Dar Williams

by Dan MacIntosh

Dar Williams is complicated. Well sort of. She lives with her husband and two kids and attends town meetings about lights and fences, but she has a big brain filled with big ideas and a skill for expressing those thoughts in engaging songs.

Raised in Chappaqua, New York, intellectual curiosity led her to Wesleyan University, where she studied religion, and then to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she developed her musical talents. Northampton is filled with artists and vegetarians and women's colleges, and in this free-thinking community where the therapists get plenty of work, her songs cut through the clutter on the coffee shop circuit, leading to successful albums in 1996 (Mortal City) and 1997 (End Of The Summer) and a spot on the Lilith Fair.

Dar is still searching for the stories that keep us connected, and in 2010 released Many Great Companions, a two-CD acoustic set that is part "best of" collection, and part re-visitation of old favorites with the help of special guests like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Larkin. She took some time to give us her thoughts on religion, babysitters, Joan Baez, and the sticky note that changed her life.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The song that really struck me was "Teen For God," especially because I know a little bit about your background, how you studied religion, and religion does play a part in some of your songs. How much of what you learned at those camps, the teen camps, has stuck with you and influenced your songwriting?

Dar Williams: Actually, the truth is, I was a religious teenager, but my friend Julie actually went to a religious camp. So she gave me some information on what it was like to learn all these songs and how much she loved it, and then how embarrassed she was to talk about it at a certain point when she was becoming a radical lesbian musician; to talk about what it was like to be secular Jewish and go to this camp with which she was so enthralled. I said, "Oh my goodness," that was kind of like me. My parents were atheist, but there I was going to these youth groups and Sunday schools, and I wanted to talk about the Bible. And so the song was the hybrid of her experience and my experience. Both of us had an experience going into this kind of weird embarrassment or discomfort around our religious adolescences, and then coming out the other side and realizing that it has been pretty wonderful. There was a lot of ecstatic experience, as we called it, in the religion major in college. There was ecstatic experience, and thought about morality and our identities in community with people who cared about service and kindness, and that there was nothing wrong with that, and that if nothing else, it was kind of sweet and kind of funny. So that was the full circle of something I really wanted to communicate in the song.

Songfacts: "The Babysitter's Here" is a great song. I had kind of a hippie schoolteacher in elementary school, and she was never my babysitter, but she taught me to love Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Young and some different stuff like that. So that's how I related to that song. Did you ever do any babysitting growing up, and were you ever the cool babysitter to somebody else?

Williams: Yeah, I think so. Again, it was a coming full circle for me, too: When I met my babysitter again, when I was 23, and she told me that she'd had a less than perfect adolescence. When I wrote that song I was thinking about her, and then I was thinking about how I must have appeared to the kids I was babysitting for. I had a big thick biology book with a snake and a skull on it. And it looked so impressive. And what they didn't know is that I wasn't doing so well in biology and it's kind of a straightforward text. But I saw the way they saw me, and I remembered how I felt about my babysitter. And the early '70s were a special time. Although now that my kiddo - my son - has babysitters, I realize that that sort of long-haired babysitter with her little purse from Target and her little boots and her big earrings and her perfume, it's still much more mystical than your mom who hasn't taken a shower in four days. (laughing) And it's nice to see that continues to happen. It would be sad to think that golden era of hippie adolescence was just one decade of our history. I think I was that person, but I think that's what I see continuing.

Songfacts: Did you ever try out any new songs on kids?

Williams: Not really. I'm writing some songs that are based on Greek myths, but they're just to adults. My son loves Greek myths, but to talk about the true fault line between power and kindness that I'm looking at would be just not right for my son, but it's very much inspired by the kinds of ways he talks about Greek myths and the Greek myths we're reading. But I did do a kids' song called "Wake Up," "Wake up and move your body around." And we do sing that in the morning sometimes. It's good for waking up and moving our bodies around.

Songfacts: You have a close relationship with Joan Baez. Can you think of any particular advice that she has given you that stuck with you that's helped you along the way?

Williams: Absolutely. She gave me a ton of advice. She planted a lot of seeds. One was to not be afraid of shopping. She had a lot of really beautiful jewelry and clothes, and she took that aspect of performance seriously, and I think it really was great to have that from someone like her. I was coming out of these very self-abdicating environmental movements, and here is a person saying, "Get yourself a new pair of boots, for God's sake." And that was good for me. That was the right message. And at the same time, I overheard her in an interview once - I never even heard the questions, but I heard the answers. And one of the things she was saying was, "You can say that your music is what's accomplishing your mission for the world, but it's not enough. At some point, you're going to want to engage more. You'll feel the need." And when I felt that need, I could identify it really quickly because of Joan. And so I was able to identify my need for greater engagement with these towns that I was falling in love with, these cities and the ways that cities were doing things right, whether it was Portland, Oregon, creating a great public transportation system from the airport so you don't have to get a $100 cab, or community gardens in Ann Arbor, or a more developed pedestrian area in Ithaca, New York. I was benefiting from these things, and I wanted to be involved somehow, so I will have more fund raising or tabling or discussion, or I would mention things, and it wasn't just straightforward fundraising, but it was engagement that I allowed myself to have, and now I feel like I've got 100 homes in this country. So that's from Joan.

And the other thing she told me was, "You're going to hit a wall at some point. You're going to feel like you've fallen off your plateau or you've plateaued where you didn't expect to. It's inevitable, and you never see it coming." And I was like, "Except for me." (laughs) And then when I did hit a wall with an album that didn't do well at the same time that the industry wasn't doing well, I was able to really understand what was happening. It really softened the blow. So she did all of those things, and she had impeccable standards of performance and music. She really believed in the power of song, and she found the songs that fulfilled that mission.

