It has been six years since Dar Williams released an album, but writing the songs for what would eventually become I’ll Meet You Here – available October 1 on BMG’s Renew Records – did not feel like a daunting task. After nearly a decade of running Writing a Song That Matters, a retreat for those looking to tap into the substance of a song, the author and urban-planning expert turned inward, applying what she had learned by teaching others. The result was a renewed excitement to once again write her own songs that mattered, much to the delight of patient fans.
I recently sat down with Williams to discuss restless afternoons, the magic of live performance, and why society takes the desire path.
Americana Highways: Your songwriting is front and center on your latest album I’ll Meet You Here, but you also spent much of 2020 working on your latest book, Writing a Song That Matters, which is based on your retreats. Does writing in the long form scratch a different part of your creative brain?
Dar Williams: Yeah. I was a playwright in my early twenties – that’s what I thought I going to be doing – and I would write songs as a release. I would work my play writing and then, just unwind on my walk home from the cafe where I would write. I would start to write these little songs. The book is like trying to really figure out people on their own terms and working with that information. I was really trying to see something that was there, whereas songwriting is about creating something that has never been there before. It turns out, sometimes those things are really great to balance one another, but not in this case.
AH: When you jumped back into songwriting after the book, did you find yourself approaching the process differently?
DW: No, because I had written books before. It was nice to have taken so much time away and to apply what I had learned from leading these songwriting retreats, in terms of all the little jump starts you give yourself when you have a little collapse – when you’re at a fork in the road with your writing or with your confidence. It was almost like I was a student of where we had gotten in the songwriting retreat, so it was great. I had led this thing and come up with something close to a pedagogy and then I followed it and I was like, “Wow, this really works.” So that was good. If there had been a part of my brain that says, “It’s too late, you’ve lost it. You had a guardian angel, but she didn’t want you to write about urban planning, and now you will never write any more songs.” That’s all a bunch of BS. I would just put all that stuff aside and keep on writing. It was really exciting to get back in that sense, to see how my past helped my present. (Laughter)
AH: Let’s touch on your past and how that impacts your future. You have been writing, recording and touring for many years now. Are there still firsts for you to experience in the industry?
DW: It just doesn’t get old. It didn’t even before the pandemic. What happened with the pandemic was it was enough of a time away from gigs that, when I came back to the gigs, I was experiencing some of that “the afternoon of a show.” It always seems like the afternoon of a show and I feel like I need an extra cup of coffee and I get restless because, yeah, I’m in a new place and I don’t know what to do with myself and I’m about to go do a show, which by its very nature is not something I can predict or set in stone. That’s the whole thing. I was basically about to go jump on a trapeze.
After the pandemic, I came back to performing as a phenomenon. Okay, I’m going to be restless in the afternoons. I’m going to have to have all my little rituals in place for before the show and those are important. I’m going to do my best, and sometimes, I’m not going to be sure if it was enough and I’m going to have that weird ambiguous feeling when I drive home. I think before the pandemic, I was like, “I should master these things. I should master all of these feelings so that I don’t feel them.” Now it’s like, “Oh, I’m always going to have to deal with the fact that there’s an ambiguity to all of this – how I measure myself and how the audience is going to be. Is there going to be a staff member who says something unbelievably weird and rude to me?” That’s always going to happen. I mean, the whole name of the album is I’ll Meet You Here. I was like, “Oh, I’ll just meet it when it comes,” and that’s actually re-invigorated my performing because, now I know that just goes with the job.
AH: When you returned to the stage after such a long time away from it, did you find yourself in the shoes of the audience? Did you walk into the club and just stand there and enjoy the space?
