Domestic bliss wears well on Ani DiFranco.
For nearly 20 years, the Buffalo-born "urban folk" singer-songwriter was a walking, singing, playing embodiment of a pop music iconoclast, a fiercely independent artist who started her own record company, Righteous Babe, in order to maintain a level of autonomy she would never get anywhere else. And because of that DiFranco has been able to make her music unpredictable and, therefore, all the more interesting over the course of 17 studio albums as well as a number of live sets.
The new "Red Letter Year" is no less ambitious, but the title refers to the different life space in which DiFranco finds herself. She's in love -- with co-producer Mike Napolitano, who's lured her to New Orleans to make their home with 21-month-old daughter Petah Lucia. "There's been a lot of changes in my life," notes DiFranco, 38, who met Napolitano a decade ago and built their relationship during the intervening years.
"I'm a mom now. I live in New Orleans. I have a new band, a new crew of people I'm working with. But I really feel like (Napolitano) was the catalyst for all of that change, sort of bringing me back to my happier self."
And while many singer-songwriters seem to require angst to create, DiFranco says that she discovered that this recent plethora of positivity provides its own kind of muse.
"I really know happiness to be a very driving force, a motivating factor," she explains. "I feel like I do my best work when I'm happy. I think my clearest thoughts and I can write them down that way."
The challenge, DiFranco says, is balancing creative time with parenting duties.
"The baby, though she contributes a lot to my happiness factor, she also takes away from my writing time -- without apology," says DiFranco, who takes Petah on the road, with Napolitano frequently joining them. "That's something I didn't really anticipate; I thought, 'Oh, I'll write when she's napping...I didn't realize how much creative energy it takes from you just to be raising a kid.
"So the writing has definitely slowed up, but I'm trying not to resist it. For so many years I devoted all my energy to my work, this is a different adventure, in a welcome way."
Making "Red Letter Day" with Napolitano, her first-ever co-producer, was also a different venture for DiFranco. Where her inclination has long been "to get everybody set up in one room and just play," she describes Napolitano, who also worked on her 2006 album "Reprieve," as "very end-result focused" and more exacting, paying more attention to drum sounds and guitar tones. "It definitely took some getting used to," DiFranco acknowledges, but she ultimately decided "to just defer and follow him down blind alleys and trust in his process and see what happened.
"I found myself sort of kicking back and being an artist and just not thinking about anything else, which was different and great," she says. "I'm sort of proud of myself at how much I did that, and I think the album really benefited from it, and from him."
DiFranco, who also oversees the careers of several other artists on the Righteous Babe label, says she's certainly interested in pursing that process again on her next album. But she quickly adds that the needs of baby Petah make it impossible to predict when that might occur.
"I have a couple songs that I'm sort of finishing, finally -- the first new songs, really, since" finishing "Red Letter Year," DiFranco says. "That's very slow for me, and I'm just itching to get something new...so I don't get bored on stage. But I can't have that furious pace I've always worked with. It's the same process now -- just a little more complicated."
Ani DiFranco and Ryan Montbleau perform Tuesday (Oct. 7) at the Royal Oak Music Thteatre,318 W. Fourth St. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Call (248) 399-2980 or visit www.royaloakmusictheatre.com.
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