Interview: Dar Williams by Amy Lotsberg

Dar Williams
(note: this conversation took place on the phone)

Collected Sounds: First of all I want to apologize in advance if I stumble. You’re my first live interview so if I seem nervous it’s because I am.

Dar Williams: Oh, you’re gonna be fine, don’t worry, you know they’re the same as any other kind of research.

CS: I don’t know if you had a look at my questions before today, but I wanted to let you know that your music was an inspiration for the name of my website. When I was trying to come up with a name. I was listening to The End of the Summer and “I collect these sounds in my ears” popped into my head and I was like, ‘wait, that’s kind of what I do’ so that’s why..

DW: I’m so glad, no I didn’t see that. (Amy’s note: I’m a little confused, I thought when she said “oh that’s right”, that she knew about me and had seen my questions, but maybe she didn’t, or I misunderstood. I’d like to think that perhaps she knew of my site already, but I don’t want to fantasize too much)

CS: What is the first song that you ever wrote and have we ever heard it and will we ever if we haven’t?

DW: It was called “I Should be Happy Where I Am” and I wrote it when I was eleven. And the answer to the rest of the things is no. (laughs)

CS: OK well, you’ve given us so much that, you know…you can keep that one.

Your lyrics are so intelligent, witty and emotional and it’s obvious, to me anyway, that lyrics are an important part of your music. Do they pop out first when writing, does the melody come first or do they kind of come along at the same time.

DW: I prefer they come at the same time. You know if you start with words and concept you really need a melody to float them. A melody can be very mundane. A melody can pop through my head for a long time but if I don’t anchor it with words, ultimately it will disappear so really the best thing is when a phrase pops up and then I can build around it using pieces of itself. I can cut a phrase in half and use that for the beginning of a melody for a verse.

CS: Many of your songs are family oriented. And you seem to have a handle on what it was like to be a parent before you ever were one. But now that you are a mother has that changed anything at all in the way that you write?

DW: I don’t think so, I think it’s actually made me a little bit more efficient in my schedule because writing revolves around a babysitting schedule that was not there before. I used to get out of bed and go, ‘oh dang, I know what I have to do today.”

Living in New York City was kind of like living in Paris. You know I took my little tote bag, I went up to the market, I bought things at the market, and I would get some writing done. And now I kick myself because I could have gotten a lot more done. Although I’ve discovered from the 5 hour babysitting schedule that I really do have the patience for an hour of driving, 2 hours of grocery shopping and other errands, and 2 hours, tops, of writing. I don’t have it in me to do much more than that.

So it’s been a very healthy structuring of my life. You weren’t really wasting your time before, your dread of sitting down to write was that you expected that you should be giving 4 hours when really if you just sat yourself down and anything can happen. People point out that if you write a page a day for 200 days straight you’ll have a 200 page book so my creativity has been affirmed by this structuring and restructuring.

But, you know, I loved kids before I had a kiddo and I loved people before I had a kiddo. I was ready to sort of be more in my “load the dishwasher”, “make my breakfast” kind of life years ago after being really unrooted for such a long time. Years ago I made a more of commitment through tidying up and it together and having more of a domestic life.

So If anything I feel like this person out there saying, you know ‘don’t have kids. If you don’t want ’em don’t have em’ there’s nothing exalted about being pregnant, there’s nothing saintly about being a parent. You can give a lot.

So when people say things like ‘Oh what would we do without you?” and “Oh you’re so valuable”, and “You’re just as important as a parent.” Or ‘you’re a godsend’. They really mean that. As a parent it just doesn’t cut it to feel like you’re this monolith in their life. You really are that grateful to the other influences in the child’s life. So I don’t know if this is just because my mom was fund raiser for a family planning thing, (laughs) but, I think people should not have kids if they don’t’ want to. There are so many ways to be there for kids and I don’t think that this sort of “but, my child is more special…” is personally healthy or civically healthy…

CS: maybe not so good for the child either!

DW: Right, right! So we have one and we get to decide what to do next. But and people point out ‘you have one so of course it’s easy for you to tell people not to have them’. There are some people who don’t want them and they feel like there’s something they’re going to miss out on and I just feel like in our society people need our human hours of help and care so much that you don’t have to feel the pressure to fill that gap by having kids. You can be a bit more creative.

CS: Yeah, I suppose, well that’s good to hear because I might not have one and I keep thinking well, what if I don’t and I regret it, look back and think why was I was selfish…

DW: But it’s not selfishness. In some ways having a kids is selfish. But you get to decide that for yourself.I’m late, that’s how I justify it. It’s like well, I skipped…I had my first kiddo at 37 so you know that’s twice the age of my predecessors, not my mother, but you know, others.

CS: I’m not necessarily speaking of influences, but what musical artist do you find yourself listening to in your free time do you have any new discoveries you’d like to share?

