Surviving in the music industry beyond one’s sophomore album is a feat in and of itself; surviving for over twenty years and continuing to make exciting, vivid new music is an achievement very few can claim. One of those singer-songwriters, however, is Dar Williams, who rose to popularity among the Lilith Fair generation of the mid-to-late 1990s. But while the majority of those female rockers enjoyed sizable commercial success and some hit singles, Dar has always flown slightly under the radar. But this hasn’t been detrimental to her career; rather, it’s allowed her the chance to work with some amazing artists, record songs that she wanted to hear (instead of what fit on radio), and most of all build a career in the grassroots aesthetic, all based on her strength as a live performer. She’s dynamic, spirited and engaged, and ultimately a poet with a very active social conscience.
Dar Williams is set to release her ninth studio album In The Time of Gods later this month via Razor & Tie, but Glide Magazine recently had the pleasure of talking with Dar about everything from recording the album to her time touring with Joan Osborne, her passion for environmental awareness, the resurgence of vinyl and why Cry Cry Cry is pretty much done forever.
It’s been four years since your last studio record Promised Land, and two since the major career retrospective you did (Many Great Companions). Will you talk to me about your writing process– are you constantly writing, keeping a journal of ideas? Do you write specifically for a project? How do you know when a new album is not only on the horizon but palpable?
With this new one, I had gotten really involved and interested with this Huffington Post column that I was writing, and that was around the spring of 2010, and I’d written a children’s musical and writing some other things at the time, so I just had a lot of ideas and was spreading myself pretty wide with those projects, but was doing so quite happily. But amidst that, I was collecting ideas for this new record, but what ended up really helping the project was having a concept, which was pretty new for me.
The concept began when I was in Canada, and there was a very beautiful early evening light over snow, with bare trees and silver sky creating this really intense tableau, and I was driving but it seemed like a very American opera set for an amazing Greek myth that was going to be reinterpreted in some grand theater vision. So, when you see a theater set, especially as a writer, you want to put characters in it, and I imagined this biker gong along this tableau, and then I thought, “Well, what if the biker is Hermes– the Messenger of the Dead?” And then I imagined he had this woman on his bike who had really given up on herself– she’s in her 50’s or 60’s, but she feels like she’s faded from the world, so she makes the phone call to Hermes to come pick her up and take her to Hades.
Hermes is also the God of travelers, thieves– people who live by their wits. And he is enchanted by her, and turns to her and says, “I really love worldly people, and you haven’t disappeared to me– you seem very strong and be of this group of travelers who are inspirational to me, so I’m going to turn my bike around and seduce you.” So that was the first song that came from this project. And then I had this sort of horribly devious and funny thought about what would piss off my record company the most– how about writing a whole album about Greek myths? (laughs)
And that’s when I really started to think about the different stories I’d grown up with, and that they were still very alive for me. So, in my travels I began to see the world through the eyes of these Greek myths, so coming into Silicon Valley, for example, is very much the song “This Earth,” with this guy tinkering in his basement all the time with little robots as his friends, and he’s married to a beautiful woman for whom he makes beautiful things, but she’s never there and clearly he’s a fan of the Discovery Channel. He pines for her, but he also doesn’t understand her– he likes his tinkering and blowing stuff up in the back yard. And specifically the story of Hephaestus, who is the God of artisans/blacksmiths and volcanoes, and he’s married to the Goddess of Beauty, and she literally is messing around with the God of War, whom she prefers, and so she’s disdainful of her basement-bound husband. It’s kind of like a children’s retelling of a very adult scenario, so that was my next song. And then one by one, they kept on springing up. So, I had this tow rope and concept that while I experimented allowed me to come back to it and gain momentum, which then accelerated a lot when I went into the studio and had to have something completed (laughs). So yeah, a lot at the end, too.
I find this album to be actually fairly experimental, which may sound odd to you but what I mean is it doesn’t exactly follow the traditional “Dar Williams songwriting approach” kind of method. There are stories on this record that are backed by instrumentation that I’m just really excited and surprised to hear from you. Was that a consideration going into recording In The Time of Gods?
