The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000

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Folk tales

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 the street.

"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 of self-commodification."

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 Dead.

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 worth?"

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 pretty brilliant."

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!"

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