An Interview With Dar Williams

Dar Williams is a folk singer who started her career playing in Boston coffee houses. She has played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Lilith Fair. She’s shared a stage with Joan Baez, who has also covered Dar’s music. Dar’s latest album is The Green World, which was listed as one of the top ten albums of 2000 by Jim Farber, The New York Daily News music critic. To quote Jason Ferguson on mtv.com, “The Green World is largely a bouncy and infectious record. That she manages to incorporate all these disparate elements into an album that doesn’t stumble and doesn’t find itself chained to genre slavery is evidence that Dar Williams may well be defining the new clichés for 21st Century folk music. Good for her.”

While I enjoy The Green World, my family’s favorite Dar album is The Honesty Room; her debut album. This summer, our intrepid Other Side correspondent, Laura Lasley, was able to catch Dar for an interview in a Manhattan diner.

Laura Lasley: What kind of guitar do you like to play and why?

DAR: I’ve been playing a steel string guitar for 15 years. I learned on nylon. My first steel string guitar was one that my mom got for $50 at a tag sale, called a Favilla. When I started going to open mikes, I was told to get rid of my Favilla. So I got a series of guitars. One was really bad because it was too big. It was a Guild Jumbo, the big thing that belonged to Naomi Judd.

LL: Well, you’re a petite person.

DAR: Yes, but when I was trading mine in, there was a 6’4″ guy bringing his Jumbo back; he was saying that his back hurt from playing. Mostly I try to go for the smallest guitar possible with the biggest sound. What I have now is sort of a medium sized guitar.

LL: What kind do you play now?

DAR: It’s called Huss & Dalton and they’re from Virginia. They’re just starting out and they are great!

LL: I find that because my hands aren’t really big, when I pick up an acoustic guitar and try to play a barre chord, I’m not always able to. I know a lot of women have that problem. I’ve also found that one of the challenges is finding something that you can play without putting out your back!

DAR: I think it’s something that you should take very seriously, buying a guitar. You should definitely take your comfort into consideration. Worst case scenario, you buy a guitar and you realize that you don’t really want to pick it up and play it because it makes you feel uncomfortable and your hands can’t make the chords. You need to take that seriously. Don’t just think “I must be bad at playing guitar.” You need to trade that guitar in for another.

LL: You started to play on a nylon string guitar. What inspired you to pick up the guitar? Did someone in your family have one?

DAR: Well, in the fourth grade, we were told that it was a good idea to start an instrument. I remember my sister Meredith coming home from elementary school in tears, and she wouldn’t tell us why, and when my mom left the room she said “I got a violin!”

I tried clarinet, and it didn’t work out for me. It’s a fabulous instrument and I remember that our teacher was really cute, and he had to wear a dress because he was playing in the pit orchestra for Cabaret, so that was very exciting. I decided that clarinet wasn’t for me, and my Mom said, “Do you want to play the guitar like your sister Julie?” Julie is my older sister, who I really looked up to, and I said yes even though my mind said no, because I could never be as good as Julie. There was just no way, ’cause she really was up there with the Parthenon.

And yet, it’s funny, you might wonder if it’s one of those things that’s meant to be, because there I was, getting lessons before I even knew what was happening. The great thing about guitar is that you can sing, which I like to do. I could sing after learning just two chords, and they weren’t even the full chords. It was like the two finger version of the C and the one finger version of G. But you could still sing Go Tell Aunt Rhody. That was encouraging, to be able to do so much with so little. That encouraged me on, and I had good teachers, who I did not think were good at the time. I didn’t realize what they were pulling on me. They were teaching me the basics that I work off of today. I remember working with one woman for two years, who didn’t think I practiced. I remember her telling me, “I’m going to have to tell your mother that you don’t practice.” Even though I may not have practiced as much as I should have, what I learned was great. I ended up taking four years of lessons.

LL: I remember learning classical piano, and having zero basis in chord theory, which is why, as an adult learning to play guitar, I find that to be more of a challenge. Did you feel that your teachers taught you to visualize where the notes are, or do you learn more by sound?