DW: Well, I got the new Wilco album, “A Ghost is Born” and that was very under publicized kind of coming out of their last thing. And it’s sophisticated and beautiful and so I think they’re very wonderful musicians. And it’s complicated it’s not just an easy going pop album.

But I was also listening to Moby for sort of political reasons. There was um, I had this idea of a renewable energy museum. That I thought, like, a portable museum that artists could tour with to sort of give it a little mainstream credibility. The fantasy went as far as buying all of Moby’s albums because he would be a perfect figurehead for something like that. And the great outcome is that I love Moby’s music.

CS: You never told him your idea?

DW: (Laughing) No, no, well I talked to a concert promoter about it and that was an interesting discussion…it’s more like how do you make a portable museum work…do you have a science center, by the way, in Minneapolis?

CS: We have a science museum, yeah.

DW: Oh very good, I’ll have to check it out. See my fantasy is to pair up a science center with a University that has participated in the Solar Decathlon, which is this thing where Universities create portable green architecture that they assemble on the Washington Mall.

But if it’s not going to tour with rock stars then it’s none of my business to like go up to people and go, “You should…” (laughs) but the fantasy I guess at this point would be to encourage people to do this with some guarantee that they could make it both permanent and portable. That musicians would help them create bridge ways and pathways to existing events, like Burning Man or Newport Folk or other festivals or events like there’s the Lemon Wheel, that was Phish’s big thing, or the Moe Fest up in Maine for the band Moe and stuff like that. So it takes Moby out of the equation, which is good because I’m not a vegan and I was like, “oh what would I wear? My silk pants that were made by silk worms, my wool sweater, my leather shoes he’d think I was such a loser. So I think I’ll keep a safe distance and just be a fan.

CS: That works too. That kind of leads into my next question…you’ve worked alongside some really fabulous musicians is there a favorite story you’d want to share, or a star struck moment?

DW:I am so desperate to no be star stuck my only star struck-ness is that I talk too much and I make a fool of myself. So there’s only a handful of people that I cringe when I think of them. But none of the people that I worked with because the stakes were too high.

I do remember John Popper got to the studio early. And so I raced down and sat outside the studio door and listened to him do vocal tracks to “I Saw a Bird Fly Away” and that was, you know, an incredible moment. To hear a signature artist do a signature work is definitely a spine tingling thing.

And Ani (DiFranco) did the “Comfortably Numb” thing on her own with no coaching or direction from me about what I wanted her to do. And what she did was a soft vocal multilayered, totally in synch when she wanted to be and wonderfully disembodied in other places. Completely on purpose, completely studied, just the right amount of reverb, just the right amount of alienation and intimacy and so there was again this kind of goose bumps moment where, ‘how did she know, you know, how did she get in my head and hear what I wanted to hear and how did she achieve it even more sort of fully than I even imagined?’ I love Ani DiFranco’s music and I love her as well. Sometimes I separate the two and sometimes I don’t. So that was a big deal.

Then Marshall Crenshaw, Patty Larkin and Soulive all….it’s like watching somebody’s handwriting coming out of the pen. That’s what you get to see when working with these people. I think Marshall’s thing was on the first take, all his guitar stuff was on the first take. He memorized stuff so quickly and just nailed it and I was like dang, I’m a bad musician! These are people who really have music in their blood; which all of these artists did. For all I know the way I create music is like my handwriting coming out of my pen so maybe it’s just as mystifying to other people…

CS: Well it is to me. I’m not a musician; I just love music so yeah…

DW: Well, that’s very kind. But you know when I’m around people who it’s like the music came before the lyrics, the music came before everything for them and you still see the primal force.

Watching Shawn Colvin play guitar, you see how it saved her life when she was a teenager. When she kind of curves herself over her guitar, to hear out a part as she’s creating it on a stage…because, we were collaborating together…you see the same teenager who was trying to play the “Fire And Rain” Intro or “Bee’s Wing” by Richard Thompson, or something like that you see where she was who she was and what it meant and why it’s so important to her. So it’s all it’s kind of that moment with an artist. More than specific artist because it’s every artist I’ve seen.

CS: Your stage banter is very charming, funny.

DW: Thank you (laughs)

CS: It’s very fun to watch you. Has that always come pretty easily for you or is that something you had to work on over time?

DW: I had a big breakthrough in 1992, so pretty early on. I learned the difference between what you plan and you allow yourself to not plan. I spoke to an ex-boyfriend. I’d left town and so he split up with me and he said “I just want you to know I would have broken up with you no matter what.”

I was so furious and I was so disgusted and my blood was boiling in a way only a recent ex can make your blood boil. It has not boiled that much since. I was so angry that I couldn’t imagine trying to fit into a pigeonhole I’d designed for myself. So I improvised more. I was a little bigger than myself or maybe smaller than myself or something. It was a small audience but I saw a different reaction that they had from watching me standing up there with a margin or error that was a little wider than if I’d planned everything. So the tightrope was higher and the net is there. I have sort of a basic thing that I like to say and there are definitely introductions that open up a song more than others. It’s all separate material ultimately.

