Dar Williams

Dar Williams speaks with affable openness, quickly turning phrases. Almost too quick to catch, in fact, and her thoughts tumble into each other in a stream of conversation that blithely meanders.

Cheerful, ebullient and relaxed, her demeanor rises to the surface as she recounts stories of friends, rambles on about ideas for songs, and offers her views on life, love and folk music.

Such is the optimism and open delight of an artist well on her way to the top. As one of folk music’s most noticeable new talents, she has a lot to be bubbly about. Steady radio airplay, publicity on several critics best-of lists, and a standing ovation at the Newport Folk Festival, have this young performer spinning. As a result she has been somewhat hard to track down. After several attempts, we finally connected late on a Sunday night in a phone call from a birthday party for folk icon Chris Smither. She is excited by his formidable presence, yet reservedly confident on her own.

“No matter what happens,” she offers referring to her future, “Even If I turn out to be flavor of the month or whatever,” pausing, “If it turns out that way then, at least I know the thing that made me successful was being true to myself.” Williams, continues, “It is such a huge weight off your shoulders to be honest because I wouldn’t want to be accepted as a fake. It’s nice to be accepted,” she quickly adds, “But I can’t do it on terms other than my own.”

Granted, one of folk/acoustic music’s most appealing qualities is its personal, artistic honesty. However, to what degree often remains subjective to the viewer. “I have no desire to hide or put on airs. When I was performing in Boston,” says Williams, “The word organic was always in my head, meaning the whole, especially where the emphasis there [Boston] always seemed to be more on the product instead of the means. But, I always stressed working on the means, ‘cause I knew the ends would be very genuine.”

As her aptly-titled debut, The Honesty Room, purports, Williams is a woman of high scruples. Candid personal reflections, odes to misunderstood idols, as well as philosophical diversions come through in her melodically upbeat songs. “Alleluia,” a seemingly buoyant romp through heaven, complete with backing vocals by Katryna and Nerissa Neilds (of The Neilds), delivers a potent diatribe on self-destruction. While the sad and desperate loneliness of abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko surfaces in her fitting sentiment titled, “Mark Rothko Song.” However, one of her better-known songs, “When I Was A Boy” finds her yearning for her tomboy youth and questioning the early limitations of gender with forthright sincerity.

“I thought that “When I Was A Boy” would be a total flop because it was too real to me,” she offers, “But, it was like therapy and I had no idea there was this vein to be tapped. It feel bad that there is this separation from the audience and the artist, though. That the artists have to be the ones to bare their souls,” she continues, “I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could get it out of their system?”

On the surface, her songs express simple concepts, delivered by a brassy quality in her voice that easily twists into the high reaches of a falsetto. And, although the songs are memorable and upbeat, they often mask a deeper, more dramatic punch than their title’s imply. Like the best qualities of fiction, her songs impart a writer’s eye for detail, emotion, and conflict.

“First and foremost I am a writer and I don’t write about anything that I can’t directly appreciate or deal with,” she admits, “My songs need to have a personal stake in them in order to work.”

Originally from a small town in Westchester County, N.Y., Williams attended college in Connecticut and went on to be a theater and religion major. Studying theater helped to infuse her songs with authenticity and as such, she validates her songs with a firm grasp of theatrical flair. In “The Babysitter’s Here,” she expresses a child’s open love for a favorite babysitter, who beneath an enchanting surface harbors a broken heart, laced with loss. On stage she interprets the song with an actor’s eye and ear for human details.

“When I sing the babysitter song I always try to think of something based on the frame of time of the song, which was 1972,” she describes, “I think of the news at the time and what I remember are helicopters dropping and picking up things and it brings me to tears to think of her having her heart broken. That kind of emotion, performing as an actor, rather than not acting always gets a different response from the audience. That,” she states emphatically, “Makes it genuine.”

As far as religion is concerned, well, it does occasionally surface in her music, but as she admits, “I wasn’t a very good religion major. I think I realized that when I was trying to be a good Buddhist and I was sitting there meditating with my legs crossed, palms facing to the sky, and then I had this really profound thought that I should see a therapist!” she laughs. “I guess I wasn’t a good Buddhist, but the therapy worked.”

by Chris Flisher © 1994

First published November 1994 Worcester Phoenix

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