Girl of the World: Dar Williams
“I thrive in relationships,” singer-songwriter Dar Williams told me. That comes as no surprise to anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing Williams live. She is such a committed storyteller that her stage banter alone is worth the price of admission, and her warm openness is contagious to the audience. After shows, Williams is known for talking with fans, many of whom she recognizes on sight, and she animatedly discusses anything from their college choices to their writing careers.
This same focus on building connections infuses Williams’ artistic and professional decisions as well. Her activism and non-musical work help inspire her songs, known for touching on issues like gender identify, gentrification, therapy, and the plight of dating a pothead in college. On her new album, Emerald, Williams harvests the fruits of many labors, including a stint teaching a course at Wesleyan University, her alma mater. Williams also spearheads “Give bees a camp,” an endeavor in which she visits schools and camps to play songs and teach children about honeybees and bee-friendly gardens. (Williams’ father kept bees, and she’s followed their plight of Colony Collapse since its early days.) She also traveled to orphanages in Honduras, interacting with young women there. In Williams’ catalog, contemplative meditation on adolescent girls (“O Canada Girls,” “The World’s Not Falling Apart”) is nothing new, and it’s easy to detect a soft spot in her for young women who dwell in the same simultaneous creativity and isolation that marked her own coming of age. On Emerald, “Girl of the World” spins similar thread. Though centered on a girl in Honduras, the anxieties William narrates over strikingly minimalist music are universal. “Empty Plane” is a stirring contemplation about the pockets of human connection one finds when traveling (here, an airport barista who pours a heart made of foam) and how it feels to watch those connections disappear.
More than a celebration of her non-musical collaborations, Emerald is a witness and testament to Williams’ commitment to creative collaboration as well. Emerald found her working (on both the writing and performance) with the Milk Carton Kids, the Hooters, Richard Thompson, Jill Sobule, Angel Snow, and Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche, among others. While the contributions of the other musicians is rich, the songs all still feel like Dar Williams songs, not the work of an experiment or a midlife-crisis-fueled alter ego. “FM Radio,” penned with Jill Sobule, delights in the narrator’s early exposure to rock music (“I’m talking disco with my orthodontist!” the lyrics cheer), reminding us that even for seasoned musicians, there’s a magic in the making and discovery of music.
The collaborative cherry on top of the new record was Williams’ decision to crowd-fund it through Pledge Music. This marked a step away from her longtime label Razor & Tie, a decision she details here as being about there not really being such a thing as a record company anymore. It’s only natural that Williams reach out to fans and establish that different sort of relationship with them, giving them a chance to contribute to the work before it was released. And she says that the change to crowd funding made her feel more excited about the recording process and reminding her of the spirit of perpetual possibility it gave her at the start of her career.
But Dar Williams is not new to the business of writing songs or playing them around the world or having necessary conversations, however uncomfortable they may be initially. That experience has crystallized into wisdom, which she readily dispenses in her usual witty, candid fashion. “I’m resolved to being born and so resigned to bravery,” Williams sang on The Green World’s “Spring Street.” Like the bee-friendly flowers she plants at summer camps, Williams thrives indeed on constant rebirth and the audacity to bloom.
Here, she talks to me about her role in social movements, crowd-funding, and why trust is the basis of collaboration.
Erin Lyndal Martin: I read that while making the new album, you were thinking of what it means to be a songwriter at this moment. And I was thinking about how self-aware you’ve always seemed. When I saw you in 2003, you joked that that CNN must not have heard you opposed the war in Iraq because they hadn’t broadcasted it. I get the sense that you have an awareness of what your place is, and what your place is not. Have you always felt that way, or did that come with time?
Dar Williams: I’ve been a part of people’s movements since I tried to get my town to recycle when I was 22. I was living with my parents, and there was no place to recycle. My first experience was sort of people mocking me, and then there was an interview, a survey, they asked me to help with. It turned out everybody wanted to recycle. And now, recycling is the law in my hometown, and it’s a massively popular program with a very, very ahead-of-the-curve recycling center.
So, I really know what it feels like to be at the beginning of something. To be ignored, and then to come to that other side where it’s completely normal. Usually, there’s a status quo that doesn’t want to change. And the status quo has no face, and the status quo has one agenda, which is just to get from point A to point B in the most profitable way. So a people’s movement to change things that are better for people, or the planet, will often find this weird resistance, but it’s nothing but a financial [ploy]. It pretends to have a human face, but it really doesn’t. It’s just money. And even if you’re saving people money, at the end of the day, money doesn’t like to change.
I’m really used to knowing that people’s movements start in obscurity and end with everybody happier, including the money. Including the status quo. Everyone’s always proud to be doing something right. In the best way. Right now, protesting wars is actually something that I think makes a lot of sense. War is a short term solution, and peace is a long term solution and a lasting solution. And so, even that is something that I would call the people’s movement that we have — where we have to resist mockery and scorn and humiliation on the way to what actually everyone’s proud of, at the end.
