She's been called "One of America's very best singer / songwriters" and "One of the most thoughtful singer / songwriters." She's toured with Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter to name just a few. She is Dar Williams. Dar recently spoke with us about her musical career.
Q - Dar, you have been described as a Pop / Folk singer. That's a new term for me. I've never heard that before. Are you happy with that?
A - Yeah, I am. I mean, it's like a Folk / Rock movement that happened in the '60s where there was this kind of blurring of the lines between the real Greenwich Village Folk scene and how it sort of merged into the Woodstock generation and Woodstock itself. So, there was a lot of production showing up in songs that had a lot of lyrical impact. That's the stuff that I love. I love Pop music and I love Rock music and I didn't want to sacrifice that lyrical potential to count that much. Those were definitely the footsteps I was following. I think that's what I really think emerged, the Folk / Rock thing really emerged in the '60s.
Q - You wrote your first song when you were 11 years old?
A - (laughs). Yeah. It was not so good.
Q - But something happened where you felt this might be an avenue to pursue?
A - Yes and no. What really occurred is that I was encouraged, so that was the most important thing. Basically someone was saying you have this voice. You told a story and we value that. You get to decide where that goes. I ultimately thought I would want to write songs for theater, plays or direct plays. Basically, I was given permission to have a voice, which was just lovely. I now understand how great that is for all 11-year-olds, no matter what they create. I could've gone in a lot of directions and I kind of felt like I had permission to do that too. It was because music was such a big deal in Boston, and I was in Boston, that I took song writing back up that seriously.
Q - How fortunate you were that your parents gave you encouragement!
A - Yeah. My parents never heard the song. This was at Summer Camp, so it's all in the same boat. It was also the '70s. So there was this kind of androgyny. Everybody had the same haircut. My parents sent me to a poetry writing class when I was eight. So, they were sort of swimming in the pool of that era and luckily had a lot of peers who encouraged them. I think they saw I wanted to be a creative person and they just said let's keep opening as many doors for you until it's your scene. And that was very cool. I think I would've found my way to having some career in the creative arts no matter what, but it's great to have parents who say, "We'll come to your concert. We'll pay for tickets and we'll stand in the back." (Laughs). They're very supportive. I think that has allowed me to be a better creative artist.
Q - Early on you dealt with stage fright. Of all the things a performer can have, that's pretty serious. How did you overcome it?
A - You know, there was this one day when I was in a terrible mood and I just couldn't wrap my head around this sort of quip I was supposed to deliver on stage. Being on stage... I used to do gymnastics and it's about hitting your mark in a certain way and about your underwear not showing. Music has different rules. Being yourself and finding a way to be yourself in an appealing way for an audience is the secret. To figure out which of your suitcases to sort of spring open and which to keep shut. Once I realized the only danger was revealing too much, that it was me, the artist writing the song counted, it's like a lot of my fear just disappeared.
Q - I know you worked as a stage manager for the Opera Company Of Boston.
A - Yup.
Q - Did you ever work a job outside of music?
A - Yeah. I had a lot of little jobs. I was a personal assistant, a substitute daycare teacher, I worked at a bookstore. There was plenty of that really up to the first day that I was working full-time, which was the day my CD came out.
Q - I supposed you can draw inspiration from all those jobs.
A - I think I do actually. What I draw from it is gratitude. Whenever I'm feeling my job is a drag, whether it's the travel or the gig, I have a reference point for things that are really much more difficult and how far I've come. I did all those jobs walking around in a fantasy world of hoping and wishing I could do what I do now and I think that's good. (Laughs). It created a more surefooted path for me to face the ups and downs of the bad stuff in this kind of career.
Q - Did Joan Baez really open doors for you by recording a couple of your songs?
A - Yeah. She took me on tour with her too. So that was actually even a bigger deal. But I mean they're both a big deal.
Q - It all fits in so well, doesn't it?
A - It was everything. It wasn't that she was such an influence. She was also really cool and really funny and made an attempt to be sort of a friend as well as a mentor. That influenced me too in terms of how I approach other artists. It's like we are all in the same boat. That's how she treated it. I realize now she didn't have to play it that way. She was funny. There was one time the tour bus was parked on this sort of slant and we couldn't get out. We had to climb out the driver's window. It was just like life on the bus adventures instead of seeing that as something to hide. It was something that we sort of shared. You always hear about people who talk about themselves in the third person and don't let people make eye contact with them, but Joan has done a lot and met a lot of people. She could've said, "Look, this is my end of the bus. That's yours. And by the way, get your own bus." (Laughs). We hung out together. We traveled together. It defined how I went forward.
Q - You titled your second album, "All My Heroes Are Dead". What heroes were you referring to?
A - That's my second cassette. Sometimes I want to believe it doesn't exist. (Laughs). There's a way we can get nostalgic about the '60s. I just taught a course about music movements. At this point in my life, I'm okay with the nostalgia. The '60s were a special time. I think really important things happened that we can learn a lot from. At the time, getting out of college, I was understanding that we had to forge our own path. That's appropriate. But also, the first war in Iraq happened. There I was opposed to it and all these people around me were for it. That surprised me and I suddenly realized it's not all fun and solidarity to say no to something like war, like that war. It's rough and you have to be brave and stand up for your beliefs and find your community. A lot of heroes of the '60s died, like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. People just died along the way. A lot of great voices. But analogously to me, it was important for me to find new life and so that was part of that song. It's the song you write when you are 22.
Q - How is it determined what cities you will perform in? Is it determined by radio airplay or sales of your CD? How do you know what cities to go into?
A - Sometimes you don't. You just go in and see what happens and that's always a surprise. I'm okay with that. I recently said to my booking agent, I really want to get back out to the states I haven't been to in a long time. I do well on both coasts and in the progressive parts of the northern Midwest. I'm trying to get out and around. I was just in Oklahoma and that was a hell of a lot of fun. That was so much fun to get back to Oklahoma City and it was worth it because the audience was amazing. You gotta open yourself to not knowing what's going to happen. Generally my experience is that the sky is full of stars; The little stars or the little stations that play you and the brighter stars are where the commercial radio stations play you. There is a pattern to it. Then there's this faint Milky Way of places that have all of the cafe's because that's where most people heard of me, through the radio in off the beaten track places. So, we definitely pay attention to that. A lot of times I think the promoters themselves will make the call to my booking agent to give it a go. When there's an invitation, it's always worth it to go.