, but more about having an awareness of the struggles I have versus the struggles that someone in, say, Palestine is having right now. Or the struggles that someone is having at the White House right now. There are all these layers of suffering, which is, I think, essential to the human condition.

There’s also the question of why some people get born with so much power and others don’t, and I think a lot of the ideas that some people have about what is actually empowering are so interesting. It’s funny, because I got into a little fight with an ex-boyfriend of mine about this. He was teaching me how to fix the plumbing in my kitchen, and at the end, once I had fixed it, he said, ‘Wasn’t that so empowering?’ – no! That’s completely the wrong word. Agency is a huge part of feeling empowered. Empowering would be if I’d really wanted to fix it. That wasn’t empowering, that was survival, man!

Getting back to the music, of course I want my music to be uplifting. Of course I want this creative practice to be serving the greater good. Of course I think that music is the place where I can come closest to the feeling of oneness and the spirituality of consciousness, and to understanding the illusion of separation. But at the same time, I’m just exhausted from the oppressiveness of the tactics people use to separate us. I’m always trying to not be exhausted by them, but at the same time it can be so overwhelming with all the conflicts in the world. Like what’s happening in Palestine right now, what’s happening in the Congo, what’s happening in Sudan, what’s happening in Haiti, my ancestral homeland. It’s hard for me to not feel completely hopeless sometimes.

Of course, we can’t just go into any of those situations and say something like, ‘We just need to realise that we’re all one.’ That might be the truth but it’s not the remedy, practically speaking. I feel like I’m always trying to decide how to move forward based on balancing those two things, the truth and the reality. Trying to decide what actually helps and what actually reduces the harm. Because I don’t know if we can ever end all human suffering. I don’t know if we’ll ever be completely liberated, but we have to work towards liberation and we have to believe in each other’s liberation.

Leyla Mc Calla by Chris Scheurich 6

LEYLA McCALLA: Maybe it’s just where I am in my life right now, but I’m restless and I don’t feel like I can always commit to one ideology or way of thinking about any particular thing, because there are so many different realities occurring at the same time. I think that's why, on this record, I ended up looking to contemporary Afrofuturist voices, because any room that I've ever been in the person I trust most is the Black woman speaking her truth. And I don't think that it’s just because I am a Black woman that I understand the kind of oppression that Black women in particular have experienced, but I am particularly invested in understanding that perspective, and really listening to it.

That’s another thing that’s so inspiring to me about Ani’s work. When Ani has something to say, I want to listen to it, I want to understand it, I want to engage with it, and I want to incorporate it into the way that I’m thinking about the world. It’s very interesting to me to hear Ani talk about things like consciousness and spirit, because that’s quite a different perspective from some of the earlier work. It makes me think of “Revolutionary Love” from Ani’s last record, which was such medicine to me. I think maybe that’s what all this creative practice is for, it’s medicine and healing. I don't want to sound too woo-woo, but when we’re asking how can we stop the bleeding, maybe we have to stop it in ourselves first, you know?

BEST FIT: Speaking of a different perspective in Ani’s work, I wanted to touch on the song “You Forgot to Speak” from Unprecedented Sh!t. It’s interesting to me, Ani, that in the press release it says that the song speaks to the complicity of women in their own oppression by patriarchal systems. It seems to me that’s quite a narrow angle on the song, since the lyrics can be applied to so many different scenarios, including, as Leyla mentioned, what’s going on in the world at large right now. Can you tell me a bit more about that song and where you’re coming from with that one?

ANI DiFRANCO: Yeah, that almost bums me out. I mean, they put the press release in front of me before putting it out in world and, yeah, it focused on women’s complicity in their silence. That angle is definitely in there, because I’m a female writing the song, but I do agree with you that it’s not just that. This song is really for any human who feels compelled or forced to self-censor, or who feels afraid to speak because they just don’t know how to get there. That's me in many ways and in many moments, and I know I’m not alone in it.

BEST FIT: I can definitely relate to that. Another thing I picked up when listening to both records is that there’s this element on a couple of songs of paying thanks to your teachers, whether they are literal teachers or your parents and ancestors. Leyla, I wanted to ask you about that in the context of your song “Scaled to Survive”, just to understand a bit more about how that relates to your story really.

LEYLA McCALLA: I think that when I wrote that song, I didn’t know it was going to be called “Scaled to Survive”. I was thinking a lot about the overwhelm of my life, and the overwhelm of the world, and I was thinking about how much I felt like I was drowning.


LEYLA McCALLA: I was talking to my friend Jackie Summell about this feeling of overwhelm, of drowning, and how I wanted to write an album about that. Jackie is an amazing artist here in New Orleans who has this public art project called Solitary Gardens, which is gardening within the same physical dimensional space of a person in solitary confinement. It’s both a protest against solitary confinement and a conversation with people who are imprisoned about what they would want to grow in the garden. Anyway, I was talking to her, and she was like, “I have a book that you need to read.”