That very much was the producer’s call, but the thing is I chose the producer to begin with. There are a lot of people who I was talking to about producing this record who wanted to fit it into a specific sound, and then Kevin Killen came along and said, “Let’s get so-and-so and then so-and-so to play on this,” and then when the record company came to me and said that they’d been hit hard by the economic downturn and therefore couldn’t offer me a big budget whatsoever, my good friend Rob Hyman, with whom I co-wrote four of the songs on this album, graciously offered us the use of his home studio, where we could stay and record for free. He even offered to play on the record for free. And you know, a lot of people would make that offer and it’d be a really awkward moment, but Rob is just such an amazing and inspirational guy to work with.
The median age of the people who play on the album is around 50, actually. They’re these guys who have done rock-and-roll professionally and really know their way around their instruments in this really incredible way. There’s a lot of professions where the term “seasoned” is a real detriment, but in rock-and-roll it’s for people who have developed great instincts and have a huge repertoire that they can saddle up. But then again, they have their own minds and they don’t really consult with you that much. They hear something and they follow that path, and you just have to get out of the way.
So, I knew who Kevin was bringing in, and I knew that he really wanted to concentrate on that and not just bring in ten million people. He really wanted it to sound like a band on the stage.
You usually have a really remarkable list of guest artists who play on your records, like Ani DiFranco on “Comfortably Numb,” Alison Krauss, John Popper, Suzanne Vega, etc. With this album, were you more focused on this band aesthetic? I know that Shawn Colvin sings on one of the songs.
Yes. She sings on “The Light and The Sea.” With this album, there really wasn’t as much harmony as there usually is. I’m friends with this lovely Broadway star– Sherie Rene Scott– and I really wanted to ask her to sing on this album. I thought it’d be fun to have her break genre a little bit. She’s one of those actresses who you just sense has every sense open all the time, because that’s just her craft. And there was this one song that I ended up changing the whole feel of it, and it just wasn’t a harmony song anymore and one by one the doors closed—we were like we should have a person do this, we should have this guest do this, and we just decided to go with lean.
There was one song were I really wanted to have another voice, and so I asked Shawn. She was lovely, and fit it into her very busy schedule. And at the end of the day, it turned out that the line itself sounded better with three voices instead of just two. She didn’t step out into the song as much as I had wanted her to so I could feature her, but it just didn’t make sense and she thought so too. So, it didn’t have that sound like with Mary Chapin Carpenter in “The One Who Knows,” where I called her up to ask her if I could put the harmony louder than the melody because I loved it so much (laughs).
Kevin had to go onto another project quickly after this, so there was the decision that we made to do it in one swoop, and to do it lean and focused. And if you listen to the first song, “I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything,” you realize that it’s very much live. The whole album has a drive to it because of the parameters, and then the experience of the musicians really brought what we needed to take it there.
There is one song called “Crystal Creek,” and there’s a B part of the verse before the chorus, and then Jerry Leonard, who is a big old pro, played something that had a real lightness to it, with a fairly pop sensibility, and I turned to him and I said that the song was pretty serious actually, and that the woman in the song was saying that she actually killed this guy– that she wrapped him in a deer skin and he was then killed by his own hunting party. So, I suggested we use something that was a bit more meditative, nothing too sinister, but definitely with more weight to it. And then he did this thing right away, where he translated exactly what I meant, and I couldn’t believe it. It needed the littlest touch, or else it’d be overblown, and he responded beautifully. That’s what comes from musicians who are open like that. So, at the end of the day, we looked at each other and just said, “We’re done.”
Now when you released Promised Land, you launched the first tour with a larger band onstage than your usual solo or duo configuration. Will you be doing that again with this album?
Oh, I wish! (laughs) It’s a dream, of course, but these guys who played on the album are real veterans of the scene, and if I were to go after Charlie Drayton, for example, I’m sure David Bowie would beat me to the punch. (laughs)
And really, for this round of touring we’re still kind of deciding what we want to do. We made the decision early on, though, to play smaller rooms, sometimes with multiple nights, rather than play much larger venues. I’m doing Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, which is a delightfully funky kind of room. So, it’s a lot of places I’m really excited to play, personally. Even though there’s a lean, metallic quality to the album, our performance value is economical, warm, intimate sort of thing.