DAR: I learned the basic families of chords. I have to say, my mind did not take me to a much more curious place, so I really worked within the families of chords and that was instilled in me early on. If you’re playing a C, it goes with an F and a G. It’s a 1-4-5, but I never learned it like that. And to this day, if someone says, “How about a 4, or a 5?” I just, oh, I die! I’m a natural harmonizer, so I do a lot by ear.

LL: I’m really glad to hear you say that, because I’m embarrassed when I’m playing with other people and they get picky about chord patterns. And there I am, sitting there trying to figure the pattern out; I don’t want to look like a dork!

DAR: I’ve sung harmony with the Indigo Girls and with Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt. I was petrified each time that one of them was going to say, “How about just throwing in a 4 there?” I think maybe Bonnie Raitt did say something like that, and I thought, “I could just die. My legitimacy is completely over.” Actually, those artists don’t really talk that way. It’s more what sounds good, what sounds bad, what sound’s kind of lucky, what accommodates our voices. I would say that I wished I’d learned the piano because there is crossover between piano and guitar. I feel like if I knew both of them, I could use the crossover, the synergy…

LL: There’s still time….

DAR: You know, one of the worst pieces of advice I ever got, the worst discouragement I ever experienced was when I was 17. I told my music teacher that I wanted to take piano and he said, “You’re 17, it might not be too late.”

LL: You’re kidding!

DAR: Well, the thing is, as a youngest child, the idea of being a late bloomer was horrible. Of course at 34, I embrace blooming at all. But at 17, the idea of being behind the curve from the get-go was so humiliating that I didn’t start. So I have been very apprehensive about starting the piano. But some day…

My guitar teacher has taught me how to read music, but not to sight sing. Somebody tried to teach me to sight sing and I wish I’d done that, but I never pursued that.

LL: You mentioned playing, singing with a lot of famous, inspirational female artists, some of whom are people that I look up to. Who are some of your favorite artists, the people that inspire you to both sing and write music?

DAR: Joni Mitchell is someone who introduced a full colorful palette of emotions and subjects into her songs, and she also brought this whole different scale into her music. Before, everybody was playing chords like blues, greens and yellows, and she suddenly brings turquoise, mauve and really subtle colors. It’s hard not to admire all the subtlety and creativity. A part of me says, “Wow, that’s really great!”

I feel encouraged by the people that can write really great songs with three chords, like John Prine. People who do stuff that you can play around a campfire.

I would say that somebody who can hit the balance between the two is Paul Simon. His stuff is so beautifully arranged, which means sometimes very simple variations on plain old chords and sometimes very, very elaborate arrangements. The way that he orchestrates a set of chords, which can be simple chords, really makes a point. He’s not afraid to play it simple, I think. So that’s my role model.

LL: I read an article about you, or maybe a review for The Green World, which said that you don’t peg yourself necessarily as one type of singer or another. It seems that people in the music industry are interested in putting people in genres; you’re pop, you’re folk, you’re country, you’re rock. I’ve seen you quoted as saying “’60’s folk rock was my original muse and the folk audience-people who listen to music off the beaten track fostered my career. I definitely don’t want to abandon the genre but I also need to make sure I’m Dar Williams first.” Where do you feel the roots are, for the music that you write and play?

DAR: There’s one pick that I’ve used a lot and I’m trying to avoid it now but it’s called the Travis Pick.

It’s a very classic folk chord pattern. When I use that, even if I’m singing a song about New Wave performance art or something the song will still have that sound of folk music. Using simple arpeggiations, which just means you pluck the notes instead of strumming them, it sounds very folky. Playing on an acoustic guitar is something that is originally a folky thing. Because I don’t do a lot of orchestration, chromatic or very fancy stuff, again that has a ring of folk music to it, as does an emphasis on lyrics more than arrangement. So all of those things sort of bring my music back to at least the simplicity of folk music. The subjects of my songs really range.

LL: I’ve noticed that.