She gave me a copy of a book called Undrowned by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, which is part of the great Emergent Strategy series on the AK Press co-operative. I love that book so much, and it helped me so much. It’s a Black feminist perspective on the study of marine mammals off the coast of South Caroline and Georgia, which, to me, is such a spiritual place in the United States. There’s a really amazing Gullah Geechee culture there, which is this unique Creole–Anglophone culture, and I’ve always been curious about that place. Zora Neale Hurston did a bunch of fieldwork there in the 1940s.

The writing in Undrowned is very poetic. It’s not like a white man’s textbook about dolphins. It’s the story of observing these mammals and their habits, and how they relate to each other, how they organise, how they raise their young, and how they’re surviving through devastating climate change conditions. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter, Delilah, I would watch videos of whale births and dolphin births because I was trying to prepare myself for the physical act of giving birth. So, reading that book, a lot of things started falling into place. There are quite a few lines from that book that I’ve borrowed and rearranged for the song, and some of those are “You brought me here / The world on its side / Gave me a love scaled to survive.”

You know, I often think of myself just as a link in a chain. I’m my mother’s daughter and she was her mother’s daughter, and now I have two daughters and a son. Writing this song, I was thinking about the kind of survival mechanisms that we inherit from our parents and the things that we’re passing down, and that’s really what it’s about. It’s about how love is the thing that provides the buoyance in life, but it’s such an imperfect process. We can give a person all this love, but even love is fragile. It’s just that everything else in life is way more fragile than love.

With all my records, it feels like there’s been a moment where a sort of umbrella concept appears, and that happened again with this one. Reading Undrowned made me see that all the songs I was writing were deeply coming from this place of learning about survival, learning about how to navigate love, and how to be brave in all of that.

ANI DiFRANCO: I often get inspiration from books as well. On this new record, there are two songs I can point to that were directly inspired in that way.

“Baby Roe” was inspired by an amazing book called The Family Roe, by Josh Prager, which is the backstory behind the famous Roe v. Wade case and the Supreme Court decision that has now been all but overturned. The woman who became the plaintiff in this landmark case really wanted an abortion but couldn’t get one as she was in Texas. Rather than go somewhere else, she decided to fight for it in Texas and won in the Texas courts, then, beyond all odds, the case went to the Supreme Court and won there too. But that whole process took longer than the gestation of the baby, so the baby was born and given up for adoption and never knew their role in history until they were an adult.

I think this story is not just relevant to the issue of abortion but says so much about American politics in general, and how we got to where we are. The anti-choice army was in hot pursuit of this “Baby Roe”, thinking that they would be the ultimate spokesperson for their views, which, as it turns out, was completely wrong. Baby Roe, who’s now a 50-something woman like myself, remains pro-choice, as I would be in her shoes.

The other song is “Boots of a Soldier”, which was very much inspired by a book called An Immense World, by Ed Yong, who writes about how subjective our ideas of reality are, which, as I was speaking to earlier, is an ongoing theme of mine right now. To our right and to our left are completely different experiences of reality, which you could argue are equally as real and as valid, like the fly that lands on the table in front of me and the tree that’s hanging overheard.

There’s a German word that I encountered for the first time in this book, which is Umwelt, which describes our perception of the world, our idea of reality. But there are so many equally valid ideas of reality. For instance, many kinds of birds see thousands more colours than we do. It’s interesting to think about how people, just like creatures, can sense, experience, process and know the world very differently. For me, it all folds back into what I was talking about earlier. That we create these realities with our minds and with our words, but they’re very specific to our minds and our words and there are whole other realities right next to us.

BEST FIT: That sounds so interesting. I’ll add it to my reading list. Leyla, you’ve described yourself in the past as naturally existentialist. Would you say that’s become even more apparent with this new record than it was before?

LEYLA McCALLA: Yeah, I would. But it’s interesting, you know, hearing Ani speak about subjective reality. I was very, very much confused about life about a year ago, when I was writing these new songs, and I was trying to find some answers. Now I’m looking for different answers. I’m not as confused about why I’m here, but I’m recognising the need to shapeshift and, as I was saying earlier, continue to want to exist. I don’t mean that in a suicidal ideation way, but more in the way of identifying the things that really feed my being and make me feel like I really belong on this planet.

"I’m not questioning as much what should be happening. I’m trying to arrive at a place of surrender and acceptance in that sense."


