Singer-songwriter Dar Williams will take the West Stage at the Forecastle Festival 2010 on Sunday July 11 at 2:15. While often classified a folk artist, Williams' music is usually a pop-folk blend earmarked with insightful lyrics and interesting characters. Her altest release is 2008's Promised Land.
Louisville.com was fortunate enough to talk with Dar while she was at a tour stop in Cleveland. The New York resident was personable and approachable, and she had a lot to say about songwriting, parenting, and, of course, her babysitter.
Louisville.com: Are you doing any new stuff on this tour - some post Promised Land stuff?
Dar: No. Sara's with me - Sara Watkins from Nickle Creek is with me and her brother Sean - so I'm actually pulling out some old stuff and putting them on it, and it's mostly Promised Land stuff. I'm in the middle of a project and working on other things right now, so I'm not really ready to pull it out, but I'm trying to pull out some of the older stuff that I haven't played in a while that people have been requesting, so hopefully that compensates.
Louisville.com: Your music has an emotional depth and your songs really seem to have a respect for young people, for children. I guess your son is six or seven?
Dar: Six. You're right.
Louisville.com: For me, becoming a parent changed everything. My kids are eight and three. Has becoming a mom changed how you write or what you write about at all?
Dar: No, it doesn't. I think there does seem to be an almost universal parental split. There's a parent who says, "I remember what it was like to feel this way. We must not humiliate our child. We must finesse this moment. We must make it completely understandable to him." And then the other parent says, "He's playing you." And I'm definitely the one who says, "No, no he didn't mean to punch you in the arm; he was just feeling so frustrated, and his vocabulary is under 100 words." Yeah, you try and figure out limits and we must set them.
It's more like how my creative experience has informed my parenting, more than my parenting forming my creative experience. I mean every experience informs my creative experience, but I would say I bring more of the songwriting person to my family right now than vice versa necessarily. We just adopted a little girl from Ethiopia, so plenty of themes are coming in, but they're probably not the ones that anyone would associate directly with the mothering experience.
Louisville.com: How old is the little girl?
Dar: She's a year and a half.
Louisville.com: And your son and her get along OK so far?
Dar: (Laughs) Yeah, well you have that split between your kids of five years. You know he might just love the stuffing out of her. You know we have to be a little careful about the aggressive forms of love that he's showing, which of course disguise other things, but there I go making psychological assumptions about him. So far, he claims that all actions are out of love. And I tend to agree just because I do foresee a very wonderful bond between them, and he's already protective. It's already important to him that he's her favorite person in the world, and he they love dancing together and laughing together, which is the most they can do right now. I kind of already feel like he's already kind of setting down what they can do together.
Louisville.com: That's great. We had an achievement on our recent road trip to Florida, and that was that the three-year-old started liking Spongebob, so that made a huge difference as far as them sharing something together.
Dar: Yes, Exactly. We're going to look for more and more of those things, and I think they will catch up more and more every year. I think by the time she came along, he was almost like a co-parent. He would come up and go "Diaper. Time for a diaper change." And he would say, "She's probably hungry." So, he would shake his head and say, "Boy, does she cry." So, we'd shake our heads and say, "What do you think we should do?" And he'd be like, "Hmm, bottle." So, that's pretty adorable. And I think he will always be slightly parental towards her, but we'll see.
Louisville.com: But that's good - the protective older brother. I see that with ours as well. He can give him the business, but he doesn't want any other kid on the playground giving his little brother the business, so that's good. Speaking of kids - of course your song The One Who Knows comes to mind. The line in there "I will watch you struggle long before the answers come" always really resonates because it makes me think of our oldest when he started kindergarten. It was a very tough transition - that full day - and that one always particularly touches me. But that song is not an anomaly for you. Your songs have real emotional depth, and that always makes me think the lyrics, the content comes first. But does it vary per song? Do lyrics come first, the melody, or does it just depend on the song?
Dar: It's always best when they come together. Two or three times I have started writing what seems like a ballad to me, but then got something in my head that had a different rhythm and a different mood, and somehow there is this kind of - you can call it superstition, you can call it the divine, somewhere in between, but one has the faith that this must have been meant to be from the start. The melody in your head changes the mood of what you were writing, and suddenly you realize that was meant to be.
