An Interview with Dar Williams
By Gregg Shapiro
The winter holidays are behind us, but there’s little doubt that for a lot of LGBTQ folks, it was a stressful time. Some seeking solace knew to listen to the Dar Williams song, “The Christians and the Pagans” on repeat. The tune, from her flawless 1996 album Mortal City, succeeds in being both sensitive and humorous, in its handling of a holiday gathering in which a solstice-observing lesbian couple comes face-to-face with devoutly Christian family members at Christmas.
That song, like so many of Williams’ best compositions, perfectly illustrates the singer/ songwriter’s abundant storytelling gifts, as well as her way with relevant subject matter in numbers including “As Cool As I Am,” “The Babysitter’s Here,” “What Do You Hear In These Sounds,” “Party Generation,” “And A God Descended,” “When I Was A Boy,” “Are You Out There,” “Teen For God” and “Buzzer.” Additionally, Williams is also known for her social activism, including being a longtime supporter and friend of the LGBTQ community. I spoke with Williams, who performs on January 11, 2109 at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, appropriately enough, just days before Christmas 2018.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by thanking you for coming down here to Fort Lauderdale to perform at the Broward Center in January. Many touring artists think the state ends at Orlando and don’t come any farther south. Have you played South Florida before?
Dar Williams: Yes, I’ve played a bunch, actually. They’re missing out [laughs]. It’s a sophisticated crowd. I don’t get down there as much as I want but I’ve played at the Labyrinth Café [in Oakland Park]. And I played a big show with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin at one point in West Palm Beach. Generally, I’ve played a lot of concerts around that area.
GS: When I first interviewed you in 2000, we talked about your song “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” and the cover you did of “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch includes a mention of Yoko. Have you had the opportunity to meet Yoko?
DW: No, but Stephen Trask, who wrote “Midnight Radio” is a good friend. He introduced me to Yoko Ono’s music and art. He was a music director for her tour. I’m sure if I begged him to introduce me to her, he would have tried. But there are a lot of people I haven’t met, and I’m okay with that.
GS: In 2016, you performed a series of concerts to commemorate the 20th anniversary of your Mortal City album in which you performed the album in its entirety. What was that experience like for you?
DW: It was great. What I didn’t expect, I revisited the songs for myself and felt that distance of time between then and now. That was a trip, as it were. The other thing I was revisiting was the way people listened to albums in the mid-`90s, which is different from now. They listened to it from beginning to end. They’d buy the CD and work hard to keep it from scratching. They’d take it on road trips with their friends. It seemed to be a different world around albums and even the physical albums and the way that people shared music with each other. That was an interesting contrast that I didn’t expect to see. The third thing was that Trump had just been elected in the middle of the tour and some of these [song lyric] lines, “We are not lost in the mortal city” and things that look at where we’re at in civilization right now. Towns and cities are fragile, in general. We’re only as strong as we are, so there seemed to be this kind of extra layer of recognizing that we are what we decide to be. Democracy is only as strong as what we make of it. People in my audiences were really on edge about Trump. We were all exploring and remembering that civilization is fragile, but we can also say it’s strong and present, and there’s a lot that’s there.
GS: Do you foresee doing something similar for the anniversaries of other albums of yours?
DW: I don’t think so. Those two albums, The Honesty Room and Mortal City, one of them introduced me to the world and the other one established my place in the world and showed that I wasn’t a flash in the pan. It positioned what kind of artist I was. They were both formative. The second one really placed me in the world and got me onto (the) Lilith Fair (tour) and took me around the world. Those twin albums had a historical moment we were revisiting. It wasn’t just the songs. So, no, I don’t think I’m going to do that for any other ones.
GS: Speaking of concerts, in 2017 you reunited with your Cry Cry Cry-mates Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell for a tour. What was that like and do you think another reunion is imminent?
DW: It was fabulous. It was so amazing to sit together without the words in front of us, without having sung these songs in 18 years, and for it all to come back. Even the way we spoke to each other, which has always been very respectful, very grateful for each other’s musical skills; that hadn’t changed. We knew how to speak to each other and we remembered the songs. We went back in time and we went forward with new songs with a way of collaborating that was rare. As far as doing it again, I think the thing we learned from the reunion was never say never [laughs]. We’ll see.
GS: Beginning with Mortal City, you incorporated cover songs on your albums, such as Pierce Pettis’ “Family,” The Kinks’ “Better Things” (1997’s End of the Summer), The Band’s “Whispering Pines” (2003’s The Beauty of The Rain), Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (2005’s My Better Self), Fountains of Wayne’s “Troubled Times”(2008’s Promised Land), among others. What’s involved in the process of selecting a cover tune to record?