LEYLA McCALLA: I don’t want to be afraid of what I’m actually feeling anymore, and I think that writing the songs has helped me come to that place. It’s like what Ani was saying earlier about the song “You Forgot to Speak”, that’s all of us in different moments. Something I would add to that is that I don’t want to be a person who is afraid to speak to myself too. I think I’ve spent a long time talking about things that other people would categorise as ‘activist topics’, but there’s a lot that I haven’t said too. There’s a lot that I feel and experience that I haven’t incorporated. It takes such a long time, I think, to integrate what the heck you’re actually trying to say or even to understand what you have felt. We’ve probably all experienced that thing of looking back 10 years later and thinking, ‘Of course I reacted in that way, because I was going through this thing or I was overwhelmed by that thing.’

I think it can be challenging when you’re raising little kids to not feel like you’re losing yourself. As my kids are getting older, they’re revealing themselves more, but I’m still getting to know myself as well. So I’d say that I’m existentialist in that I do think a lot about why we exist and how we got here, but I’m not questioning as much what should be happening. I’m trying to arrive at a place of surrender and acceptance in that sense.

BEST FIT: Talking of what should be happening, I wanted to finish up by touching on the upcoming US election. We’re less than six months away and things are, to say the least, a bit fraught. How’s the political temperature feeling in New Orleans, or in New York where you are Ani?

ANI DiFRANCO: Honestly, I’ve been immersed in the eight-shows-a-week gauntlet of Hadestown and it’s completely exhausting. So, weirdly for me, I haven’t turned on the news at all since it started. I’ve not even really checked in with the news of my own life, because I’m just trying to keep up with this job and do a good job.

In this next election cycle, I’ll be getting up on the same horse that I’ve been on for so many decades now, which is to say to people, “Please vote.” I think the survival of our democracy is contingent on young people overcoming their disillusionment and their alienation and getting to the polling place. I have a second children’s book coming out this fall called Show Up & Vote, and I’m hoping that it will help parents to engage with their kids about voting.

Often with children it’s about doing what they see and what their parents model for them. It’s not a given or necessarily intuitive that a child would understand themselves that voting is a part of being a grown up, and is a thing that you do to take care of your society, to preserve your democracy, and that it’s a great blessing to be able to have that compared with other alternatives. The book is just a way of helping parents and kids to be engaged on this issue. When I vote, I usually do it in person and I take my kids with me because I think if they see it, they’ll do it.

Ani Di Franco 307 credit Danny Clinch
BEST FIT: Your daughter Petah must be 16 or 17 by now.

ANI DiFRANCO: Yeah, she’s 17, so she won’t be able to vote this time. But I’m so excited for her and for all young people who know some shit to get in there and get involved.

BEST FIT: What about you, Leyla? Your kids are still quite young.

LEYLA McCALLA: Yeah, my twins are five and my oldest daughter is nine, so we’re definitely in a different phase. I have taken Delilah to vote with me before, just in local elections. Honestly, I think local elections don’t get enough conversation or coverage, and there’s so much that happens in local politics that’s really important. I know you’re in New York right now, Ani, but I’m think you’ll agree that New Orleans can be a deeply frustrating place politically. Things here can feel really stuck, and the systems just lean a certain way.

ANI DiFRANCO: Retro systems!

LEYLA McCALLA: Yeah. Progress is not easy to feel on a systemic level, but there are so many badass people on the ground doing amazing mutual aid work, amazing abolitionist work, and feeding the homeless.

Southern Solidarity is an amazing organisation that works in both New Orleans and New York City, and even though, as a New Yorker, I thought the name sounded kinda scary when I first heard it, it’s actually an incredible coalition of people who are trying to positively impact each other’s lives.

I would say that I have less faith than I used to in the electoral process in the United States, but I don’t think that means that people shouldn’t vote. I have a lot of faith in people. You know, people always talk about Gen Z as this lazy, privileged generation but they are the ones who are out there setting up encampments and facing police brutality in order to have their voices heard. In order to get their universities to divest from the business interests of genocidal states. That’s not a small thing. That shows immense bravery. So, like Ani, I do feel hopeful about young voters and young organisers, and I do feel hopeful about creating the change that we need in this country.

BEST FIT: I love that your album ends on that same hopeful note. “I want to believe in a world I have not seen / I want to believe in a world I have been given.”

LEYLA McCALLA: Yeah, and, you know, we may never see that kind of world but by believing in it maybe we can conjure it.

BEST FIT: Let’s hope for that. Well, thank you both so much for this conversation. It’s been a real pleasure and so interesting to hear your different perspectives.

LEYLA McCALLA: Ani, congrats with the new record and Hadestown and everything, and stay strong!

ANI DiFRANCO: Thanks. You too, pal. Nice to talk with both of you.

Ani DiFranco's Unprecedented Sh!t is out now digitally via Righteous Babe Records, with a physical release on 12 July. Leyla McCalla's Sun Without the Heat is out now via ANTI-.

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