I take that stuff seriously. I was a theater major and I know a lot about the stage as a hyper associated space in time and dead space is really exacerbated or exaggerated by dead space and so I know you’ve got to be careful. But I also know that showing a little bit of my out of control-ness, when I go a little too far or I stumble, again it’s like seeing the ink coming out of the pen. You really feel like you’re seeing the person’s self coming out as opposed to little you know chicklets, little packaged things that are ultimately perceived as either kind of having no life or being even condescending. So allowing that kind of rougher edge to show, and I don’t mean a sharper edge or a nastier edge, just…

CS: a little more human?

DW: Yeah. Rougher and softer at the same time, was a huge breakthrough and I think I picked up things along the way about how to kind of finesse a little bit more, show a little bit respect. Like, don’t go there politically, don’t talk about this certain family member, or be careful about certain things, just because you don’t want to watch the audience squirm in discomfort.

And still get to say everything you want to say. That’s sort of the nice paradoxical challenge. But it’s a challenge. But I think ultimately you have to be a human being up there or else you lose.

CS: I asked my reader what questions they’ve wanted to ask you and many of them were marriage proposals…


CS: But here’s one I can ask. Will you be releasing any more of your records on vinyl?

DW: Probably not in the near future. Because people are lovely and I think it’s their prerogative and I think it’s really a big cost. They have to come to us and I can see where it would be awhile before would feel like they could.

CS: In your opinion, what is the most important political issue facing the world right now is there any one particular issue would like people to be educated about.

DW: I think people should not be afraid of . solar hot water heat Like people are kind of afraid of solar energy because they don’t think it’s efficient. And it’s getting better and better but I think people should really really not be afraid of solar hot water heat. Especially in Minnesota where actually cold weather, sunny cold weather is the most efficient climate for a solar panel. So Solar Hot water heat and aluminum recycling. Those I think, are the two big things, that we can have more control over.

And don’t be afraid of biodiesel I have a diesel and run it on bio diesel and actually totally fine.

So yeah I’ll keep it at that. Actually renewable energy and the world treatment of women. I’m trying to encourage a friend to open a store that sells…you know we go to malls and buy crap made by children and for the same amount of money we could be buying the kind clothing and jewelry that keeps communities alive instead of killing them.


have a necklace made in Uganda, close to the Rwandan border by women who are recovering from the genocide there. (laughs) I have a necklace made in Guatemala by a woman who is helping to open a hospital and a skirt made by women in Afghanistan who are just coming back from the refugee camps. So I would say ‘Think Locally Dress Globally’

And really think towards the empowerment of women not just as leaders you know but as participants they’ll be saving the world.

CS: My site, Collected Sounds is not only for music lovers, but is also a resource for Independent artists so I’m wondering what’s the best piece of advise you’ve ever gotten regarding your career and what advise would you give to somebody starting out?

DW: The best piece of advice I got was to create an audience. To try to create and audience driven career as opposed to an industry driven career. So try to build an audience as opposed to trying to build critical acclaim. Then one will follow the other. And then get great management too to take advantage of that and direct your career. I’ve seen unmanaged artists who are so great and the world deserves to hear them. They deserve more structure and administration. So don’t be afraid to have business around you. I would encourage people not to look at things as just business that’s just money which can interfere with your artist sonar.

CS: Sometimes that doesn’t come anyway, at least not for a while.

DW: Right exactly. So you know, you might as well take a risk and that’s probably more financially beneficial anyway.

The other thing I would say is go to a place that has a scene of some kind. Because where I was it was like a full forest that, you know the forests have big trees and little trees, the shrubs, bushes. My scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts was open mics, free gigs, tip jar gigs, opening slots, coverage in the Boston Globe, you know because they gave it some attention, three radio stations that played folk music and a community with which I would do song swaps and you learn.

Cutting your teeth is a really important thing to do because capitalism just takes women and says “how are you of service?” in the most general way and the first things it comes up are mothers and prostitutes, sex vehicles and leisure vehicles and caregivers. Women are more than welcome to be either one, but what the world really is hungry for is not necessarily what is the most efficient to capitalism. So you know, the world wants your ideas in all sorts of diversity of ways that you administer care and so it was really good to be in a scene as opposed to going up to the 85th floor and saying ‘Tell me what the world wants’ because they only know what makes money.

CS: Well, it’s been great chatting with you

DW: Yeah thank you

CS: And I look forward to your concert here in October

DW: Great, yeah, we’ll see you then. I’m looking forward to it too at the O’Shaunessey. OK thanks!

CS: Thank you (and then I fell over…plunk)

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