Dar Williams gets to heart of The Green World
by Wayne Robins
NEW YORK -- You can hardly stand on the sidewalk of Spring Street, much less
walk and carry on a conversation. The main east-west drag of Manhattan's SoHo
is a scrum of tourists gawking at art galleries that hawk the indecipherable
and shoestores that peddle the unaffordable. The frenzy of Being Here is so
overwhelming on an ordinary weekday afternoon that it's almost dangerous to
stop and ponder the building that emboldened Dar Williams to write a song about
"Omigosh, I'll show you the apartment that inspired the song," Williams says.
"Spring Street," one of the lively cautionary tales on her epiphany-filled new
The Green World (Razor & Tie), was stimulated by the
singer/songwriter's first surge of commercial success. Her two preceding
albums, 1996's Mortal City and 1997's End of the Summer, had sold
a folk-shocking 150,000 copies for the indie Razor & Tie label. A SoHo pied
à terre, Williams thought, would've been a nice complement to her digs
in Northampton, where she lived for eight years until this summer.
"The royalty checks had started coming in, and I thought, `I'm really
wealthy,' " she jokes, mocking her own naïveté. "I showed the
apartment to somebody and they said, `You're thinking of moving there? You
could never afford it!' " But it wouldn't be a Dar Williams song if
the thought process stopped there. Williams, who's hyper-analytical of herself
and everything around her, realized how close she had come to betraying her
authenticity by coveting that SoHo apartment. "The song is scary because,
basically, I thought I could replace coolness with the commodity of coolness."
When I point out with near-airhead redundancy that SoHo has long symbolized the
"commodity of coolness," she pauses for a half-beat of effect. "Well, yeah.
That's why I called the song `Spring Street.' Instead of `Dar.' It's about fear
Conversational phrases like "fear of self-commodification" come easily to
Williams, who doesn't hesitate to speak about the insights she honed through
psychotherapy, and whose music blends detailed observation and acute
self-awareness. The Green World is about her attempts to connect her
rich inner life with the outside world. There are songs that affirm her art
("Another Mystery," "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono"), spirituality ("And God
Descended," "Playing to the Firmament"), naturalism ("Calling the Moon," "We
Learned the Sea"), and 1960s politics ("I Had No Right," which deals with the
radical anti-war priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan). The categories bleed into
one another with unconscious ease -- "I approach each song with a sense of
humor, or at least open to there being humor, and each with seriousness."
The Williams of The Green World is no longer the solitary folk artist
who first attracted a cult following: a potent, studio-pro rhythm section
provides the bone for her fleshy melodies, and the album enjoys a full, rich
production. But one of the compelling qualities of Williams as a writer and
singer is that she can tell you where she stands in each category without being
strident -- and that's something that hasn't changed over the years. Sure,
she's an ambitious Judeo-Christian-Buddhist-pantheist-tree-hugging-tofu-eating
lefty. But she's more cheeky than preachy.
"What's special about Dar is her ability to laugh at her enviro-self while
never betraying it, to joke about being a good or bad Buddhist while picking
what her new single will be," says Meg Griffin, the long-time alternative radio
legend who now directs the AAA/Americana department of Sirius Satellite Radio.
Until recently Griffin was program director at WFUV-FM at Fordham University,
in the Bronx, where Williams had been a staple of the station's innovative
"City Folk" format almost from her first album, in 1997.
People in the Boston area, of course, got to know Williams sooner. She
graduated from Wesleyan College, in Connecticut, having studied theater and
religion. After graduation, in the late 1980s, she moved to Jamaica Plain and
then Somerville, and she started as an intern at Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company
of Boston. Her goal, at the time, was to be an opera director. A voice teacher
encouraged her try her luck at the open-mike clubs then thriving, and soon she
was performing her own material ("which wasn't so good," she now admits) at
pass-the-hat joints like Naked City and the Nameless Coffee House. Her first
real gig, as she remembers it, was at Christopher's in Somerville, opening for
Patti Griffin in November 1990. And during those years she recorded two
out-of-print DIY cassettes -- I Have No History and All My Heroes Are
The early '90s found Williams working the Northeastern folk circuit, on what
she calls an "empty bar" tour. In 1992 she settled in Northampton. A year
later, she recorded her first album, The Honesty Room, in a nearby
studio. Released on the local Burning Field label in 1993, it was picked up
regionally by Waterbug the following year before getting national distribution
in 1995 from Razor & Tie, which has been her label ever since.
Although she's just moved to a house in a more quietly artsy area of upstate
New York, she can still rhapsodize about Northampton. "It was home for eight
years, it was almost too perfect. It was idyllic and quite beautiful and nice."