DW: Well, they’re outdoors, but I understand what you’re saying. (Laughter) Yes. The first gig I did was very much on my own turf. Everybody was so shocked and relieved that this could be happening and there was a sunset, so there was this golden light over the whole stage and audience. And literally, a hot air balloon flight landed behind us. It was like something out of a children’s book and I felt that infusion of joy and the audience and the joy on the stage. I thought, maybe this has been here all along and I just didn’t realize. And then, a few gigs later, I was playing for a group of people who hadn’t necessarily heard of me and they were…pretty drunk. (Laughter) They just cocked their heads, like, “Huh?” I thought, Oh no, you can still have a mediocre gig. (Laughter) You can still have those. There’s no magic wand.
But, with that first concert, I think everyone was so surprised that we could do this again. I don’t know if you’re this way, but we all have a magical belief that there’s a certain thing that live performance does. It’s ineffable. We can’t explain what it is. It’s just difficult. We talk about it like it’s real, like an act of faith. What happened when we all came back on the stage, I think audiences and performers, is that we nodded our heads and said, “Oh yeah, it really was real. It really is real. It really is its own thing and it really is special and important.” That came back.
AH: What’s so amazing about live shows for me is, we live in such a divided country now, and yet you can go to a concert, stand in the same space, and all enjoy the same thing even with different mindsets and beliefs, which seems like a rarity these days.
DW: That’s a difficult one for me. I’m a little divergent on that because, Roger Ailes lived in our town and he took a town that had tons of differences and turned them into divisions. “You’re different and that’s bad.” Then, we watched Donald Trump do the same thing. He wanted to polarize. This was the big motto coming out of my book because, my book was all about how people figure out how to make things work. The opposite of division is not unity, it’s collaboration. A concert is a good place to remind ourselves that we don’t really need unity, but we do work side by side with people and achieve things, collaboratively, very well. That’s a very good thing that Americans are good at. People are going to be different from us and we’re like, “Okay, let’s have a downtown with all these different restaurants, because we come from all these different countries.” It reminds us that we all live together side by side. Sometimes we get along and sometimes we don’t and there’s still a lot of Balkanization out there. My audiences are pretty homogeneous. I’d say half the people in my audience have the Coexist bumper stickers, so I don’t know if it’s the most representational audience.
But, I agree with you. I think that art and culture, as a way of making sense of what’s going on out there, can just be harmonizing in general. We haven’t had a lot of that live performance harmonizing where the headlines just are booming tragedy and apocalypse and then you can go and see the artists who are making sense of it and saying, “Yes and no, here’s the gray area and here’s some reality apart from the cable news machinery.”
AH: It’s interesting because I have a son in elementary school and this was the first year that we sat him down and talked to him about 9/11. What we wanted to focus on was 9/12 and how the country came together in a way that he has certainly never seen before in his lifetime.
DW: Yeah, we did. It just doesn’t make a lot of news, but they used to plan cities from the sky. They used to just say, “Let’s put it on paper and then people will live in this thing that we made on paper.” Then, urban planners – and no one necessarily knows this, they just feel it – urban planners made a huge shift in the 60s and 70s where they said, “Let’s see how people move and interact and let’s build on making that work for them.” There’s literally something called a desire path, which is, here’s the grid where you’re supposed to walk, but here’s the little worn path in the grass, diagonally, where people actually walk. That’s called a desire path. So, there are a lot more cities and towns with flow and interaction and what I call the hometown pride and worldly welcome where they are 21st century – they could be really proud of who they are – but they’re also not xenophobic bigots. That’s happening. There is a gradual thing that I think is parallel to 9/11 because, I think on 9/12, you’re right, everybody felt that. I applaud your trying to explain what that felt like, because it was an unbelievable feeling. Maybe we just decided we wanted to bottle it somehow. We wanted to figure out how to capture that.
Here are these urban planners saying, “How do people actually walk? How do people actually move? How do we get them out of their cars and walking along riversides and things?” If you travel around, it’s really quite amazing how much more you can walk around and see what’s in front of you and interact with the common good right in front of you without having to turn everything into a battle. Then, Trump came along and said, “No, turn it into a battle.” Fox News has done a really bad thing to our country, but the truth is we’re finding each other better than we used to and with less homophobia and with less cannabis-phobia, apparently. (Laughter)
AH: You mention being able to walk around communities and having the ability to see so much more than if you drove through them. I live in New England, and a lot of what is happening here is, old, unused railroad tracks are being turned into community paths. Even if what we have as a foundation wasn’t envisioned to be community-driven, it feels like we’re doing our best to refurbish what we have.