DAR: It’s also really fun to go into a studio and have other people play all sorts of whacked out instruments and do whatever they want. I have no problem with that because my heart is really with theater. And conceptualized art, just where people push the envelope.

LL: I know that you started out in theater. Obviously you’ve done very well doing solo guitar shows. How did the transition come about and what made you decide to pursue music instead of theatre?

DAR: It’s so funny, I don’t know how I thought I could be a folk singer, because I didn’t know there was a resurgence of this very off-the-beaten-track music, this thing called folk music. It’s great! I was out of college, and I was in Cambridge. I was writing plays, working at an opera company and writing some songs. I was interested in directing opera, singing folk music or writing plays.

LL: Pick one!

DAR: Yes. The opera was very romantic, very great. I realized quickly that I didn’t want to direct because, like acting, there is a lot of maintenance for very few slots and the field is very competitive. The people who were prepared to become directors were people who had been listening to opera since they were 2, and knew the whole libretto of the operas. I was a stage manager at the opera company, and I missed singing. I started taking voice lessons from a hippie who said, “Are you interested in opera or folk?” She told me to sing something for her, and I sang her a song called “The Coming of the Roads” (by Billy Ed Wheeler) She got all choked up and told me to pursue folk music. She gave me the names of all the coffee houses that she sang at in the early ’70’s that are still around. They were all open mike, you pay $2 to get in.

LL: So this wonderful person basically said, ” I think you’re really good at this and why don’t you go for it?”

DAR: Yes. It took me many months to act on her suggestion. A friend of mine, a guy who started playing guitar in college and loved it so much that he was 10 times better at it than I was, said, “Come with me to the Naked City coffee house.” It was one of the ones my voice teacher recommended so I went. I remember I didn’t play that night, and he did. And I was like, “Whoa! My friend just got up sang whatever wanted to.” The next week I decided I was going to play and sing.

I realized pretty quickly that as a playwright, you have to become your own producer, director, actor, stage manager, props mistress in order to succeed. Whereas as a musician, you could write a song and jump up on the stage that night. So it was really the path of least resistance.

At that time there was an incredible proliferation of open mikes. I think that you need that experience if you’re 20 or 22 years old, as I was. I wanted to get better, because I was bad! There I was with my Favilla, my stage fright and my cotton mouth, my bad diction and my falsetto, which was so different than my chest voice. I had all this work to do, and this crowd of passive, aggressive, competitive, heart of gold good people were giving me advice that I needed and did not need, pushing me along to find out who I was as a performer.

So that’s what I ended up doing, and I left the playwriting behind at some point. I wrote half a play, read some of it for some friends, and they said “We’ve no idea what this play is about.” So I continued with music, and the music just got better and better.

LL: It sounds to me, a little bit like the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?: Practice, practice, practice.” With the folk circuit, it’s playing coffee houses: playing, playing, playing. Do you find yourself practicing a lot now? Along with the practicing, how do you get yourself ‘up’ for shows?

DAR: It’s mostly vocal warm ups. It’s good to get your hands on a guitar before you play, but that usually happens for the sound check. Ideally, you play the night before and as you play, you re-learn whatever you need to learn. Usually I play three or four shows in a row so I’m automatically warmed up.

I pick up the guitar to write songs, not to practice the ones that I have already played before, because I’ve played them a million times. But that said, I want to take this fall off to pursue some projects, one of which is to take more lessons. I’d like to ask someone to help me orchestrate and arrange the songs that I’ve already written, to give them a little more subtlety.

LL: I’m delighted to hear you say that. You’re at the stage where you have a career, you have albums out, and you have great fan base. It’s wonderful to know that even with all that you’ve accomplished, you’d like to take more lessons. So many people ask me, “do you think lessons would be a good thing?” I think you can always learn more about the guitar. It’s really refreshing to hear an artist of your caliber say that.

