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Made Here

'Dear Ani' considers fandom — and obsession — centered on singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco

"Dear Ani" is no longer available on demand. Watch the trailer and learn more about the film.

The 18th season of Vermont Public’s local film series, Made Here, is underway on our main TV channel. All season long, we’ll be airing interview segments to provide more context on the films.

The next documentary in the Made Here series, Dear Ani, takes us into the world of Keith, a superfan of New York native and folk rocker Ani DiFranco. DiFranco has been on the music scene since the 1980s, and is often labeled as a feminist icon in the heavily male-dominated music world. In Dear Ani, she is the sometimes uncomfortable main focus of Keith's music, art, and mania.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch hopped on the phone with DiFranco between tour stops to talk about the film and her relationship with fandom. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: The documentary follows the arc of superfan Keith, and his one-way correspondence with you over about two decades. Among other things, Keith thinks that you've been writing lyrics specifically for him over the course of your career. What was your reaction to being approached about participating in this short film? What did you think of the premise of this film?

Ani DiFranco: At the time in which he proposed making this film and asked if I would be a part of it, we were already friends, and had broken through that wall of performer-fan. So I just said yes, as a friend.

Throughout the film, Keith is really open about his mental health. In fact, his experiences with mania are that driving force for his obsessive fan mailing with you. How have you felt about his devotion to you and your music over the years? And has it ever seemed out of bounds?

It was, I don't know, what's the word? Flattering — that's not quite the right word. There's a wonderful aspect to inspiring people and unlocking them with my art. It's not exclusive to Keith. Sometimes that spirals out of control — the intensity that people apply to their relationship with my art. Then transferred to me, the person, in their mind. There can be a threatening aspect; there's a definite volatility to that dynamic. I've experienced it go very awry.

Keith, as you see in the film, would send me these elaborate packages with beautiful art that obviously took many, many hours to create. That was very specific to me and sort of responding to my songs. I kept people around me and kept him at their arm's length. As I did with people who came at me with that kind of energy — but he did not go away. Eventually, I didn't want to be afraid of him. So, I saw him in the audience at yet another show, and I invited him backstage. I was just like,"I gotta meet this guy; I gotta befriend this guy." I have to dispel the power of this, for myself.

While watching the documentary, I kept having this question pop in my head — do you think if you met each other in different circumstances decades ago, you would have just naturally befriended Keith?

I do. I do because I love bipolar people. I have a few drops of whatever brain chemistry that is myself. I'm a deeply feeling, veryexcitable person. I love people who are like that, who are interesting. Who are fascinating. Who are not afraid to express themselves or to react to things, to feel things. But often, being [at] that level of emotion, engagement and excitement about life comes at a price.

Yeah, it also got me thinking about about fandom and the way people interact with their favorite artists. It's really changed significantly over the years, thanks to the internet and thanks to certain fan culture. You know, Taylor's Swifties and Beyonce's Beyhive. Who are Ani DiFranco fans, and have they changed over the years too?

Most of us have gotten older. Although, it's always wonderful to see young people get in the mix.

I think it was always more diverse than it was portrayed as in the media. The only thing that was ever written about me for at least a decade, and who knows, maybe a couple: "This is angry chick music for angry chicks." In a sentence, that's what was written about me, everywhere, by every dude who was writing it. What you were told was that, "This is not for you," unless you're exactly this right here. Now, if you go to my shows, it's all genders and all ages.

And back to the the documentary for a second. Over the decades, we see that Keith is regularly sharing these pieces of fan mail — these absolutely gorgeous works of art. And you just mentioned that he's not the only one that was reaching out or sort of overstepping some boundaries. What do you think that the film suggests about devotion to art and artists, and how sometimes that can become obsessive behavior?

Maybe my favorite aspect of the film is watching people in Keith's life, his near and dear, who very naturally are reacting to his obsession with concern. Responding to it as a mental health issue. After 20 years of obsessing over me, and having this one-way relationship of pouring himself towards me, I open the gates, put down the drawbridge and invite him into the castle. And we become friends.

There's this really poignant shift, where you watch his ex-girlfriend, his best friend saying, "Wait, maybe Keith is the one who knows how to live. And he's really alive. I'm just the shadow of myself. And he believed in this relationship. Look at what it's manifested."

We can hold these things together — concern for mental instability or volatility, and admiration for those of us who live life to its fullest and feel everything there is to feel and pursue without care or reason for what they love.

Musician Ani DiFranco will play a sold out show at Burlington's Flynn Theater on Sept. 20.

Dear Ani premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel on at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, or watch now on demand.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
As Director of Content Partnership, Eric works with individuals and organizations to make connections leading to more Vermont stories. As Producer of the Made Here series, Eric partners with filmmakers from New England and Quebec to broadcast and stream local films. Find more info here: