With a songwriting career as long and prolific as Dar Williams’, it’s not surprising that she’s picked up a host of talented musical friends along the way. Some of them share songwriting and performing credits on her latest album, Emerald. “Mad River” features harmonies by The Milk Carton Kids and “Slippery Slope” is a duet with Jim Lauderdale. Also lending their talents are Richard Thompson, Suzzy Roche and her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, among others.
It’s easy to imagine how much fun it must have been to record songs with so many gifted songwriters and performers during tour stops across the country, but no song exudes “fun” as much as “FM Radio,” which she co-wrote with singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. It’s an energetic, pop-infused song crammed with humor, energy and lyrics that just beg to be shouted, rather than sung. And sometimes are.
Hey Mr. Lifeguard up in the big chair
Turn up the radio, you’re looking good, yeah.
Dancing at the snack bar, singing to each other
We know the words from the record back cover.
We got Crawdaddy, we know what’s going on.
Sonny and Cher split, what took them so long?
The boys are strutting like a Foxy Lady.
So sing it loud in your hairbrush, baby.
Chorus: – It’s FM Radio everywhere I go, FM radio
Call of the night
Lou Reed says he’s a bisexual. Jackson Browne is an intellectual.
Stevie Wonder bought a house for his mother. DJ telling us we’re sister and brother.
We are the cosmos, we are the glam kids, putting stardust on our eyelids.
Night Bird’s calling for a group meditation, sending Patty Hearst a positive vibration.
It’s in my pocket when I’m sledding! My cousin smoking pot before her wedding!
Talking Cold War, rocket launches. I’m talking disco with my orthodontist.
Who cranked Zeppelin? The driver ed guy! Yelled Barracuda off the high dive.
On a date with a guy from band. He played a trumpet solo, it was Brandy!
Every night I do stuff with my hair. Maybe Queen needs a clarinet player.
And the sailors say…Chorus
Hey little sister, take off your head phones. Don’t try to scrutinize, it’s just a dead zone.
Wake up the neighbors, tell me how you do feel. And live the fantasy that makes your life real
So if you wanna play, follow your glory, and if some guys says that’s not your story
Take a lesson from the FM that I knew then. It’s like a public pool, you decide where to jump in
To feel the sexiness, the passion, the fusion and the fission.
Remember Bruce Springsteen divorced a model and married a musician.
Dar Williams’ ability to create believable, engaging characters in her songs is one of her strengths. This song’s narrator is a teenaged girl, around fifteen years old, in the 70s. She revels in all the pop culture that surrounds her.
“It was mostly a correspondence course,” Dar says when asked what the co-writing process was like. “We got together once in New York City and wrote the first two or three lines of the song, but only after we went through this wild Google/Youtube pageant of the 70s–the bands, and Billboard Top 100 lists, and pictures of costumes, and going through lyrics, and talking about where we were in relationship with all of that incredible hair and polyester and music.
“It was like we were keeping a beach ball up in the air, just keeping everything very light and fun. That’s what we wanted in the song. There’s a moment when you have to make it more intricate and make sure your phrasing and your rhymes are where you want them to be. But it had to start with that ‘I know, right?’ moment of sharing what was special and different about the 70s from today.”
The narrator’s access to all that pop culture came from the radio, and as Dar wrote the song, she realized that the reason she was writing the song was to talk about the role that radio DJ’s played in the 70s—which, as she explains, was much more than just playing the music and dishing up celebrity gossip.
“I took all of that conversation and all of the fun of it home with me and tried to get to what I call the ‘why’ of the song, or the ‘aha moment’ of the song, where you realize why you wrote it. So I decided on my own that it was this special quality, a certain kind of spiritual responsibility put on listeners by the DJs and the music itself, and kind of a socio-political awareness that was woven into the music and FM radio, even more than the music. And that all of those ways of hanging out around the music–spiritual, social, political–were something that narrator wanted to pass on to somebody today, and allow her to feel empowered by it.”
One of the DJs who gets specific mention in the song is Alison Steele, the pioneering DJ at progressive rock station WNEW-FM in New York. Besides the lyric about the “Nightbird” you can hear her radio signoff at the end of the song.
“Alison Steele was called the Nightbird and she did a lot of musing about the cosmos and the world and about love and brotherhood and sisterhood… there was this sense that if you were a radio presenter you were also kind of a shepherd of all of these eccentric kids and adults, and that was part of the job.”