I know that there is an unglamorous phase in any people’s movement and I’m ok to get in there with language and with witness. I know some people aren’t ready for that, and there’s plenty of songs I have or things that aren’t involved with any given movement, per se.
Here’s an example. I think that we’re going to be really happy when we ban neonicotinoids. Like, I think that we’re going to be very happy when we get our bees back. But, for now, they say, no, no, it’s fungus, no, no, it’s different chemicals. Fungicides. It’s disease. It’s extreme farming, it’s all of these things, but I think when we get neonicotinoids, we’ll know that a lot of it was the neonicotinoids. You know what I mean? So I’m ok to be at the beginning of that curve. And to ride it.
It seems like artists are the ones really innovating our economic models now, like with Kickstarter or Patreon. How do you think other fields can integrate some of the ideas that have been set-up there?
I think this is the most important one right now. I think this is a connect-the-dots time to understand what businesses are needing to change and looking at why. All of the knowledge industries are being challenged right now, whether it’s academia, journalism, or the arts. So there’s a lot to think about. Like, maybe someday, if I had my druthers, my Facebook would be connected to my credit card, and every time I linked onto a story from the Washington Post or a paper I just subscribed to, I would just pay ten cents. There’s a moment where you say “I will pay for this idea because that will keep the standards of the arts, academia, and journalism alive, and I’m already seeing–no offense, because this isn’t about you–but I’m seeing a decline in journalistic standards just in my interviews.
That makes sense. It’s really hard to get paid at all in music journalism right now, much less to get paid well. There’s this idea that there’s always somebody out there that’s happy to do it for free.
At what point do you say you can’t just tell people to do investigative journalism on Boko Haram, or the poisonous nail industry without paying them? And the nail industry thing — it’s a bombshell. It’s a huge deal what the New York Times exposed. And so the world is a better place. They’re linking earthquakes to fracking now, in the New York Times. Once the New York Times says it, then I feel like I can really have a discussion with people. Until then, it’s like the weird guy who works the midnight shift at the coffee shop. You have to have these high, journalistic standards. And you’re proud of them. And then, when you have them, you’re proud of them. And when you have great arts in your country, you’re proud of them.
I think that Pledge is a way for people to say “I value this.” What’s strange, is that it’s really just a way to preorder an album, and I think that it actually gets weighed down in people thinking that it’s much more of an emotional commitment. But it’s actually, in some ways, replacing a distribution model. So there is a kind of a kind of a – I don’t know what the word is. Simple transaction to the whole thing that I think gets lost in the hype of all the other things that you offer online.
That said, I’m social. I’m very social. I love talking to people. I don’t mind writing little notes to people. It’s okay for me, so Pledge works for me, and I have a fan base.
But here’s the thing. I think for maybe for you and for me. There are some moments where we go from bricks and mortar to digital. And there’s a moment when we go from a record to digital music. And I’m realizing now – the reason I decided not to go with my label again was that they are, to some extent, for me, a record company. They sold records. And, even iTunes I think would qualify as a record company, but they – because of streaming, and other things, you really don’t sell records right now. I wasn’t trusting that they were getting revenue, and something that they would pass along to me. So I left my record company because I believed there was no such thing as a record industry anymore.
And now we have to decide what we do in the digital streaming age, and how we compensate and distribute the money. We compensate knowledge workers and distribute money to them, and if the ethos is that everything should be free, well, then you’ll see the articles that are coming out about me, where all of my quotes are kind of mangled up and paraphrased, and given in a really bad order, and don’t make sense at all, and I can see exactly where a journalist made it up.
That’s been true for 20 years, but it is the norm right now. It’s like those monks who would paint pictures of nude women even though they’d never seen a nude woman. Everything is out of place.
Do we want that from journalism? Do we want things that don’t make sense from journalism? Do we want art that’s filled with non-verbal choruses so that you can sell a car with your songs? Do we want academia that makes wild, crazy promises to the one percent that can still afford a college education while we disenfranchise our professors? Do we want that?
At some point, don’t we need to compensate the knowledge and expertise of knowledge workers? So Pledge is a way of redirecting the conversation, and I hope we can go farther in that conversation of how we value the intangible, digitally streamed knowledge of our artists and scholars. How’s that?
It’s very relevant. You did Pledge Music already having a fan base and a career. How do you think people who are still unknown can distribute their art without relying on a record label or an evil overlord publisher?
I’ll give them an idea. [For this record,] I should have rounded up all the kittens, puppies, and babies in my town and created little films of each of them with a little piece of my music underneath them. People could go to Pledge to pre-order, but I would clickbait with kittens in sprinklers, and puppies trying to get up the stairs, and children popping the child safe lock on a door or something like that, or playing the cello.
