For Knuckle Down Ani invited a fellow musician to co-produce the new record with her. That honor went to Joe Henry, an acclaimed performer and songwriter.
"I invited him out to share the stage, and we just struck up a friendship and started talking about making records—which both of us do, serially [laughs]—and really hit it off. We had a real lively creative dialogue going, so I took that as my cue to step out of my solitude and work with a co-producer for the first time—invite collaboration back into my life," Ani says. Another major change: Ani composed new songs with their role in the future album in mind, "This time, I had not only a deadline, but a context to write for: the group of musicians that I was gonna work with, and the where, how, and when of the record. I knew I wanted to have string accompaniment on this record—I thought I'd get string-y with it rather than get horn-y with it like I have in the past—use those kinds of colors."
On her previous album, Educated Guess (2004), DiFranco performed completely solo, playing all the instruments, recording the tracks in her own home, and even engineering the disc herself. This time around, while a few songs are still primarily one-person affairs, she's also joined by more than half a dozen guest musicians throughout the album. Many of their names will be recognizable to people who have followed Ani's recent career: current stage partner Todd Sickafoose (on bass), former band member Julie Wolf (melodica), occasional openers Tony Scherr (electric guitar), and Noe Venable (voice), as well as Righteous Babe recording artist Andrew Bird (violin, glockenspiel, whistling). Less familiar to fans but equally notable are the contributions of Patrick Warren (piano, samples, chamberlin), Jay Bellerose (drums and percussion), and Niki Haris (voice).
The music Ani has created with their help is as stunning as ever, from such poignant yet instantly irresistible tunes as "Studying Stones" and "Recoil" to the spoken-word piece "Parameters," a harrowing account of a woman finding an uninvited stranger in her bedroom one night. On "Paradigm," Ani recalls helping her mother's efforts at grassroots activism, when she was "just a girl in a room full of women / licking stamps and laughing," an image that becomes a perfect symbol of "the feeling of community brewing / of democracy happening."
Through twelve new songs as intricately crafted as short stories, Ani DiFranco creates an unforgettable musical self-portrait of a woman coming to grips with love's twists and turns, confronting the legacy of her family, and learning to live on her own terms.