There was this one tour, probably six years back or so, where we were playing the sort of big, cavernous, nail-bitingly large rooms and they were half-empty each night, and it was so sudden and everything and it really had to do with the economy and the first music industry recession with digital piracy, so we started looking at this new model of coming back to town and playing a somewhat smaller venue and if it sells out doing two shows instead. We first really tried it out in Atlanta, at Eddie’s Attic, and we just had a great time. I mean, in Atlanta, it’s really the gay mecca of the Southeast, so that brings a fantastic audience, but you also have a bunch of preppy Atlantic couples who are totally couple, so they’d come in their ironed jeans and everything, but by the end of the night everyone got really rowdy, were enjoying each others’ company and just having a blast. So, that made me realize that there really is something to that intimate connection with the audience that just makes the whole thing much more memorable and exciting for me as a performer.
Speaking of live shows, the last time I saw you was in Napa, CA, when you played the Opera House with Joan Osborne.
Right! That’s where I debuted the first song from the new album, too.
The song “I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything,” right?
Yeah! And people were coming up to me afterwards and talking about it and saying things like, “Wow. That song was harsh!” And it really took me aback, because I was thinking, “Really?! I didn’t think it was harsh!” And actually, that’s the only time I performed it that tour.
It’s a pretty heady song. The subject matter definitely isn’t the lightest of sorts, for sure. I assume words like “zealotry” and “refugee” are ones that people may pick up on as “harsh,” I guess.
Yeah, definitely. And also, having taken the stage after Joan, I’m sure a few people were tipsy, too. But that Opera House was so beautiful, and the crowd was very “sophisticated,” unlike some other places I’ve done some of the new work, so they looked at me and said, “You know, it’s cool, but it’s not really exactly what we came for.” It was really interesting having that reaction, but I think it came a lot from the double-billing with Joan, because we are so different.
Yeah– you two have very different approaches to songwriting and performing. She really focused on the songs with very little talking in between, and audience banter and story-telling for you is a major part of your stage presence.
It was a great tour for both of us. We both missed our kids and were able to talk about what it was like to be in the business for twenty years– all the ups and downs, and Lilith Fair being all women, but 15 years ago, and then we’d go and get lunch and there would be a little bit of politics, and it was pretty much the perfect tour. Also, I think we both enjoyed the contrast between us– you don’t really want to be so close to someone so you’re always being compared side-by-side in a competitive sense. And thankfully, there’s not really an opportunity to compete with Joan, so it just turned out really well. She’s got a voice that is just unbelievable. I write songs that are very individual to me, and so to hear her voice and its take on some other standards and covers was really intriguing for me.
Joan Osborne has had a major commercial breakthrough, albeit in the mid-1990s, with the song “One of Us,” and so because of that there is a point to which she’s held to that standard, and one where she pretty much must feel beholden to play that song every night. With you, you have definitely had plenty of “hits,” but there’s not that one discreet song that hit the zeitgeist so hard that you became part of the 90’s female folk/pop radio world, so you have a bit more flexibility in terms of a live show.
I made a joke once about singing with her, because we did that every night of the tour– we’d come on stage for a song or two during each other’s set, and so I made a joke that I would sing “One of Us.” And laughed and said, “Oh, by ALL means!” And that was the only time I saw her make the slightest nod to fatigue with the song. She really pours herself 110% into “One of Us” night after night, and it’s a pretty wide open song, so she’s been able to find many different ways to approach it and relate to it over the years.
But you’re right, definitely. I have the luxury of letting “Babysitter” sit in another room, as it were, if I’m not feeling it, and the same with songs like “When I Was a Boy,” “Iowa” and “As Cool As I Am.” It’s a nice luxury to have a hit, absolutely, but when you have one you can definitely get a bit pigeon-holed.
But there’s also another side to it where you can play 100 shows a year and sell out a majority of them without worrying about over-saturating your audiences, and that’s a completely different type of success that many of the 1990’s Lilith Fair female singer-songwriters don’t have.
I definitely evolved as a live performer rather than a studio musician. And you’re right– they’re very different sides of the coin. But then she turned to me once and talking about raising kids while on the road, and she said that while it’s not a conventional way of parenting by any means, her daughter has played in playgrounds on three continents. I’ve played on three continents, but just barely. (laughs) I don’t have major international success, but I have grown an audience in North America over the past twenty years, so I feel like every time I go to a different town, there’s a different iteration of “home” for me. There’s a lot of geographical relationships, of course, but human ones have also grown over that time as well, and I’m very grateful that people have stuck with me.
