Dar Williams debuts ninth album, 'In the Time of Gods'
Dar Williams likes to sum up what she does in a simple sentence: "I’m pretty much a song-driven person."
That’s for sure. It can be heard in her songs like the poppy "This Earth" or the urgent "You Will Ride with Me Tonight," both from her newest album, "In the Time of Gods." But it’s equally apparent when listening to her first album, "The Honesty Room," especially the wistful "The Babysitter’s Here."
Williams, 45, has been writing and singing songs for a couple of decades, but she’s been wrapped up in music for a lot longer.
"I remember when I was 5, I thought, ‘I really like to sing, and I think I have a pretty good voice,’" she said by phone from her home north of Manhattan, where she lives with her husband, Michael, and their kids Stephen and Taya.
She didn’t know it at the time, but all sorts of influences were settling into place around her. Thinking back on it now, she narrowed it down to three specific ones.
"My parents had a big folk-rock collection from the ’60s, so I was hearing Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Mamas and the Papas, and lots of the Byrds. But my dad also listened to classical music. And I was listening to New York radio in the ’70s, when there was a lot of disco. So it was those three strains, all of them very melodic, with lots of harmony."
Williams had her first guitar lessons in middle school, and later on took some voice lessons. But there was also a flirtation with theater.
"I decided to be a playwright because I wanted to be involved with theater, but I didn’t want to perform," she said. "Oh, I did some performing, but it was always nerve wracking."
By that time, around 1990, she had graduated Wesleyan University and moved to Cambridge, Mass., with hopes of that theatrical career taking off. She landed a job as stage manager at the Opera Company of Boston, when she met up with a couple of epiphanies.
"The Phoenix was just savaging local theater performances, but really fostering music. Local theater was attacked, while local music was celebrated," she said. "And while working at the Opera Company, I realized that I missed singing."
That’s when the voice lessons came in, and that’s when she started running with the crowd that was taking part in open mikes and tip-jar gigs and hootenannies and song circles.
"I had won a playwriting contest to have a reading of my one-act play," she recalled. "And the company said that if I turned it into a feature-length play, they might do it. So one weekend, when I was working on it, I went to the S&S Restaurant, and the head of the theater company was my waiter. He told me that the theater had closed down. The next day, I went to a song circle, and I had a crush on one of the guys there, so I decided that I could pursue the open mikes, and pursue him at the same time."
She laughed and added, "There was something young and romantic and vital and poetic and really happening with music. I’m very lucky. It was a scene, and a city is very lucky to have a scene. To this day, I remember what it was like to be part of it, and how much identity we were giving to Cambridge and Somerville. Riding around writing poetry on napkins and playing guitars in the streets. It was a beautiful scene, and we all really grew from it. I was in the right place at the right time."
All these years later, with the release of her ninth studio album, Williams maintains a life of creating, learning, balancing, and being thankful.
Of juggling her artistic calling and her family, she said, "I’m still trying to mix and match. It’s like having two full-time jobs, so you have to be careful."
Addressing the distinction between making her first album and her most recent one, she said, "They were extremely different. I learned along the way to trust musicians more, to let them do their thing. I learned that being in the studio is not like being a choreographer. You don’t plan out every step and move. You let the musicians do what they do best, and you choose them for what they do."
Then there’s the fact that she’s still got a great career going in a very tough business.
"I’m always surprised by that," she said. "And that’s probably the secret of my success. I’m a lazy, distracted personal in general, but with music I try to be as attentive as possible. I keep on trying to find my strengths. If a weird song comes through my head, I don’t dismiss it. I assume that it’s a growth opportunity."