DW: It’s funny; all of those songs spoke to me, spoke to something I couldn’t say in words. I’m wordy, so I can usually find words for everything. The fact that these songs hit some space that I couldn’t describe with words was the first thing. The second thing was, could I approach it from a different angle that would honor the song. Not try to be definitive, but honor it, and bring something new to it consequently, those were the ones we chose.
GS: In addition to recording and performing in concert, you have also made a name for yourself as a writer with the publication of your 2017 book What I Found in a Thousand Towns, as well as your Y/A novels about Amalee. Can you please say something about the differences and similarities between Dar the singer/songwriter and Dar the writer?
DW: They’re very similar. They’re all one Dar. I know how they’re all related. What I ended up realizing was that I’m very interested in bridges. How we bridge ourselves from our psyches into the world of living with other people. How we find the metaphors and the language that really define our reality in ways that feel true to us. There’s always a way that these bridges incorporate a personal point of view, a psyche. When I came to writing about these towns, I was noticing how if you can swing with the fact that the bridges we build are always going to be somewhat subjective and that involves different people and different psyches, then we can succeed and watch interesting things grow and become stable and real. It’s just like a song. You take all of these realities in your mind seriously and you see how they grow and become a song, they become real, they become poetry. Watching a song grow and watching my own psyche connect with the world and watching the way towns come into their stride, there’s a similar poetry to all of them. The whole premise of the book is, don’t just say we should all get along and we should be unified and hugging each other. Just collaborate together and enter into the process of noticing what’s beautiful and meaningful and interesting about your town and see where that leads you with all of these different personalities and potential bridges. I know how the songs and the book came out of the same brain, but that said, when I was writing the book, I was thinking, “Songs are so much easier to write. Gosh, I’m suffering.” Then when I got back to songwriting, I was like, “Gosh, writing a book was so much easier than writing songs, which are so hard [laughs].” I think they’re both hard [laughs], but rewarding.
GS: In the spring of 2019, you will be one of the artists performing on the third Melissa Etheridge Cruise. What are you most looking forward to about that event?
DW: I’ve only been on one cruise before. But I really enjoyed the people on the cruise. I thought that I would be relieved to have a lot of privacy. But I ended up hanging out a lot, and I loved that! That said, I do know almost all of the artists on the cruise. I love them so much. We have been on the road together, criss-crossing, for the last 25 years. That’s deep! It’s a funny crowd because you have to have a sense of humor to stay sane in this business – the traveling and what happened to the music business and the audiences and insecurities – we have it all in common and we have a shorthand. There’s a woman I worked with who was one of my managers who’s going to be there and we haven’t hung out in years. Then there’s Jill Sobule.
GS: If you’re looking for laughs, Jill will provide them!
DW: Exactly! Jill’s incredibly funny. Shawn’s funny, too [laughs]. The women in Antigone Rising are hilarious! My friend Julie Wolf, who’s accompanying me on keyboards, is so wonderful. She’s good to go; on a cruise, on the road. These are the people who survive. It’s no coincidence that the most resilient, funny, cool people I know are the ones who are still out there. It takes a little gumption to keep yourself going, and those are the people who are going to be on the cruise.
GS: With Melissa, Jill and Antigone Rising in mind, would you please say a few words about what your LGBTQ following has meant to you over the years?
DW: I don’t know what it hasn’t meant [laughs]! This is something I’ve learned from teaching about music and social movements. All the way back in the `70s, there were especially women who were trying to find a space that wasn’t just the dance floor, because they wanted to talk, to communicate, to take their movement and look at all of these other movements; the environment and all sorts of issues of race and class and gender. They wanted places that would have a lobby where you could go see a concert but you could also talk to each other, that would allow wider circles of understanding and communication and meeting each other. You have political meetings and discos, but concerts were where you would go to find your people. When I showed up in the `90s, some people didn’t know that I was straight. But as long as I was singing to a shared sensibility, my concerts were places where they would show up when I was really not established. They took a huge chance on me because they were just a group of people who were used to going to concerts. There I was with my crappy guitar skills and my shaky voice, not knowing who was going to show up, and they showed up! They supported me. I was in Santa Cruz and I sang the first verse of “As Cool As I Am” and asked if I should finish it [laughs] (and they said) “Yeah!” Writing (the song) “When I Was A Boy,” I had an early conversation with a whole world of trans folks, also with people who had that experience of gender fluidity. They were pioneers. They were helping people understand. They were blogging and writing and helping other people along. That was a supportive community. If I helped to provide a space so that they could find one another so they could deepen the conversation the way they have, then good! Somewhere in there it was the whole LGBTQ (community). There were a lot of gay men who showed up at my shows who became personal friends [laughs]. I’m grateful for that!
GS: Finally, is there a new Dar Williams album in the works?
DW: If three songs and 16 fragments mean an album in the works, then by all means, yes. I hope in 2020. 2019 is just not going to pan out, but early 2020.