But usually what will happen is - with the song The One Who Knows - "When they ask how far love goes" I had that line in my head with that melody forever. "When they ask how far love goes" I think it's just about parents teaching kids how to love by example. I kind of sensed that that was the way it was going, and then I started to think about ways that was true, and how all of the times that comes up, showing kids their love for the world as a way to hopefully teach their kids to love the world. I kept on kind of working on it, working on it, and I didn't have any kids yet. (Laughs) I actually wrote the song because I had heard that Vince Gill and Amy Grant got married, and I thought, oh my goodness, they've been through so much in their own lives and probably some controversy in getting together that they should have kids, and I just imagined them being able to really say knowledgably life is hard and they'll be struggle, and I'm going to do everything I can to be there for you, but at the same time let you have that struggle. And then I was at a laundromat and saw that they were going to have a kid, and I finished the song.
Usually, what will happen is I will have one phrase going through my head for a few days and maybe a phrase around it, and kind of like a bird that's just trying to find a branch to land on. And then the other side of the phrase comes like "When they ask how far love goes when my job's done you'll be the one who knows" and I wrote that line and I started to cry. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to say. And then I started creating the dual -there's going to be this tension, and I'm going to be there to witness it and to support you as you come out of this struggle.
Louisville.com: I would have never guessed - I guess because of the timing of the release - I thought that was because of the baby. I think this is one of the best, quintessential examples of how someone who writes about music would be as far off base as humanly possible because the whole Vince Gill-Amy Grant story would have never come to mind.
Dar: No, no, yeah exactly. It was based on Vince Gill's experience. (Laughs). I think that is a real challenge. It would be the easiest thing for a music writer to assume. My son was born in 2004; the song came out in 2003. But that's a year, and I think it would be very easy for a person to make that assumption. And even my manager said - this is before I had a kid - "I don't think you realize how well you put it because I have kids who are heading off to college, and it's just killing me right now." He said, "It's fine that you don't have a kid because I'm really feeling the song right now." But it's funny what a weird little thing - you might look at a person's tattoo and create a whole story around that, and it's just important for some weird reason; it just turns out that that was what your psyche attached itself to; that was the metaphor, and people would be like, "So have you always ridden a motorcycle?" It's like, No. But I had to take the motorcycle ride of the soul (Laughs). So that metaphor just popped up at a restaurant, a truck stop, and I went with it. It really creates a fuzzy line between autobiography and biography.
Louisville.com: You used the word "mood" earlier, and your songs certainly have that, like The End of The Summer - it completely sounds like the end of the summer. It's uncanny. A lot of them have great concrete images. I remember my college poetry teacher saying concrete imagery is better than fat words; it elicits more emotion. When I think of The End of the Summer - "My mom drank instant coffee" - it seems inconsequential for some reason; however, that detail adds to the picture. In that same song, you have poetic images like "The fields beyond the fields" yet, I understand it, picture it, and get it metaphorically. The writing is always so good. Like in What Do You Hear in These Sounds - "I am like East Berlin" That is one of the finer similes around.
Dar: Thank you.
Louisville.com: That and "Smokestacks reaching like the arms of God" by Bruce Springsteen in Younsgtown - those two are some of the finest similes in songs. The Babysitter's Here, that was a true story, or at least based on a true story. Is that correct?
Dar: Sure, sure. Although I was going out with kind of a dud at the time, so that was woven into the story. In fact, my babysitter -of course I didn't know until after I sang this song for my mom and I said, obviously she didn't have that crummy boyfriend who said they'd break up if she went to college. My mom said, "Oh no she did not. Do you know why? She was going out with our house painter." (Laughs) I was like, "She was going out with Greg? Oh my God, they totally should have gotten married." I loved our house painter; I loved our babysitter; I thought they should be together, but what did I know I'm four years old. And she said, "They almost got married. I don't know what happened." We had such a great talk, and so it re-opened up a chapter of my life that was really magical and special, and in a funny way it became more so after I had written the song because I had learned there was a lot going on.
Louisville.com: So we should know that the attributes of the character in the song - her boyfriend - were more akin to the dud you were dating at the time than her real boyfriend?
Dar: Yeah, but you're allowed to do. But what was true for the babysitter is that we thought she was the goddess. We still do. Frankly, she's a pretty incredible woman. But the funny thing was I visited her where she lived in Germany on my Euro Rail pass after college, and we were folding laundry together, and she said, "You know I was having a really tough time when I was your babysitter, and I was going through ha lot of stuff." And she gave me a few details of what she was going through, and even though I was 22, I was having a hard time assimilating that, and it wasn't lining up. There was still part of me that said, "Gosh, if only she knew what an incredible goddess she was, she never would have had these problems because she just had to look in the mirror as far as I'm concerned ." That feeling, that world view, was the underpinning, and I came up with examples that kind of created that juxtaposition between how she was seeing her world and how her kids were seeing her world. But the truth was, she was a unicorn, and we did think she was just astounding.
Louisville.com: You did make her a card?
