“You just saw me run out of my Travelers Zen,” Dar Williams tells me after the second time she’s forced to hang up and call me back. In the midst of forty eight hours of layovers, cancelled flights and delays, it’s no wonder the singer/songwriter is stressed. However, even under pressure, on tour to promote her ninth studio album, Williams is as earnest and genuine as her fans might expect. Between interruptions, Williams tried valiantly to discuss folk music’s connection to social justice, tips from Joan Baez and the greening of American towns.
Our Town In the Time of Gods, like most of your albums, seems to coalesce around a theme. Obviously the public’s relationship to music has changed with technology. Instead of buying and listening to a whole album the way an artist might envision it, most people pick and choose. I’m wondering if that’s changed the way you conceptualize your work.
Dar Williams A song versus an album is not like a scene versus a play. It’s more like, you can always enjoy a painting in a museum, but if you go to a retrospective or a planned exhibit it’s that much better because the setup allows you to get inside somebody else’s head. Even though there’s an integrated theme, I hope that each of the songs can hold up apart from one another.
OT You write when inspiration strikes rather than having a daily writing practice. Is that an approach you advocate for others?
DW You can never presume what will work for other people. You’ll almost encounter a superstition amongst musicians, people sort of go through strange rituals, what they need to do to write a song. The only thing I’ve noticed is that the friends of mine who write every day struggle just as much as I do, just in a different way. And they have more stuff that they throw out, which is fine. It’s hard for me to create anything that isn’t somehow interesting to me. So instead of saying I’m going to write a song about the set of bowls that my aunt gave me because that’s what I’m looking at, I wait for the thing to find me, the theme or the subject. However, there is a daily practice to holding an open enough mind to receive such a thing. So, that’s a practice.
OT Are there any songs you feel have helped you advance as a writer?
DW There’s a song called "February" where I was developing this metaphor and then suddenly the metaphor just broke open into reality. My sister and I have spoken about this because she’s a writer and we basically said, the story is more important than the metaphor. You can get very academic, but at the end of the day, your heart is in the story. Writing February made me realize that breaking form is a way of letting the song be human.
OT You’ve moved back and forth between songwriting and novel writing. How are the experiences different?
DW They’re really different. The book writing, I did show up for every day, and I always looked forward to it because I knew that whatever I was feeling I could find a part of the book that would fit my mood. So if I was feeling wistful, angry, frustrated, excited there was always a character who could absorb that. Writing a book wasn’t like that kind of fine motor skills of writing a song-- really parsing things out, phrasing them and rhyming them, and oh by the way, what’s the song about? It was a really rewarding experience. Inevitably I always felt better at the end of a writing session and always felt glad that I’d sat down. It was creativity without all the frustration of getting things painstakingly, poetically tight.
OT When you get an idea how do you know whether it wants to be a song or a book?
DW Its a pretty clear line. There are long cinematic things that come into my head and then there’s very specific phrases that will pop in and those are clearly meant to be as long and short as a song.
OT There are certain performers who you go to see not just for the music but for the relationships-and to hear what they’ll say. I’m thinking of Girlyman and The Nields Sisters. You’re also someone who talks and shares and is funny onstage. I interviewed Nerissa recently and I want to ask you the same question I asked her: was relating to the audience in a really casual, funny way a conscious decision, or did that evolve for you?
DW That was very much the world that I was in in Cambridge and New York at the time. You know, John Gorka and Patty Larkin and Greg Brown. The early nineties were all about something bigger than just the songs, that would make the songs bigger. It was not a way to deflect; it was a way to bring it all together. The first concert I saw was Cheryl Wheeler. Cheryl sang eight songs in an hour and fifteen minute set. Usually you can do about twelve in that time. And even Jane Siberry, who will sing a song that can be up to ten minutes and can be very meditative, she’ll say just enough in between songs, so this idea that you can kind of weave it together. Or Loreena Mckennitt, she did this beautiful piece and I thought, this is going to be a very musical thing and she’s going to preserve her mystique by not speaking; she spoke right after the first song and was so lovely. I think people want to know where it comes from. It’s an elemental thing. We like to find the connection to the source of a song. The singer/songwriter tradition preserves something that people like, and it’s different than any other genre.