DAR: Well that’s nice to hear! I keep on feeling that people are going to catch up to my secret, which is that I could have practiced more and I could have been a lot better than I am. At some point I hear artists starting to sound repetitive. These are people that I like and their songs are very good, but their style becomes very predictable. And then there’s people like Paul Simon. What’s great about what he did with Graceland was that you assume that he made this huge disciplined move to learn. You see him in a smoking jacket, with a pipe, in a library learning about world music. Actually, he was given a tape of an African band by a friend. He listened to it in traffic on the LIE (Long Island Expressway) from what I hear. I’m assuming it was Manhattan to Long Island traffic.

LL: That’s a lot of traffic.

DAR: So he became completely obsessed with this tape. His passion led him on a path of inquiry, and that’s what you hope for. When you hear a new kind of music , you may think, “Wow, I could never play that.” Then somebody comes along and says, “Yes you can,” or “Here’s how you can do it.” You learn the new music in synergy with that. Learning new things helps you find new voices to play with, new lyrics and new rhythms to play with. It’s very inspiring. Sometimes people will buy a new guitar so they will continue to be inspired. Sometimes people take a few lessons and again with guitar, I think that it takes very little to yield very new ideas. And if I had my dream, I would , someone would touch me with a magic wand and I would become completely impassioned about learning all sorts of things I could about the guitar. I’m in love with words, and I’m in love with voices and the guitar is this magic carpet that allows me to use both of those. I’m incredibly indebted and I love my guitar.

LL: When you you write your songs, do you find that you have a melody poking around first. Or since you love words, do you find that the lyrics come first, and you build a melody around them? I guess this is really the eternal question, “How do you write a song?” What’s your particular method?

DAR: Well, there’s three things. There’s words, there’s melody and then there’s chords. It’s kind of catch-as-catch-can. Ideally what happens is that a phrase with a melody pops into my head and then I write a song to justify what that phrase is. For instance, this line came into my head, “If I wrote you, if I wrote you, if I wrote you, you would not write me again.” I wrote a whole song to explain what that chorus meant.

Sometimes, I’ll pick up the guitar and futz around, and I may not know the names of the chords, but I’ll futz around up or down the neck. I’ll evoke some mood and the mood will be a rainy day or a kind of feeling. I’ll follow the feeling and that will lead to a melody. The melody will have a feeling and certain images attach themselves. If you don’t push yourself, it’s pretty helpful.

I wrote a song about these potheads; I didn’t think I was going to write it. It was sort of earnest (also in a Travis pick) and folky but I didn’t just want it to be about some maid cutting her own throat at the banks of the Ohio. So I decided to write this tragic song about these people involved in a pro-hemp movement; him because he’s a pothead and she because she’s earnest about conservation (“The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed” on Mortal City). I followed the idea further and further, the characters delineated themselves and suddenly I had a whole song. The more playful the better in my experience. The more pressure I can take off myself, the better. I also try to encourage myself to hope for the next highest standard of …

LL: Evolution.

DAR: Yeah, I encourage myself to wish for evolution.

LL: One of our [family’s] favorite songs is “When I Was a Boy.” I would love to hear what the inspiration for that particular song is.

DAR: Well, it was definitely a thing that came into my head, the line “when I was a boy.” Actually, it’s interesting, there’s a Beatles song with the exact same melody of the line “when I was a boy.”

LL: Really!

DAR: It’s in the song “She Says,” so that is probably where the inspiration came from. The line was “when I was a boy, when I was a boy”. And I thought ouch! The feminists are going to say, “Why couldn’t you be that way when you were a girl?” But I wasn’t like a boy, I was a boy. So there was grit to stick to that strong line. I was describing how I was a boy, and then I was trying to decide how to end the song. I thought the song was going to be a whole thing about women in the world, but I realized it’s just not a feminist song. It’s not a song about women, it’s a song about children. So that’s why the ending is “when I was a girl.” And that’s what made all the difference. Because if it was turning into a feminist manifesto, it would have been really heavy. It would have been like that rib that they put on the car in the Flintstones, and the whole car falls over! It would have been that rib.