Dar: Oh we certainly made her a card, and my sister made her the card and she wouldn't let me near it because it was with glitter and she didn't trust me to not mess it up. We were like - she babysits, she's in school. She's a dancer, too, and she's the star. How can she do all of these things?
Louisville.com: Did you ever tell her before the song that you thought that highly of her, or did she learn that when the song came out years later?
Dar: You know, it's funny. My parents loved her, and I think my parents saw her as the kind of - I think she knew that we loved her, but I don't think anyone realizes how strongly these memories stay with a person. And I thought maybe I just like to remember stuff, but people have come to me at concerts with their stories, and it's just the weirdest thing like the ice cream they had with their babysitter at one o'clock in the morning , and all they could think how exciting this was and how incredibly in love with their babysitter they were. So, I don't think she realized that the special little things she did with us - letting my sister make donuts which is like the messiest . No sane parent would let their child make donuts - grease on the ceiling. She let my sister make donuts all night. We were sitting in the kitchen with the flour and talking and singing and baking. That's a life experience that was defining. You would think that the parents would have more of those. But my parents knew she was the type of person who would let my sister bake donuts; they knew that she was the kind of person who would take us outside and run us around on the lawn and dance around the woods.
She said it's good luck in Germany when you find a bird's nest in your Christmas tree, and she came on Christmas Eve and she put a nest with eggs in our Christmas tree. So she must have known that she was something of a magic fairy to us. - it was the 70s; we didn't lock our doors; she just wondered in to our house when we were sleeping and put that thing up there. Part of me thinks she must have known she had that magic wand all along.
Louisville.com: I was born in '70, so we're only about three years apart, and I think when you get older sometimes the seemingly every day , or ordinary, or mundane actually sticks in your memory as what's really important even sometimes more than those vacations or holidays . That's a great example of an autobiographical song you've written, but I know certain topics or events like I Had No Right or events - Buzzer - stuff that's compelled you to write. But all of it suggests to me that one of the best aspects is that you're a good observer. You mentioned the tattoo for instance. I'm guessing that has got to be one of the most important things for a songwriter is to watch what's around you.
Dar: Yeah, and this happens to listeners, too, so I would say this is all of us. There's this weird moment where a window opens when you see the world poetically. I have a friend who's a Buddhist Republican , one of the most individual thinkers out there, and she has very strong opinions about things, but she said in a much softer voice, "When you stop seeing the world poetically, everything is lost." I try so hard to be a grown up; I try to have my papers together when I go to rent a car; I try to follow my directions and install the GPS, and pay the bills, and multi-task so, ironically, have more time to be creative. But sometimes that doesn't happen. You buy something to make your life more convenient but you spend a lot of time fixing it, but then you just have that moment when you see something and you travel back in time, or it's a touchstone.
My mom said, "When you come to our house, we have some house painters coming, but just make yourself at home. And they'll let you in. I'll tell them you're coming." And it was a spring day, and I had this moment where I just imagined my parents' house in the spring with the doors open and house painters and us running in and out of the doors with the screen door slamming, and the vastness of life and the span of a life really hit me. And my husband came down the stairs with our daughter, and I was like, "Who's that?" I think what poetry is trying to do is to allow that window to open so that we re-enter our lives poetically. By seeing the world poetically, it's creating our lives meaningfully which is very inspiring for poets to observe. It's a very important and wonderful circle, and sometimes when we're bent over our technologies and rushing around telling ourselves that we have to demonstrate what good grown-ups we are, this circle can feel like it's going a little bit backwards.
Louisville.com: You mention technology. It kind of makes me wonder about Are You Out There? when you talk about the radio - and I don't know if there was a concern that young people won't have that experience or won ‘t know a DJ, but obviously since that song was written, with MP3s and stuff, how do you see that technology as far as being good or bad? Obviously pirating is bad, but on the other hand, new bands can get a chance. But for an artist like you, the liner notes are very important, the lyrical content. I still remember as little kid looking at the album covers my older brother had in the late 70s. That was part of the listening experience. Is that getting diminished especially with young people just downloading songs?
Dar: Our fine line is going to be explaining what was so cool about our lives without seeming like we're out of touch with new ways of experiencing art and life. I'm sure that people from the generation before us would say, "Who are you kidding listening to all that rock and roll dulling your mind?" But what I would say to a kid is I remember when it was springtime and I was coming out of severe depression, and it was becoming clear to me that I was going to be OK. I was heading to renew my driver's license at the DMV, and I listened to Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon from beginning to end, and I was on her terms, and I was ready to come outside myself a little bit and my problems and follow her vision for a while, and an album allows, that cassette allows you to sort of follow her wavelength for a while.
