In a career that has spanned over 20 years, Dar Williams has arrived at the top of her climb towards international recognition as an artist of great empathy, insight, and literacy.
As a performer and writer she has delivered an impressive body of work that has been praised for the depth and scope in tackling many different subjects, the human condition and the manner in which we encounter matters of the heart. She can be regarded as a tuning fork for the emotional landscape that we negotiate, whether looking internally or externally, in trying to bring change to our external environment.
In recent years she has broadened her horizons to become a published novelist, lecturer, music teacher in schools and colleges, humanitarian worker and her focus on a broad literary palette has sparked these complimentary interests that also serve her song-writing muse.
Just before her recent concert at the Workman's Club in Dublin, Dar sat down with Lonesome Highway to chat about her career and her current state of mind, among other topics.
You are here to showcase Emerald, which is your 9th studio release. I should ask if the title has been inspired by previous trips that you have taken in our Emerald Isle?
Perhaps a little bit... The title track has a line that says "unbeknownst to my pride I have filled my memories with these hours of golden Emerald light." The song refers to the fact that the beauty of some places I travel to became what my memories look like. I don't remember the small detail of the days but more the sense of open spaces, fields and beautiful sea coasts and I was aware that that would lean towards an Irish experience.
It has been 3 years since the last release ‘In the Time of Gods’ which was inspired by Greek Mythology. Can you tell me a little about the songs on the new release and what has inspired them?
A lot of them are pretty loose and about different kinds of relationship. There is some taking away some of the epic curtains of the last release and there are a lot of friends on Emerald who helped me write it so there is a lot of friendship in the songs. I took off the Valkyrie costume and there is a lot of one-on-one influence.
A visit to an orphanage in Honduras inspired one song (Girl of the World) where teaching girls to write poetry was potentially dangerous. Learning to speak your mind to find out your poetic sensibility is like letting a Jeanie out of the bottle. So you are allowing yourself to understand what is really true for you in a country where you have to fit yourself into your role, both as a female and as a citizen of Central America, which has been used as a drug corridor, the supermarket of the United States; that has been used and abused. Speaking your mind can be subversive. Every person in every country and culture has that moment where you realise that expressing yourself is somewhat subversive but you still have to do it because it is what makes you feel alive. What I loved about the experience was that the girls down there were acutely aware of what the stakes were.
How do you approach the process of writing a song; is it usually a lyrical idea first or a melody that you develop?
What usually happens is that they come together. When I was in Ireland in 2003 I was walking down the road and heard a line ‘who’s afraid of the sun’? I thought what a taunting question, almost neo-conservative. So I thought, why would you be afraid of the sun and I thought of the Sun King and then the subject of Empire arose for me as the United States was involved in a lot of quasi empire building with George Bush just come to office. So I sat with this as the first line of a new song (Empire 2005) and then rolled it out slowly to try and understand the voice that was saying that line in my head.
You are also open to co-writing songs and I wondered if it is constraining having to work with the compromise of another songwriter influence or does the discipline that it brings carry a greater reward?
The discipline is good, keeping yourself on track and focused is always good. Then there is a moment when that person says something that you don’t agree with fundamentally and you have to use your songwriter skills to come up with a language that says ‘no-way’ - so you shift your song-writing expertise to your diplomacy expertise and you work your way out of the ditch of not seeing eye to eye and you go forward. It’s always good for certain songs. Once you have revealed things about yourself, you talk about your highs and lows, to establish that you are safe in that vulnerable place, then you can go forward and establish trust.
Is the same true for working with producers on your recordings? Do they always bring what you had originally imagined in your mind’s eye before you hired them?
No, for example, on my record the Green Room I tried to micro-manage what I heard in my head but everything that I loved on that record was something that I didn’t like at the time, but it grew on me. It made me realise that musicians have their own thing and it can be funny when you get a bad review about the production; it can be because you let somebody try something.
99% of the time, letting a person do what they do is the right thing. Sometimes you may just have the wrong musician and that can be difficult. Producers that I love tend to bring in musicians that I love.
You are very inclusive with inviting famous musicians to play on your records. You do not seem to be threatened by their fame and take the approach of ‘come one, come all’.