LL: It’s a wonderful song! As you listen, you remember those feelings. When I was a little girl, I was a boy, I played, I did this. And the ending is so endearing, when this man says “when I was a girl.” It’s a wonderful story to tell and it’s also an empathetic type of a song.

DAR: I’m very glad that was the effect, because I think there is a lot of empathy between men and women, and they want to share, but they get polarized by these debates. I didn’t want to feel that I was arguing against men, especially since men get shafted so much by their roles. Actually a lot of women that I speak to who would have been the separatists, they feel sorry for men. They don’t feel like men are the enemy, they feel like men are the victims of these roles.

LL: In performance, sometimes you perform solo and sometimes with a band. How do feel that the energy, the synergy is different? I’m sure it must feel very different for you.

DAR: Well, I think that when I’m solo, I get to feel a little more like a Lily Tomlin. In doing a one woman show, all of the aspects of my weird character kind of come out in one place or another. Whereas with a band, the goal is to hit your mark, do your thing, pull it off, land, and wait for the score from the East German judges.

LL: So in some respects, the solo performances are more about your personality and yourself. Playing with band is more of a “we’re all in it together” experience; the team has to pass the baton and get to the finish line!

DAR: Right, it’s a lot more about getting it up on its feet and running, and creating a spectacle or a phenomenon as opposed to endearing yourself to the audience.

LL: Do you prefer one or the other?

DAR: I like them both. I like them both a lot. I think that actually it’s less time to set up when you’re solo, so I guess I prefer that!

LL: Music, not necessarily folk music, but a lot of performance music, has been seen as predominately a male dominated field. Do you feel you’re treated any differently when you perform or when you produce albums? Because of your gender do you feel there is any kind of difference in treatment, or you’re pretty much able to move forward?

DAR: I don’t think there’s any difference for me, for a few reasons. One is that I have been, unfortunately, (and this is changing a lot so I don’t want to be a role model here) a bit of a girly girl. I really have let men be tech heads, while I say, “Ooh, look at that fancy knob, how does that work?” So I have subordinated myself to that. However, as a performer, you get to be a performer no matter what. It’s not like you get to tell your story any less on stage because you’re a woman. Once you’re on the stage, you can do what you want. Women have more money now, than in the last 20 years. Women who have disposable incomes are saying, “I don’t think I want to go see a movie called Thor, honey. I don’t think I want to see a movie called Rambo or Total Disaster. I think I’d like to see a story about women at a beach house talking and drinking too much wine.” And I think that women want to hear women’s stories. So actually, if anything, this career fits a market that has left a lot of men I know saying, “Damn it, if only I was a woman, I would really be cooking.” So actually I’ve gotten preferential treatment.

LL: Do you find that there are women in the technical side of music as well?

DAR: Yes. They have a whole different perspective. When women go into sound and light, they are really good, they are bringing a new perspective. Often they haven’t lost their high end hearing.

LL: So one of the reasons you end up hiring male technicians, is mostly because it’s still mostly men in the field, but when you find good women…

DAR: They’re great! And often they are seen as the tops of their field. One of the women I worked with in lighting, Jennifer Tipton, is a very famous lighting designer. I think there is something about the palette and perspective that women bring. All these people that I’ve worked with, sound people, are men and you just have to have a touch, a sensitivity about what they do, to be really good. It can’t be what we call “a guy thing”. That’s it’s just levers or knobs or an on and off switch. I think men like the technical part, but you’ve got to have a sensitivity to awaken the potential of all this knowledge.

LL: Talking about performance, for anyone who’s ever done any public speaking, or performed the fifth grade school play, there can be a whole lot of stage fright. There you are, all by yourself, on a stage with just a guitar, and a mike, that hopefully works. Does that bother you?