I wish I had done that as a way of sort of pointing out that that’s really what people go to Facebook for. And then [tried] to sell my music to them. If I were putting out a CD now but nobody had heard of me, I would just round up all of the incredibly cute animals I could find. Like, preferably a baby llama. Because then that would really stand out.
And that’s really what your music makes people think of, I think. Baby llamas. Hopping down stairs.
Facebook is a lot of fun. And it’s a great way to take a break from a really important project. Of course I worry about going too far with my distractions, but I also appreciate news about my friends and my parents’ friends.
I think these kids starting out — there are sort of corporate entities that will still help them, especially when it comes to doing a more 360 deal, which means not just your music, but sort of all of your endorsements. I heard a kid just talking about his endorsements onstage the other day. And I was shocked at how much that was integrated into his talking between songs.
I would never do that. One of my students at Wesleyan told me there was a thing with a band that opened for Nickelback, and they said they loved Nickelback because their marketing integration was so intelligent. What opening act would say that during their set?
So there are ways to sort of plug into corporate sponsorship. But what people used to do was, they bought your CD, and you could compare it to a share of stock. That was your way of investing in an artist. And you don’t have as much of that. Although the truth is, people are still downloading and buying music, and that makes a huge difference. That actually still exists. And I’m pretty old school, so I get a lot of people who do that, so I luck out that way, too.
Convincing people to buy your music instead of streaming it, and then of course, they just say tour, tour, tour. But I have friends who are songwriters, and they don’t tour, who don’t get compensated, I think, by the streaming. Then you have friends in wheelchairs and things who really don’t want to travel, and want to record, and one of them, I know, just committed suicide.
I’m sad when a songwriter has to only tour. Because some songwriters are not as good at that as some others.
I just read Amanda Palmer’s book, and kept thinking about why it was that her different way of doing things has been so embraced, and why she has the cult following that she has. Just why her fans are so devoted. And I kept thinking, was there an audience that had been waiting for somebody doing business over Twitter, in house concerts, et cetera, the way that she did it? Or was it just the right time for people? Have we just sort of reached escape velocity from more traditional models?
That’s a good question. This is the other side of that coin. I guess I had the luxury of doing music in a time where you said something, you had something to say, and then somebody else dealt with how you sold it, and there was an audience that would buy it.
Now there’s this other set of expectations put on the artist that you’ll know what to say, and how to sell it, and how to get a product-resistant audience to buy it. Amanda Palmer has so much of her — so much of her savvy and her brilliance has to do with this incredible understanding of how things work, and how people work. And of where to integrate something visually compelling or super provocative into the business of writing songs and singing songs.
She’s an incredible role model for a number of people. And really, somebody that you could study and understand what she did, and decide how much of that you want to do, or you want somebody else to help you do. She’s really brought in a great new model. She did it first, and she deserves the credit that she gets. And she presents herself in an incredibly fearless, wonderful way.
So that’s one way to go. In the 90’s, I wrote songs. I put on makeup. I got on the stage conceding to the powers that be to help me sell my music. I dyed my hair blonde. I didn’t have to figure out the best range of communication mechanisms. I did what I did. There was a strong network of venues. There was a strong network of audiences. And there was a strong network of promoters. And so it was all a human network.
I thrived there. I did. I thrive in relationships. As long as I wrote things that were important to me, and I didn’t compromise in that way, I could succeed. It’s still good that way. And I don’t [compromise] so there’s that, too. Amanda showed us that you can really put the digital horse in front of the digital cart.
I think that’s great. But I believe there should also be a place where the song itself resides. And how you write a song, and you perform that song, and that song touches a person, and there’s a live performance. And that is a very simple but valuable thing that you’re doing, apart from how you sell it.
I want to switch subjects to collaborations because that was such a part of Emerald. And you worked with such a wide range of artists, and I wondered if there was any sort of common thread to the music-making or songwriting sessions that was true across artists.
The funny thing is, to get there, you tell them everything about your personal life, they tell you everything about their personal life, and then you write a song. Like, somehow – because you choose a theme. But somehow that theme always leads back to some conversation where you’re — you just say, well, in truth – because what is a song but – “what do you want to say? Now, what do you really want to say? What are you trying to say here? What are you really trying to say here?”
There’s always that other shoe that drops. So it’s like, so-and-so deceived me, and then an hour later, it’s like, actually, I deceived myself. And that’s the truer thing. The truer thing is that I did that to myself. Or the conversation starts, I did something wrong. And then an hour later, you say, actually, I was betrayed by somebody, and I’d rather live with my own errors that not trusting. So things can get really profound, and then you never see that person again.