Everybody I know is like that and they are people with established solo careers and they bring their ingredients in. You can tweak it also to suit what you hear in your head. There is a funny little elfin voice that tells me to listen to the suggestions of other musicians or producers, be it a subtle chord change or a harmony idea.
You grew out of the folk music scene and I wanted to ask whether the media inclination to box you into that genre is frustrating?
It’s not a real issue. What is nice is that I teach a course about music movement and I lead song-writing retreats. I weigh in with socio-political issues and am invited to art openings, so in a sense whatever I am has been placed inside the larger culture and academic musings of what is going on – I am as much what I am, as Emmylou Harris or anybody, so I feel like people don’t talk as much of my genre but more about me and my sensibility in general and that has broadened. I feel like a grown up!!
Emerald is the first release that you have crowd funded. How did you find the experience?
I loved it but there is an enthusiasm to push it as just this fan-based thing. The wider expectation that someone will end up with your signed sneakers is something that is strange. The more we deflated the celebrity then the more comfortable I felt. In reality, it is just another way to pre-order a record, another new model of commerce.
It paid for the album and you want a stand- alone product that pays for the studio, the musicians, their expertise and you want to support the eco system of music makers. Producers do what I cannot do and then you are mixing it, mastering it, packaging it and promoting it – labels did all of that. Record labels sell units whether digital or physical.
It was good for me, fun for me and profitable for me but it is not a sustainable model. A lot of people have left the industry or pared down activities. It is up to the audience, if they want to hear great music and see great bands, then the ethos has to change. Music has to be bought.
Your touring pays for your music and your lifestyle. I teach song-writing at university and it is exactly what I want to be doing right now but in a couple of years I guess that I would not have a choice. Spotify has been a real issue and why would a person ever buy an album again if they can get it immediately for free? Bjork asked that artists be put on Spotify a year after the album is out, so first people will buy the music. There is a different listening experience now and people are trying to address these issues.
The insight and compassion that you bring to your writing has endeared you to so many. What is your perspective on the essential glue that binds us together?
I am writing a book right now that has to do with how when you start with your values of love and peace and you say I am going to build the world around these values, then it just kind of falls apart in hypocrisy. But if you don’t try to build community; just open a café where a depressed teenager can sit for a couple of hours and not be kicked out, or plough a hill and invite people to bring their sleds. I think the glue is that we truly all want to meet together in the comments but there is always language that we have inside and outside ourselves that bristles at intimacy.
What I have noticed in towns and cities that succeed is that no-one talks about love and peace but they have these things as part of the environment and tolerance. We need to create all of the right conditions, for one another, to make room for each other and this is my post Aquarian philosophy.
You still include many of the old songs in your set. How do they look from your older perspective when you look back now?
I recently did the 20th anniversary of the Honesty Room and I was cringing a little because I thought that I would not like these songs. They were written with a lot of care at the time and I’m a different person now. That album ended up being a letter to myself, to go ahead and radically change your life, because you have to. I see a girl in a car heading out on her breadcrumb path. It is not who I am now but I can still access that.
Do you feel the weight of expectation when you write now?
No, but every song that you write has a whole bunch of voices telling you that it’s boring, too derivative, too long, too short… The one thing I have learned is to just push them aside and keep on walking. Whether it is other people or in my head, it doesn’t matter.
Between touring schedules you keep busy with a number of other interests and projects, a number of which you have already mentioned; college and school workshops, song-writing camps, two books written for adolescent market. How fulfilling is this?
Once I opened the door to trying something different, then I never closed that door again and so I developed into these things. I wrote a Green Blog for the Huffington Post for a year and interviewed a congressman about hemp and marijuana use. Then I looked at American town building and gave a lecture about this, plus I have a book contract and teach a course in music.
Everything that I go into, as long as I reach my hands out to the left and right and take people along with me, I have these instincts but am more than happy for guidance and input. Whether musically or on a new endeavour, it is all just looking beyond one colour and I have a different life than before which is very fulfilling and where I want to be right now.
Interview by Paul McGee. Photograph by Ronnie Norton