DAR: Well, I get tense before shows and I’ve come to understand that is a variation of stage fright. But I don’t feel the kind of stage fright, where I think I’m going to throw up before I get on stage. The two years when I was doing open mikes, I got something called cotton mouth, which means your mouth goes completely dry and you don’t know what’s about to come out of your mouth. I remember on a Friday the 13th, I was so angry at somebody who had dumped me and I got up on stage without any pre-conceived notion of what I was supposed to sound like. I made some joke about something that was irreverent and unplanned, and I didn’t throw it out like this big “do you like me” thing, it was more like, I was just sort of shooting from the hip, and it was very successful. And that’s when I learned that the act of being yourself is the act that I was trying to perfect. Being yourself means that you filter out the things that are truly uncomfortable to say onstage. There is wiggle room between what’s uncomfortable and what’s comfortable. Talking about being in therapy for X number of years turned out to be easy. But at one point I talked about something I’d said in therapy, just before the concert, and that wasn’t OK. Talking about whether or not I’m in therapy now is not a comfortable topic. Ragging on a teacher who really deserved it was not hard. Ragging on a teacher when I knew what some of her troubles were, that is, ragging on somebody without qualifiers, without some compassion is not okay.

LL: You tell a lot of stories when you perform. You seem very comfortable in front of the microphone and sharing vignettes about your life.

DAR: What’s great is that you discover that there are all these things that you can talk about that seem like they are taboo, and you go “why?” It’s fun to figure out what your personal comfort zone is, and to figure out what are the clichés, the PMS sort of clichés. But it’s really all about figuring out how to be yourself onstage and it’s not about perfecting being somebody else. That was THE day that everything changed.

LL: That’s wonderful! I think it’s inspirational to hear for other people who are just starting to do that. It sounds like once you felt comfortable inside your own skin, then you could just go out and be yourself.

DAR: Well, I don’t know if I felt more comfortable, but after that day, no cotton mouth, no more horror about what was about to happen on the stage. Starting to take voice lessons also helped because I was better able to predict that no matter what came out of my mouth, it would be ok, at least.

LL: One last question. The Internet has seen an incredible proliferation of web sites, like the beautiful web page promoting your new album. There are also a lot of enthusiastic fans out there making sites. How do think that’s helped in terms of communicating your song, your music out there? How do you feel about the whole Internet thing?

DAR: Awesome. It’s interesting. People say, “Well, I’ll just launch my career on the Internet.” I don’t think that that’s the way to do it. You have to draw attention to yourself in some other way.

Really, there is nothing like a record label to make the right phone calls, get the right publicity, put it all together, put it out, distribute it, get it into stores. Record labels are justifiably maligned, justifiably criticized. But they also do the work they say they are going to do, if they care about you, which my label does. So my label and I are in a partnership. I tour. I do the interviews that I’m set up to do. I put up my hair very nice for the publicity shots, shave my armpits even. I’m generous to them. And they, in turn, are really good at getting stuff in stores.

That said, the Internet facilitates and furthers my agenda. Especially when I was starting out and I had some attention. I played one concert for five people at a large showcase one weekend. One of the people in the audience was the head of this Folk Digest. Another was into writing the folk DJ list, for presenters of folk music on radio shows. My name was all over the Internet after that weekend and I went on a tour a month later and because of the Internet, I had five more people at every concert than I would have had otherwise. I did a house concert at one radio presenter’s house. I did a diner concert at one radio presenter’s home diner in Wisconsin and did one café concert for somebody who had set it up through the Internet. And there were 20 extra people there, writing down my set list. So it was very good, it created my career. It turned my touring in my Honda for three months from a totally money-losing venture, to…

LL: Paying gas money?

DAR: Right, right, right! And the Internet allows hook ups for people, so if a person has a market near Chicago, and then something in Nashville, suddenly they have a Louisville concert, a Memphis concert, and a Nashville concert. You wouldn’t necessarily need a record label, if you’re living hand-to-mouth successfully, traveling the country. It’s a huge amplifier for non commercial ventures. And it’s very, very important for a lot of friends of mine.

LL: Dar, thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate your taking the time out of your busy touring schedule to talk! Good luck with the tour and your song writing and recording. I’m looking forward to seeing you in concert in this area, and looking forward to the next album.

More can be found about Dar @ her website: www.darwilliams.com