Sometimes Ani DiFranco thinks back to the time she shaved her head.
"I'm 18," she says. "It's 1989 or something. And there just isn't the kind of cultural context for a young white girl with a shaved head. Nobody knows what to make of it. Everybody is uncomfortable. People used to stop and ask me the time on the street. Now they cross the street to avoid walking past me. I get followed around every store I go in by the security guard. No matter how open and smiling I try to make my energy, people are nervous."
And because DiFranco has what she calls a "poet's brain," this experience prompted a revelation.
"A rage builds up inside me at these perfectly nice people who just can't see me because of some factor of my appearance. Can't relate themselves to me. And I think, Is this what racism feels like?"
A quarter-century and one fiercely independent career later, DiFranco, who performs at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Oct. 7, is still pondering big topics like race, incarceration, gender politics, LGBT rights and the relentless stream of invective she sees every day in the media. "Human dynamics are so fascinating to me," she says.
Is she the same teenage maverick who shaved her head, founded her own record label and busked for years on the road to ensure her poetry, her music, her progressive politics and activism would never be diluted by the corporate music machine?
No. At 45, she has mellowed, is married with two kids, living in New Orleans.
"All of these things have made my biorhythm come down a few notches," she says, "which has been really good for my singing. And good for my soul. I think as I get older, I'm less full of that youthful confidence and unstoppable-ness."
Is that even possible? Ani DiFranco, feminist icon and hero to coffeehouse activists worldwide, no longer sees herself as unstoppable?
"I'm quicker to see more sides of the story," she clarifies. "What I've lost in energy, I've gained in humility."
It has been 25 years since DiFranco, then barely 20, founded what is now Righteous Babe Records in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. By then, she'd already been performing in public for 11 years, writing her own songs for six. And it showed on her auspicious self-titled debut, the cover of which put her close-cropped hair front and center.
Inspired by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, DiFranco tackled topics that mattered — race, war, abortion, femininity, social disengagement — with confrontational rage and a gripping delivery that helped inspire an army of acolytes in early-'90s America.
But even operating on her own terms on the fringes of the music industry, DiFranco kept finding herself pigeonholed by critics and admirers alike.
"People are more than ready to label and reduce any human, let alone an artist," she says. "When I was young and writing relationship songs for males and females, I got pigeonholed really hard as either gay or bisexual, and that came before my name for decades: Bisexual singer blah-blah-blah ... I was like, 'Wow. Of all the things that I talk about in my songs, of all the work that I do. ...'"
Gig by gig, song by song, DiFranco challenged her adversaries head-on, and often came out on top. She released an album a year in the '90s (she skipped 1997, but dropped two in 1999) and has sold more than 4 million overall. Her song 32 Flavors became a Top 40 hit for Alana Davis. She received nine Grammy nominations, winning once in 2004. Righteous Babe signed well-known artists like Andrew Bird, Jennifer Knapp and Anais Mitchell.
DiFranco moved to New Orleans shortly before Hurricane Katrina; the city, she said, "showed me how to slow down and take it down a notch." Same with her children, ages 8 and 2: "Super body check from them. Talk about slowing down and watching the grass grow for a few years."
DiFranco's loose, bright 2014 album Allergic to Water reflects her mellowing midlife state. I just cried enough times and I think I wore out my mind, she sings. I did my time before love came to find me. Now that it has, my neck is loose, and my head's on right; got my sense of humor and my appetite. And in case that wasn't clear enough: I'm pretty much happy all the time.
"I'm older, I'm calmer," she said. "These things just make for different kinds of songs."
But that doesn't mean she's not keeping an eye on the world at large.
DiFranco does not own a TV. Her family has a big computer, on which she plays vintage Sesame Street and Looney Tunes for her kids. But the bombardment of negativity that comes with watching live television? That, she does not need.
"For me to turn on the TV is to make me feel hopeless and horrible within 10 minutes," she says. "I get my news through thoughtful sources, and I get my human interest through actual humans. I'm participating in the reality show of life."
Even that, though, can wear on DiFranco. In late 2013, she came under fire for planning a songwriters' retreat at a historic Louisiana cotton plantation, in part because of the dialogue she hoped it might inspire.
"There was a very small minority of people that made a very loud noise and sort of painted the retreat as a Gone With the Wind dressup party for the 1 percent, and it just wasn't," she says.
Nevertheless, she heard and felt their rage, and she canceled the event — a decision that weighed heavily on her, and which she has been wrestling with ever since.
"It was extremely brutal," she says. "It took me at least a year to recover. I was just physically ill from it all. And it changed me. It was the first experience I ever had with that kind of fear — afraid to speak, afraid to be myself, afraid to believe in myself and my intentions."
The plantation fallout remains on her mind as she develops her next album, a collaboration with fellow activist singer-songwriter Zoe Boekbinder called The Prison Music Project. It's a collection of songs written by male inmates at New Folsom Prison. Not all are black, but Boekbinder and DiFranco still want the project to feature musicians of color, almost to preemptively combat "the subtle forces of white privilege and how they might be operating in my world unbeknownst to me."
"Zoe and I were talking about it the other day," DiFranco says, "and she was saying, 'Boy, we've got to be prepared for the criticism from the Left: "This is cooptation! How dare you try to speak for the oppressed!"' I hate that she's right. I hate to spend energy building defenses. All I can say is she and I are trying to amplify the voice of struggle, and trying to do it with as much consciousness as we can."
Either way, DiFranco won't be broken by criticism, by "the population of people who sit back and watch others do things and then comment, often viciously." It is part of her acknowledged role as a "representative of feminism" to leave her life of domestic bliss in New Orleans and make her voice heard across America.
"Music is a social act," she says. "It's something you do with other people. Touring and playing live, that's really where my art lives."
That's her advice to the next Ani DiFranco, wherever she or he might be. "Get out of your house and play as many gigs as you can," she says. "Turn off the screens. Go do something that connects you with other people."
Perhaps even shave your head. For a while, at least, you might feel unstoppable.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.