Speaking more about the role that radio, and DJs, played in the 70s, and how it connected people, Dar says, “It says ‘Who cranked Zeppelin? The driver ed guy!’ As far as we know, driver ed guys, I don’t know why this happens with them, but you really feel that they don’t exist outside that car. Like you don’t know why they are, you don’t care who they are, so if they do something that exhibits a personality that you can recognize it’s kind of a big deal because then you think ‘wow, maybe these other adults are human beings too. Like maybe there’s more connection than I realized.’
“The music was about bonding, and then you have presenters who were there to make sure that that’s how you understood music. That you saw music as a bridge. Your bridge to celebrities, your bridge to participate, your bridge to the cosmic order. So they were encouraging that sense that music was the common ground that allowed us to then talk about our hair, our politics, our teachers, each other. So that kind of role of saying, ‘no, no, music can’t just be music’, was what I think FM radio was all about. And I think that’s missing now, you know?”
This isn’t the first song in which Dar Williams explored the role of radio in people’s, particularly teenagers’, lives. I ask about the song “Are You Out There?” from her 1997 album End of the Summer.
“Very similar, yeah. It was very much about an individual feeling, just a way out of the suburbs and out of the non-questioning world that she’s in. So ‘FM Radio’ is revisiting of the same role of the DJ being more than just a record spinner. But in ‘Are You Out There’ it was one person finding her path into questioning the world around her through the radio, and in ‘FM Radio’ it’s the ‘hang-out culture’ that broke down barriers between men and women, boys and girls, adults and kids in a lot of ways.”
My favorite line in “FM Radio” is “On a date with a guy from band. He played a trumpet solo, it was Brandy!” for so many reasons. The goofy rhyming of “band. He” with “Brandy.” The subtle, yet important, difference between “a guy from a band,” who would have been cool, and “a guy from band,” who is wonderfully dorky.
“Totally,” Dar agrees when I point out the dorkiness of the band guy. “He’s not in a band. He wants to be in a band so what he does is he goes home and practices his trumpet the same way she practices her clarinet so she can be a rock and roll clarinet player.
“I really liked the idea of someone playing a trumpet solo to impress a girl, and the trumpet solo is his take on the song ‘Brandy,’ which is one of the weirdest songs. It’s about a sailor.”
I ask Dar to clarify about “Brandy.” Is it the song I’m thinking of? “Brandy, what a fine girl…”
“What a good wife you’ll be,” she continues. “But my life, my lady, my lover is the sea. What the…? So I love that this guy was trying to woo a girl by playing a trumpet solo.”
Pause for a second to imagine a 15-year-old kid from marching band playing Brandy on trumpet to impress a girl. And it working. There’s a whole story packed into that one line, and it’s a great story.
I ask her about the upbeat, pop sound of the song, how that came about.
“It started with the Bruce Springsteen line. I love the idea of the person stuffing way too many syllables into a short line, that kind of enthusiasm. So I already knew that the narrator had a lot to say and was fifteen years old and certain things had to be said, no matter how many syllables it took. So I kind of had the urgency, and I was sitting with my kids, and it was just the three of us and I was giving them dinner. I just suddenly got this kind of fast-moving Ramones-y kind of thing in my head and I said ‘hey little sister, put on the headphones, don’t try to scrutinize, it’s just a dead zone.’”
Discussing how the chorus came into being, Dar says, “I just felt that narrator using real 70s language, dispensing wisdom to a younger person. So we have a chalkboard for our refrigerator, like blackboard paint on the refrigerator, so for weeks those lines were on the refrigerator. And then a month later my daughter was in the bathtub and I suddenly started singing ‘FM Radio, everywhere I go, FM Radio.’ Just that kind of marching beat. And then ‘call of the night.’ And I finally realized what my brain was doing. ‘Call of the night’ has this kind of harmony that’s like those really lush radio tags from the 70s. At the time I just heard this harmony in my head. So then she was in the bathtub and I came up with the chorus.”
A perfect example of the interaction between Dar Williams and Jill Sobule is what happened to the lyric Dar had on the refrigerator for three weeks.
“At the end I said, ‘hey little sister put on the headphones’ because they had those gigantic headphones and we were trying to kind of encapsulate what that feeling was, and Jill said ‘You know what? I think it’s gotta be: hey little sister, take off the headphones.’ And dance around and make the music really loud and annoy people and feel the vibrations in your feet. That’s what we should be telling the little sister.”