Songfacts: I love your producer, Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. My thinking about him has always been I love his voice, because he expresses emotion so well as a singer. But I don't know a lot about him as a producer. What did he bring to the project that was special?

Williams: He doesn't over-think stuff. He lets the magic of the moment come through, I think because he's got such a magically expressive voice and he must be used to the experience of not overdoing things, not wanting to overdo things. Because then you quash your special voice.

Songfacts: I was thinking about the song, "As Cool As I Am," which touches upon the whole competitive aspect of being a woman. And then I noticed that you have a number of great songwriters that helped you out on this album, namely Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Larkin. Do you ever feel competitive with your fellow female songwriters?

Williams: No, I wouldn't call it that. They say the difference between envy and jealousy is envy is when you wish you had something somebody else had, and jealousy is when you wish they didn't have it. And so I've certainly felt envy for certain things. But I'm lucky, because I've been shown a lot of gracious behavior. And it's kind of a social contract that I'm not going to be a total pissant in return. So your life is better if you allow yourself to feel envious, but you don't allow yourself to feel out and out competitive, because that's almost like saying, "I wish that person didn't –" It's more like, "I wish I were – " You know, somebody said, "Wow, Ani DiFranco got to meet Bruce Springsteen. I wish I could meet Bruce Springsteen." And I don't really have a great need to meet Bruce Springsteen, but I love the way that she said, "I would do that really well, if I could do that." But she was happy for Ani, she was happy for that moment.

And I think that's the way this community of women works. If you're doing your job right, you're not going to be like anybody else, and you're going to get the opportunities that other people don't get and vice versa. And you'll drive yourself crazy comparing too much. But "As Cool As I Am" is basically saying I'm not going to be in a position of allowing myself to feel competitive with women because that is a black hole. And it's being in a relationship with a person who encourages you to do things competitively, that this person is really rejecting. Life is hard enough: you are going to feel envious, you are going to say, "Oh, why not me, what's wrong with me?" So if you're in a relationship with some schmuck who's encouraging that avenue of thinking when there's so many opportunities to go down that avenue without that schmuck, ya gotta cut him loose. That's schmuck behavior.

Songfacts: When you look at this collection, does it amaze you that you've accomplished what you have? I don't want to ask you to brag, but there must be some moment of pride to be able to look at all these songs and re-visit some of your accomplishments over the years. How does it make you feel when you look at the songs that make up this collection?

Williams: Well, when I was in college, I put a stick-it on my computer, which was huge, that said, "Whatever you do is enough." I had totally lost my mind, and I was coming back from that. So I would say to myself, you know, you're supposed to do a ten-page paper, if you do one page you'll get a D+. If you do two pages, you'll get a C-, or if you do three pages you'll get a C-. So that's all better than an F, so why don't you do a page?

And it was really, enormously helpful to me. And then a friend of mind was kind of coming back from her lost moment, and I put the stick-it on her computer, and she took a very playful approach to this paper, really appreciating the fact that she wasn't writing about something very tangible, and just giving it a very playful approach. And she got an A. Her professor said he read it for his wife. It was like, by letting the pressure go and allowing herself to do what she could in that moment, she released a sort of joy in the meaning of the whole assignment.

So it's like I have a little stick-it on my inner computer that says "Whatever you do is enough." And I don't force lines, and I don't force myself to write every day, and somehow out of that came seven albums that don't, to me, feel forced. And that's the only thing I'll boast about is that there's nothing about it that to me sounds like I said, "I have to write for 2 hours a day," with lines where there were no inspiration. I felt it when I wrote it. And I think that experience coming back from being totally insane and putting that stick-it on my computer was a good beginning to a less forced work ethic.

Songfacts: Tell me a little bit about what you're working on now and what the next album is going to be like.

Williams: I'm hoping that the next album is going to really look at these issues of power and fragility. Like how, as you get into your 40s, 50s, 60s, you have so much ability and so much awareness and so much responsibility. And also all these moments of recklessness – just what comes with that power. And how beautiful and weird and different it is from when you're just out throwing yourself against the wall trying to prove yourself. It's just a different world I'm in right now. And it's fascinating to me. It helps me understand some of that – those words like patriarchy and, you know, when you've got the crown on your head, and maybe you've got the power amulets and the jewels and the scepter. There's a lot going on with how much of that power is false, how much of that power is real, and how, interestingly, it's juxtaposed with your mortality. Because just as you're stepping into your greatest power you're suddenly aware that maybe you've got less than half of your life left. Or that it'll be kind of weird to wear your push-up bra and try to pick somebody up at a bar. It's just not where the power is.

So it's kind of like power juxtaposed with a real understanding that, at its worst, your vanity is peaked, and at its best, your spirituality is enhanced. So it's a really interesting time to be writing about, and that's where I'm going.

Songfacts: Wow. Sometimes I'll ask questions like that and I'll get, "Well, you know, we're working on music..." You have this whole thing mapped out, so I'm quite impressed. It's obvious that you are much better at doing this than, say, biology, so I think you chose the right course in life.

Williams: You're very sweet. I'm at a town meeting deciding about fencing and town illumination, so I have to go back inside. But thank you.

We spoke with Dar Williams on November 3, 2010. Get more at darwilliams.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Randy from Richmond VirginiaI have always wanted to be Dar Williams. I am a 55 year old man, but she is so smart and articulate and insightful and beautiful as well as an amazing musician and song crafter. I am envious, not jealous but I'm so glad we have her with us. She makes this a better world.
  • Terri D from New York/st. PetersburgAwesome interview.
see more comments

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