But beneath the stunning veneer of the river region were the subcurrents that
some find so disquieting. "I was susceptible to guidelines on how to develop
healthily, and I should have blown that off right away. The area is filled with
interesting people, a lot of free, independent-thinking people, and people who
I had a great time making music with. But there are also lefty college students
who are mean to each other; it's a healthcentric valley filled with people with
eating disorders and control factors."
Williams goes on to point out that she does not personally have an eating
disorder. "Is it my thing in particular? No. But where do we come up with this
notion of a woman in which the less space you take up, the more you're
As for The Green World, it's her first album in more than three years,
but that doesn't mean she's been idle. Indeed, she's been a regular road
warrior, playing clubs, theaters, folk fests, by herself, with the likes of
like Joan Baez, and as part of a novel experiment called Cry Cry Cry with
fellow neo-folkies Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky.
The group are called Cry Cry Cry for two reasons. One is that the three
determined that "Shindell, Kaplansky, and Williams" or any permutation thereof
was way too complicated for the average tongue. But perhaps more to the point,
the trio are capable of harmonies and melodies so gorgeously sad they could
make a statue weep. "I was at a songwriting circle once," Williams recalls,
"and someone said, `I'm afraid of adulterating my purity by getting too
sentimental.' I don't agree, I think it's great to have schmaltz. In Cry Cry
Cry, we indulged our schmaltz, we indulged our sentimentality. We weren't
afraid to go there."
But she keeps the sentimentality in check on The Green World. The tune
about the Berrigans, "I Had No Right," is moving because she uses so few words
to hit so many angles: love of God and love of country, law of conscience and
law of man, being righteous and being wrong. Of all the singer-songwriters of
her generation, this early-thirtysomething seems the most willing to pose tough
questions and avoid easy answers. You could even call her the living link
between the activism and folk music of the 1960s and wherever the heck we are
now. She can maintain a detached eye on the 1960s, since her parents went
through so much angst then.
"The schmaltz place for my dad is the 1960s -- he can't talk about the 1968
Democratic Convention without crying." She finds parallels to the 1960s
wherever she can: she protested the Persian Gulf War ("different era, same
marketing scheme") while living in the Cambridge area. And in the happily
rocking, counter-intuitive "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono," she embraces not the
Yoko-broke-up-the-Beatles myth but the value of Ono's own career as a 1960s
conceptual and performance artist.
"I was reading about a performance exhibit she did at Wesleyan. The paradigm is
form for form's sake, the commentary is through form commenting on form and
deconstructing form. So you think you don't get it. I loved realizing how
influenced I was by that whole strain at Wesleyan; there was a performance-art
class that was very meaningful to me. So I do blanch a little when people say
to me, are you a folk artist? I like postmodernism, I like deconstructive
stuff, I like irony and all that gritty form-related stuff." Enjoying her
tangent, Williams lets go with a joyous shout: "Today, Yoko, I am like you!"
Of course, Yoko had John Lennon. Williams has had some serious boyfriends, and
she tells quite funny stories about her agonizing break-ups. There was the time
she was bawling, her arms hugging a tree in Northampton, and shouting aloud:
"Oh no, I'm still in love with you." An onlooker eyed Williams strangely. "They
probably thought I was some sort of turbo-pagan, in love with a tree!"
Then there was the time she was singing sad songs at a festival with Joan Baez
and had to run off stage after every tune because the end of a recent
relationship was hitting her full force. "I was like an emotional bulimic. I
had to keep running off to the trailer, and there was always someone else in
there, and I would tell them what was going on. Janis Ian was there, the Indigo
Girls might have been in there, and I would say, `I'm just grieving my
relationship, it just hit me today.' "
Williams admits that intimacy does not come all that easily. "As somebody said,
`You know what's really interesting about you, Dar? You have this way of
seeming really open, so a person can go right in, then there's like this wall.
So you seem pretty open, but you're really not, are you?' I thought that was
But as the Yoko song and "Another Mystery" make clear, Williams is not ready to
give up her day job in deference to any significant other. "I don't think I'd
want to date me. I'm busy! I'm loyal, I'm supportive, but I'm busy. And then
I'm a real complicated pain-in-the-ass person as well. I'm getting really good
at making sure I'm really camera- and stage-ready, and that's the drawback of
being a performer. So I think a lot of this album is saying, dissemble me,
deconstruct me, that's what The Green World is -- the chaotic space you
go to out of the closed world. If this album is courting anything, it's that
openness to the fact that I'm not in control!"