But you’re still happy to know them. And it’s always great when you walk in with a little germ of an idea. Somebody has one little idea. Starting from absolute scratch is not as much fun. Like, when I came to Nashville, I had three or four song ideas in my pocket, and then the two strongest ones became songs that I actually recorded. One with Jim Lauderdale and one with Angel Snow.
What was something that surprised you about any of your collaborations?
At this point, I’m not surprised. I think that it’s really – you go from feeling like you have nothing to feeling like you have something, and it’s very exciting. So it was okay. In terms of collaboration, anything I didn’t expect? No. I was sitting down to write a song with somebody, and I said, “Oh, that’s not a chord I was really expecting here.” And the guy said, “Well, I’ve heard your music. I think you could use a few new chords.” And it was like you heard the garage door coming down. Like, there was nothing – there was no way I could create something with that guy.
I said, “Let’s just go for coffee and call this a day.” I didn’t even tell him. Luckily. Because he’s just so – like, I love him. I’ve since worked with him. And he’s just so – he’s just so demented. He has no idea how anti-social he is.
And so we didn’t have to go there. But there’s no way I could work with him. So Trust is very important. Like, a pretty profound trust. But it’s amazing how many songwriters you can have that with, because a lot of times you’ll have a shared experience.
Yeah, I’ve tried this in writing and visual art, to collaborate a lot. But it’s very difficult. Not even in terms of creative ideas and expectations, but just basic social things. And I don’t know if there’s anything that people can learn from your experience. How would you encourage people to manifest more collaborations?
Maybe it’s important for them to know – for them to hear that it’s a really rewarding process, and to know that it feels a little weird at first, but that’s just a little bump. And that it’s worth trying. And it’s worth being – just like, being – just like you try new foods, just like you try new hairstyles, even if it goes a little sideways, you’re a better human for trying. I would never have done it if it weren’t for this career.
And in fact, I wanted to be a playwright, and just couldn’t. I was much happier with the more autonomous songwriting and performing thing, and the less collaborative field. So I get it.
I just have a couple more questions about the new songs themselves. I feel like “Girl of the World” is continuing a conversation from The World’s Not Falling Apart. Did you think about that deliberately?
I didn’t. I didn’t, but you’re absolutely right. You’re 100 percent right. When I was in Honduras, I was just very aware of these girls who were being encouraged to write poetry in a country by a very wonderful American man. Who’s taken a lot of risks in his life, and they’ve really been rewarded. I really felt sympathy for these girls. I felt like they were quietly saying, do you know that as a girl and as a Central American, there are many precedents for expressing yourself through art that will get you killed? Do you know that? Do you know the risk that a person takes? And will I ever be loved? Truly loved for being exactly who I am, and expressing myself through this very vulnerable poetic language? So it’s a song that’s saying, you’ve set me on this path of finding my honest voice. And once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s going to be hard to put back in. And then I’ll be lost. Because I’ll need to put myself out there.
I will want to find that honest voice, and yet I will be possibly living in a society that will shun me.
Americans have — every girl has to deal with that question. Amanda Palmer has to dare to do what she does. Ani DiFranco had to dare to do what she does. They were not the most recent ; they were early adopters of tattoos, and bold language, and how they presented their bodies, and their politics. And they didn’t get permission. And they were rewarded for that, and that’s great. But there are some really chilling stories that are not so happy, even in the United States. So you feel the risk.
One last question for you. I think you make interesting cover songs. I loved your explanation of how you felt like “Comfortably Numb” was getting overshadowed by the really dramatic music and that you wanted to strip it down. Especially on the new record, and thinking about the songs that you covered, what makes you decide that you have an interpretation of a song to contribute?
Well, I just love the message of Johnny Appleseed so much, and thought the Hooters would shred it up. And they did, in my opinion. But I knew the people I’d do it with, and I knew how important it was to me to put myself into the identity of that song. And because he wrote it in 2003, before there was [Colony Collapse]. So how awesome is that? I was willing to take a risk that it would suck, because I just thought it was such a great song. And I think I kind of did the same thing with Kat Goldman’s song [“Weight of the World”], because I love it so much and I just – it was almost just like I wanted to help spread the seed of people knowing about that song. Because it’s, to me, a very powerful one.
I felt like I wouldn’t hurt them. And that I should go ahead and record them. So I did. I’ve only heard positive feedback about the people. I heard that Ray Davies had nice things to say about my “Better Things” cover, and that they’d heard about them. And it was very sweet. Or they just don’t know. I don’t think Yoko Ono knows that I wrote about her.
What about David Bowie? Did he call you after you covered “Starman?”
No. He knows who I am, I think, because his bass player went on tour with me, and they had to work out the tour logistics. I knew that he was helping her figure out when she could tour with me. So he knows that I exist. But I don’t know. Nick Lowe knows that I covered his song [“All Men Are Liars”], and was very sweet about it.