Also to step back a little, the music business suffered two recessions over the past decade: its own recession from the advent of digital media and the death of the major label, and the country-wide recession from 2008 onward. But, it doesn’t feel like everything’s plateaued, and when you build a live following from that sort of grassroots origin, you’re able to withstand a lot of those economic pressures from the business– from the outside in. And sure, maybe I’m not playing 3,000 seat theaters anymore, but I’m still playing and people are still coming, and so there’s a lot to be thankful for there.
I also find from my end of things, with the resurgence of vinyl, it’s gotten people more aware of value in relation to music again. And value is usually tied to a financial contribution of some sort, so spending $25 on a record they really like, they end up having a relationship with that record in a way that maybe they didn’t– and probably they haven’t– if they had just downloaded it, even legally on iTunes.
I need to make a joke quickly about vinyl, by the way, because the conventional 33 record cover was the prototype of virtual reality (laughs). It’s as close to 3D interaction as you could get as a kid, as you stared at the Beatles pictures, cross-eyed or not, while you sat on the floor next to the record player.
And that’s a wonderful observation, and I think you’re right. It puts so much more attention to the objecthood of music, too, so that when you put on a record, you’re not just putting on music but an actual object itself, and that that’s both a messenger and an artifact. And then there’s the argument for the sound quality of vinyl as well.
There’s an excitement and thrill of holding something in your hand, building anticipation. The tangible reality of music with vinyl is really vivid and compelling. But will vinyl save the music business? I think that may be a pretty grand pronouncement, but it’s definitely had some interesting, and I think positive, effects.
But, you know, instilling that ethic is so vital. And the ethical question here is really, “What is music worth?” The question absolutely has to be posed and raised to someone for them to answer and figure out their own stance on the issue. Because as a consumer of music, you’re really making a statement, even a political one, with the ways in which you purchase– or don’t purchase– music. So, there are some who will download, some who will get it off Amazon, or a bunch of others who will hold off on buying it from Amazon and wait until my show to buy the record(s) because they know I’ll get $3 more that way.
But really, the whole point of the debate of how you support your artists is instilling this ethical question of worth.
And then there’s the ethical question about vinyl’s environmental impact, from a production point of view.
You want to hear something horrible? I live in a house, I have a car, so I know I’m not the most blameless, but I try to be the most green suburbanite I can possibly be, from gardening, composting, carpooling, using alternative energy sources– it’s really important to me. I write a column for The Huffington Post as well about green living and energy consumption, but I really think that art gets an “Opt Out.” (laughs) Art just has a “pass,” which I realize is incredibly self-indulgent, but while there’s a lot of really high-maintenance art exhibits made from pristine, virgin materials, I just think that’s well, it’s OK. If we’re going to put our indulgence somewhere, I think it should be with art.
Also, there’s the democratic piece where we voluntarily compensate musicians, and we see artists as a service that’s valuable, then it also brings up the question of what money is, and what currency holds in society. So, you’re right– I think it’s a good teaching tool. Also, people like stuff, and so sometimes I just think let people have their stuff. (laughs)
Alright, sadly we have to wrap it up, but before we do I have one last question: any chance for a Cry Cry Cry reunion? People want to know!
(laughs) Oh goodness. Well, you know, it really comes down to our lives and schedules and such, and it’s just really tough. Richard [Shindell] is down in Buenos Aires, and that’s a real thing! I never, ever see him, and I always think I’m going to see him, since I run into just about everybody at some point– a festival, show, whatever– but I never see him, and haven’t for about ten years. Lucy [Kaplansky] and I do see each other, but that’s only two of us. And you know, I love when other people collaborate– it makes you a better musician to work with others– and then there’s Red Horse, which Lucy is in with John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson. So, sadly I don’t think so. But, maybe, if there’s some big terrible disaster that needs a fundraiser, then maybe. But, yeah. (laughs)
For more information about Dar Williams, please visit her official website, or follow her on Facebook and/or Twitter. In The Time of Gods comes out April 17th via Razor & Tie.