GREENSBORO — When Ani DiFranco and Rhiannon Giddens converse at the Greensboro Bound literary festival, credit Brian Lampkin with bringing the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriters together.
It took Lampkin, president of the Greensboro Literary Organization that runs the book festival, dozens of emails and phone calls over two months to make it happen.
DiFranco will discuss her new memoir with Giddens at 3 p.m. May 19 at Harrison Auditorium on the N.C. A&T campus.
“Having Ani and Rhiannon at our festival means that we’ve helped create a never-before-seen conversation between two generation-defining and genre-defying musicians,” said Lampkin, also a co-owner of downtown’s Scuppernong Books. “This kind of unique event defines our festival for the future.”
It will be the closing event of the free second annual book festival, which runs May 16 to 19, mostly at downtown venues.
Now 48, DiFranco is an alt-rock/folk-rock singer, guitarist, poet, songwriter, feminist and activist. She has released more than 20 albums including the Grammy-winning “Evolve,” all on her own record label, Righteous Babe.
She will join 90 authors in Greensboro participating in more than 60 events, including talks, readings, conversations, workshops, music and films.
DiFranco will talk with Giddens about her memoir, “No Walls and the Recurring Dream,” released this week by Viking Books.
Giddens, a Greensboro native, has recorded albums with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and solo. She won a 2017 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
In February, she released the album, “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah. Last week, she released “There is No Other,” with pianist and percussionist Francesco Turrisi.
DiFranco said the prospect of talking with Giddens helped to draw her to Greensboro. Both working mothers of two, they share similar musical interests.
“That just seems like a cool intersection,” DiFranco said from her home in New Orleans, where she performed at the New Orleans Jazz Fest before embarking on her tour.
“It’s rare for me to meet another person who is interested in traditional music forms, roots music,” she added, “who is building a career in music that is not about being slick and modern and keeping up with the fashion of the times, but more about being aware of your cultural and social history and keeping voices and stories alive and reigniting our cultural awareness.”
So how did Lampkin make this happen?
With his persistence and the generosity of the two singers.
Lampkin noticed that DiFranco was about to release her memoir. Both he and DiFranco had grown up in Buffalo, N.Y., and had several mutual friends. So he asked her agents and managers if DiFranco could make a book tour stop during Greensboro Bound.
He got lots of “no” answers from her managers, until mutual friends interceded. DiFranco said yes.
Her team fit it into her tour. They particularly liked Lampkin’s idea of a conversation with Giddens.
Lampkin didn’t know if Giddens would even be in town.
“I was too invested in the idea to let it go,” Lampkin said. “It just seemed so perfect.”
Coincidentally, Giddens was going to be in town on May 19, performing a concert that night with other musicians to benefit The Experiential School of Greensboro.
Giddens said yes to the conversation with DiFranco. Singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett will introduce them to the audience.
The public liked the idea, too. They snapped up the 900 free tickets, although some might be available at the door.
Honest, passionate and frequently funny, DiFranco’s book traces her radical journey to the age of 30. It opens at New York’s Carnegie Hall as she debuts her poem, “Self Evident,” seven months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then looks back.
She chronicles her childhood in Buffalo, striking out on her own as a teen, her move to New York City.
She decided not to sign with a major record label, and instead started her own at age 20. The Righteous Babe label still releases records.
“It’s a great story of a woman surviving in the industry on her own terms,” Lampkin said.
DiFranco traces her gutsy streak to her mother, Elizabeth, now in her mid-80s.
Her mother was the first woman in her class at MIT School of Architecture in Massachusetts. She later quit her architecture career, moved to another state and reinvented her life.
“Just intrepidly going wherever she felt she needed to go — that was always the example she set,” DiFranco said. “I think I was born with a chemical concoction inside of me that was not going to be told ‘No.’ Whenever it just felt wrong to me, I was compelled to challenge it.”
She considered writing a book for several years. So she spent a few years at home with her husband, Mike Napolitano, and their two children and did it.
“Part of it was trying to invent a way to work from home so that I could not get divorced,” she said, laughing. “And part of it was just a natural. It was a good time to look back for me on some very internal level.”
She ended her memoir in 2001,” she said, “because this life that I have led since then seems like a whole other life to me. It was hard enough to cram my first 30 years into 300 pages ... Now it just felt like it was finally time to look back and have enough of a depth of perspective on what happened 30 years ago to say something about it.”
DiFranco looks forward to traveling, engaging with people and hearing their ideas.
But she doesn’t plan to sing at her Greensboro appearance with Giddens.
“For one thing, I just want to know what it feels like to be a frickin’ comedian and just show up,” DiFranco said. “There’s no gear, there’s no load-in, there’s no load-out, there’s no sound check. For me, after 30 years of playing shows, I wanted none of that to be part of the experience for me. I want to show up and focus on having a conversation and on the ideas and the things that the book puts out there and riffing on that and really focusing on a direct conversation — not just with my conversation partners but then the question-and-answer with the audience.”
She admits that she feels apprehensive about her schedule of book and concert dates, which takes her away from home and family through mid-June and resuming in August.
“It’s a little scary to know that I am going to be leaving for the better part of two months and hoping that everybody is OK,” she said.
She’s a bit apprehensive — but also excited — about the book itself.
“I think I have moved out of the phase of acute dread,” she said, laughing. “This is a whole new level of exposure and being accountable to 300 pages of complete sentences. It feels like it’s upped the ante from a lifetime of songs and poems and how everybody will feel and react to what I have written, starting with my mother.”
“I hope this book somehow will find its way to playing a similar role as my songs, which is simply just to reach somebody and inspire them to more deeply or more fearlessly become themselves,” she said. “I hope that somebody reading this book will come away with, ‘So it’s not rocket science. You just listen to your own instincts.’ Trust yourself. Even when everyone around you is going, ‘No, it’s red.’ And you’re thinking, ‘No, it’s blue.’ Go with blue and see where that leads you.”