An exchange with Ani DiFranco

Downtown Buffalo and its art deco City Hall

Credit: Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

Ani DiFranco is a Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter who recently helped renovate the historic Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church in Buffalo.

How did you happen to save a 130-year-old church?

My best friend and manager, Scot Fisher, has been on a personal crusade in Buffalo to stop the city government from razing our architectural heritage. Scot heard about this beautiful red sandstone church that was about to be taken down. It was mothballed and on the market, but it didn't have to be demolished. We thought that maybe the church would be a good space for our company, Righteous Babe Records. Our karma was wrapped up in the place already.

We're opening two music venues there, a big one in the sanctuary, which holds about 1,200 people, and a club located downstairs, in the crypt. Also, the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, a nonprofit organization that presents all sorts of avant-garde art to the community, will have a gallery, a performance space, and offices there. So the church will be a real artistic epicenter.

Why Buffalo when you could live anywhere?

Both Scot and I are from Buffalo. We started our company there, and when I'm not working and traveling, I like to go home. We decided many years ago against New York City because Buffalo is so much more affordable, and it's a beautiful place to live.

Do you live in an old house?

Yes, a brick house, c. 1910. We renovated it. Scot was a contractor and carpenter before I met him about 10 years ago, and he has the skills. In fact, I worked for him originally, as a grunt. I could knock down walls, but I wasn't able to put them up. Scot's a building fixer from way back.

Where does your interest in old houses come from?

I was born into an awareness of how important the infrastructure of our cities, especially architecture, is in people's lives. My mother is an architect and my father a structural engineer, so even as a child I saw the value of renovation. My mother belonged to an organization, called Women for Downtown, that worked to enlighten people about beautiful old structures—structures that embodied our spirit, our history, and our souls. I was aware that our physical environment affects our emotional lives and our feelings about community.

Living in an old house now, opening my kitchen door with its old knob, touching it every day, I think of how many people over the past 100 years have walked through that doorway. I think about how I'm connected to things that came before me and to things that will come after me. That kind of an experience reinforces my humanity. I really feel for children who grow up in suburbs in brand-new houses on brand-new streets and who go to brand-new schools where there's no history. I wonder how people can feel connected to those kinds of places.

Why did you record your recent album Educated Guess on vintage, reel-to-reel equipment?

I like exploring many different formats. My sensibilities tend toward older gear, simple stuff that works well and does what I want it to, as opposed to this new digital gear that does a million and one things and doesn't work well. I'm a simple gal. I play guitar and write songs, and just getting an old tape machine and a couple of simple compressors and laying down the songs in a basic, honest way felt right to me. Plus, I recorded the album in my old house in Buffalo. You can hear how that environment—the wood rooms and high ceilings—affects the sound.

How can preservationists connect with younger people?

Through an awareness of cities, which are the heart of society. That's where people come together to interact, where cultural life is rooted. Fear has driven a lot of people out of cities over the past several decades, and misguided local governments have been tearing down buildings, erasing our history. The countryside is disappearing, as well, with farmland being turned into sprawling subdivisions. I think all this indicates a sickness in our society. I speak to these problems through my songs. I have one called "Subdivison" that's about white flight from Buffalo, about how the place became a kind of evacuated city.

Much of our physical heritage has already been destroyed. When Scot catches wind of an old building in trouble, he tries to stop it from being destroyed. Sometimes we'll just go and watch an old brownstone being torn down. It's like watching someone get killed. And not only are buildings being demolished, but the rubble and debris get thrown away as well. Often we scrounge around the bricks and old stones of a razed building, hoping we can reuse them. It's preservation in the sense that we pull the truck up, dust off the bricks, put them in piles, and try to find someplace to use them. What can you do but try to live by example?

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