"In college there was this really magical woman I saw onstage," Dar Williams relates in a phone conversation from Boulder, Colorado where she is teaching songwriting workshops. "I asked this professor, 'Do you know why that woman was magic?' And you'd expect a professor to say no, but he explained that it was because she changed clothes onstage to become another character. He said, 'People didn't come to see these two characters, they came to see one actress playing two characters.'"
Williams is describing how she begins to develop ideas which will eventually become finished songs. Like the woman in the play, Williams' music allows her to wear a number of different hats, so to speak; her albums are populated with dozens of characters who are perhaps shadows of the folk singer's experience, though they're not autobiographical mirror-images. Williams is a constant observer, taking note of people's lives and working with them until they take on personal meaning through her songs. "When I see something that has magic for me, I will write about it and I will discover why it is magical to me."
The Massachusetts folk singer/guitarist, who grew up in suburban New York during the late '60s and '70s, debuted in 1993 with the highly-acclaimed The Honesty Room, a collection of spirited and personal tunes which explore the loss of innocence. This theme finds itself through childhood adventures in "When I was a Boy" and "The Babysitter's Here," middle-aged trepidation in "You're Aging Well," and the unifying experiences in "When Sal's Burned Down" and "A Flinty Kind of Woman." Williams released her second album, Mortal City, early this year on Razor & Tie and has been enjoying a warm welcome from critics and fans who continue to appreciate her subtle mix of humor, insight and intimacy.
Although Williams has released two albums in three years, producing them has been a gradual process belied by this quick turnaround. "I write very slowly. And it's almost like dieting; I follow the latest fad," she explains. "I try to find tricks to help me through the writing and I think they do help me in the long run." At the center of this craft, she says, is "the process of accepting myself as a slow writer."
Williams proudly identifies herself as a folk musician despite the accompaniments and melodies which give her pop appeal. She's currently working with a Martin OM 21 acoustic guitar. "I played a Martin on The Honesty Room," she says. She used others for a while, but "American Airlines lost my guitar, so I had to get another one. And I ended up getting a handmade [Martin] which has a sound that reminded me of the first one."
But Williams includes a number of other instruments in her songs, especially strings and piano, adding a luster missing from much of folk music. Growing up, she says, "I had my father's folk-rock collection. They were like a cross between the two, and it was almost like they were paintings. Especially Joni Mitchell. Her stuff is produced very beautifully. [Those musicians] didn't shy away from a lot of classical or acoustic instruments."
In fact, Williams credits her upbringing for her subtle, personal take on folk music -- a genre which is typically centered in more radical kinds of politics. "I grew up in the suburbs, which is supposed to be about being safe," she explains, suggesting that such safety was achieved at the cost of a rich cultural experience. "I think the purpose was to create an educational incubator [within me]."
Williams has incubated her ideas, melding them with perceptions of modern society and creating songs which respond in a unique way to today's world. "I think music is kind of a political thing. Our culture is very invested in death. There's a real gun culture, a very military culture; it's almost a mercenary power." Williams says the message of her music is, "'I'm not critiquing your culture; I'm confirming humanity and peace.'"
"A lot of [today's folk songs] are not very topical, they're very personal," Williams continues. "And I think they have a good effect on people, a kind of personal demilitarization. Even a good love song can sort of awaken people. The way we travel and meet one another at the crossroads is important. And the point that we play instruments that were basically handcrafted -- I think that's great, but I'm probably the only one that thinks that way," she says with a laugh. "When [our culture] collapses somehow, what we'll have left is Shaker furniture, Bob Dylan, dulcimers, and rock." Williams considers rock music, especially rap like the Beastie Boys and Queen Latifah, to be the folk music of today.
Another important element in Williams' work is humor, adding a kind of levity which allows listeners to look closely at situations which otherwise might be too painful. "Humor adds some shading," she says. "It allows people to take their foot off the accelerator a bit and add some lightness." Williams quotes a definition of humor she once heard: "'People saying outrageous things seriously.'" She uses the example of "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of A Co-Ed," also from (italics)Mortal City(/italics), whose choice lyrics include, "Every time the group would meet everyone would light up/That made it difficult to discuss glaucoma and human rights, not to mention chemotherapy."
"(The main character) is very serious about her involvement in this organization which is all about people finding good excuses to smoke pot. She's kind of blind to the fact that she's the only serious political member, and she's ultra-literal about everything," Williams explains. "I believe that definition of humor; it helps you see how people can take things so seriously."
Williams' forthcoming work may not have familiar sound she has cultivated over the past several years. "My friend Nerissa Nields, from The Nields, has taken up the electric guitar and I've become envious. And you know what happens when you get envious..." But don't let yourself be plagued by visions of Williams transforming into Joan Jett overnight. "Right now I'm writing stuff that has a little more of a rock beat, though they're still the songs a folk singer would write," she assures.
Whatever direction she takes, Williams is unlikely to give up her musical career anytime soon. She's been touring in support of (italics)Mortal City(/italics) and continuing to explore the world in search of new inspiration. Along with Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and handful of others who are successfully reviving the folk movement, Williams continues to try and uphold the understanding she had of the genre when she was younger. "Folk music was the thing that turned the wheel and made the world keep going," she says. "Folk music was the thing that could transform a culture."
This article was originally published in ROCKRGRL.