DW: You’re right. It’s beautiful. You have that New England know how of, “It takes a village.” The bones are there to do that stuff. The example that I used in the book was Lowell, Massachusetts, because that had the crack epidemic and the crime and the misery. And now their main industry are the museums and what they capitalized on. They have a river, and they have the mill history, and they have Jack Kerouac, and they have a little league team that’s awesome. Whistler was there. When I went there in 1995, they were going to have a Walmart come right to the middle of Lowell. I thought, Oh, that sounds horrible. They said, “How dare you? We are in crisis.” I’m like, “Well, you’re going to be in crisis forever if you have a Walmart here. They will keep you in crisis.” Now there’s a Walmart that’s two miles away from the downtown. It’s not in the middle and the industry of the town IS the town. Not every town can be a tourist hub like that, but still, there are a lot of stories like that. There are places where they improve themselves without necessarily gentrifying.
AH: And taking those great old mill buildings and turning them into something else – studio lofts or artists lofts – it keeps the history but moves it into the future at the same time.
DW: Totally. There’s two towns in New Hampshire that I found. One’s called Dover and one’s called Rochester. I didn’t go to Rochester, I just heard about it. Rochester said, “Let’s get rid of these old brick buildings.” And Dover said, “Let’s put apartments and small businesses and restaurants in them.” Everybody wants to live in Dover. Rochester, not so much.
AH: You had mentioned how you wanted to be a playwright. Is there a correlation to writing dialogue in a medium like that and writing lyrics for a song?
DW: There are a lot of lessons in theater that are axioms, or whatever that’s called, that hold true for songwriting. Drama is the conflict of truths. Everyone has their truth and drama is the conflict of those truths. I learned from play writing it’s not really fun to just attack a person in a song. Even the song, “As Cool As I Am,” that’s about the philandering, jealousy-mongering, romantic partner. The person is saying, “Why did you do that? There’s a YOU apart from this behavior.” Drama is the conflict of truth. The idea that there’s a spying statement that can unite all of these, no matter how many mosaic tiles you put around – no matter how many spokes, there’s a hub to the wheel. There’s a central statement. Songs are the same, but with music. Instead of having costumes, you have rests, repetition, harmony and counterpoint. This idea that you use all of those theatrical elements to help you tell your story, and sometimes you can’t even explain why it works so well, it is very similar to theater.
AH: What would the Dar who first picked up a guitar think of your creative endeavors?
DW: She would say, “I can’t believe you were able to do this past the year of 1970.” Because when I was a teenager, I just remember thinking, Oh my gosh, these people – Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins and even Stevie Wonder going into the 70s – how they see music as something that really turns the wheel. They are witnesses. Pete Seeger and Jacques Brel has a song called “Sons Of” which says, “Some built the roads, some wrote the poems, some went to war, some never came home.” The stakes seem so high in their songwriting. They really knew that they were standard bearers for their society. This is the disco era and I just thought that you can’t write songs like that. You can’t find an audience or be that person. And then sure enough, the wheel turns and in the 90s, the whole songwriter thing comes back and here I am. So, I think I would be like, “I can’t believe you got to do that thing that Judy Collins got to do.” (Laughter)
That era was miraculously wonderful for performing songwriters. Just to live a little piece of that idea, that songs are important and that audiences listen and weave those stories into their own lives the way I did when I was a kid and that’s my job, is wonderful to me. And I think it says something really nice about the world, that we still have people who come to concerts to find some sort of enlightenment in their own lives, as opposed to escaping their lives.
Look for tour dates and enlightenment with I’ll Meet You Here by visiting http://www.darwilliams.com.