OT Another distinct aspect of the genre in which you operate is its relationship to social justice. Would you have been drawn to folk music if the medium didn’t have that aspect?
DW There were a lot of directions I considered. I grew up in a household that said that artists were important people and my parents encouraged my need to be creative. I love opera and I was thinking of being an opera director, opera singer. [Later] I toured with Joan Baez and heard her affirm this idea that finding causes outside of yourself is a way of preserving yourself and living a more emotionally healthy life on the road. That was really meaningful to me. And I think with folk music, opportunities sort of arise, even if it's to help save the space in which you’re performing, maybe an old theater, or a radio station and then suddenly you hear that there’s a park or something you’ve come to really love in this town and so you get involved with that. For me, that’s kind of what happened. My eyes and ears were opened to these really cool places I was playing and then [I got] a smattering of phone calls from my mom’s friends asking me to do fundraisers-- and of course you can’t say no to your mom’s friends. And then I realized all of that helped me feel connected. At this point I have a pretty crystalized sense of what I think should be happening in the world. I believe we need to be making a transition to renewable energy and I’ve been really happy to be part of this growing posse of artists who have adopted new ideas earlier--because I had the luxury to do that and because I learned a lot about things when I was on the road--and who are out there trying to translate these energy ideas to the world and make them seem normal and not freakish. I know a lot of artists who find themselves connecting and then connecting a little more and then realizing that in one night they could make the same amount of money for an institution that would otherwise really have to scramble to make that kind of money.
OT I’m interested in what Joan Baez said about emotional balance. I know you’ve talked about having found a stronger sense of spirituality and I wondered how you balance the need to package, sell and promote yourself with maintaining personal equilibrium?
DW Yeah, that’s tough. For the first decade of my career, I was with an indi label so it wasn’t a question of who do I have to sleep with, what kind of boob job do I have to get, but it was [still] tricky. I needed to show up and do in-stores here and radio appearance here and free concerts there and there was this feeling of, am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Should I be more talented? Should I be more pretty? And that’s a big sucking hole.
[At this point, Williams has to disconnect our call. She calls again within two minutes.]
DW We’re here in this rental place and this woman-- I’m being kicked out of--anyway, sorry.
OT So let’s talk about spirituality while you switch rental cars!
DW That’s the thing too--you gotta roll with a lot and I got really zen about it when I realized this whole flight was shot to hell last night. When I was just starting my career, my blood pressure keeps going up, every time I’d go to a doctor’s appointment. And I asked a friend, “do I seem like an angry person?” She said, “you seem angrier to me. I don’t think anyone else would notice but it might be a hazard to you.” And then at this gig, everything went wrong: there was no food, it was snowing, I was just getting over a flu and I was really freaked out and angry, and the sound guy--there was this massive feedback--
[This time Williams is gone for about five minutes. She calls back, laughing a little.]
OT Now I feel guilty!
DW No you must be like, I asked her about spirituality and she started to answer this total bullsh-t, “well, here’s what I do,” and then she bitched this woman out. But I’m sorry you had to hear that-
OT You're fine! I can’t imagine how stressful this must be.
DW I wouldn’t have this stress if I didn’t have the success that I get because I do interviews and tour and I’m very grateful. And I was happy that we could schedule this in, like, it was supposed to fit in perfectly. So anyway, at sound check the sound guy was a little disorganized and there was a massive feedback thing and I was like, it’s not personal, why don’t I take it there? He’s not trying to ruin my day. This huge burden came off my shoulders all at once and my blood pressure went down again. It was amazing. I just had to shift a little. Also having a little travelers zen is good. I’m working on something that’s going to be like a travel diary. I’ve fallen in love with all of the towns that I perform in, I have a great sense of belonging and there’s this thing that I call positive proximity. I live in a lovely town too and I’ve seen some amazing things, like a community gardens or little bits of free space or not a lot of competitive behavior, a lot of different conditions, but they sort of conspire to create this kind of good soil in a community in which things can grow. So I tend to see the success story of a town. And I feel this spiritual attachment, this wellspring of excitement about observing that and writing about these towns in the US that I see greening out from the center as opposed to emptying out and everyone shows up at the big box stores. I’m watching the return of the American town and that just feeds my soul.
Catch Dar Williams, April 27, at Space in Evanston.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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