And Sean Watkins was just talking about how when you were young you'd be like "Man, I was going to come over last night, we were going to have a plan; we were going to go to the beach, but the line was busy and I couldn't get through to you." And he says sometimes what you do is jump on your bicycle and just go over. The ways in which you can't control your environment, you have to sort of take on - your circumstances shape you as well as you shaping your circumstances. It challenges and helps create your sensibility because it gives you a lot of different experiences poetically and otherwise. So if all you listen to is singles and downloads - we're calling this the singles driven generation - we kind of got what we deserve because so much rock in the 90s wasn't album rock. It was singles surrounded by crap. So, kids just said, "Fine, I'll just download the single because I can." And they didn't feel that trust of an album. At the same time, there's still people who hold out for albums, and we hold out for that audience.
Louisville.com: It doesn't have to necessarily be a concept record , but there really is something from start to finish and the sequencing of the songs. Like hear at the office, we send an e-mail to somebody in the cube next to us.
Dar: I want to embrace the here and now the best I can. I remember the disdain that I experienced from adults growing up, and there's no use for that. There's got to be a mutual search for common ground and a mutual search for a better attention span (Laughs). I'm searching for that. I remember people just shaking their heads, and my being like " that's not helping anything." That's just creating a divide; that's just showing me that you and I are different ages. Like I caught these kids throwing plastic toys around - teenage kids - they were throwing plastic trucks and stuff around the tots' park near my house, and I was so mad.
And I wasn't even mad that they were - I doubt the toys were very destructible. I was so mad that they chose such an uncreative, silly way to express their boredom when we live 60 miles from New York City, and they could just jump on a train and walk around the streets. I f they really want to do something interesting that's boring, then why can't they get on the damn train? I started to talk to parents and we're trying to figure out how we can invite kids to come in to free museums in New York city every Friday, and every city has a lot of those things, and we just want to kind of make this language to the kids there. We're not going to tell them they're a bunch of idiots even though we're sort of horrified at the way they express their boredom. What we want to do is point them to the fact that if you go in a group to the city you get discount tickets or to create a pool of tickets ourselves and say, "You want to go to the city? You can go for free." Go to a jazz club, sneak into a bar, something that shakes you up - OK maybe not sneak into a bar (Laughs)
Louisville.com: It beats vandalism.
Dar: I would rather that they were sneaking into a bar in New York City than getting stoned in the woods, which is what they're doing now.
Louisville.com: Every generation of course says, "These kids today." That makes me sound old. It's like if I say the word "nowadays" then I realize I can't believe I just said the word "nowadays."
Dar: I know, but see we have to be more creative than that. If we really want to help out, we have to actually find deceptive ways - it's like sneaking your dog's pill into the dog food . There's got to be a way to get them into the city with them thinking it was their own idea. So, it's sort of like - how can we be creative about tricking kids into finding meaning and let them think it was their idea.
Louisville.com: And it is for their own good of course - another parental favorite.
Dar: Yeah, no, I do know what they need. (Laughs)
Louisville.com: You're so right about having a dialogue. Even though our kids are only 8 and 3, our 8-year-old and I wrote a book of essays together with his take on something and mine, and the juxtaposition is very interesting. And it's really great how kids see things. And your songs always respect that - kids and teens.
Dar: I'm glad that you did that. That's a great idea. I mean that's a beautiful thing, and that kind of putting yourself alongside, the viewpoint side by side, there's a lot that you can get out of that. That's a very creative approach. Your son's going to have that forever.
Louisville.com. Well, after we had all our rejections from agents and publishers, we went ahead and did it ourselves and we had a book signing here, and for him it was a pretty cool, and you're right, it is quite a memento, and he likes that. We've been talking about your songwriting which is really great, but one thing is interesting is that you do great covers, and not necessarily a lot, but when you think of Better Things, and Comfortably Numb, and Whispering Pines, which is very good off Promised Land. Are these just songs you've liked or are these songs that people suggest because they all come out great.
Dar: You know that's funny, I keep on thinking all I want to do is sing songs by obscure or by struggling artists to support and help them out, and yet all the chosen are like - (Laughs)
Louisville.com: Yeah, The Kinks never made it.
Dar: 70s and 60s groups. But Better Things spoke to me when I was a kid as a teenager, and my sister liked it. My sister was the one with the high grade point average. She went to Yale, she was just a pretty high powered kid, and the fact that she believed in that song of encouragement and it meant so much to her was one of the reasons I loved it and of course it's such a beautiful song. Fountains of Wayne covered it, which is funny because I covered Fountains of Wayne.
Louisville.com: And that's another great version, too (Troubled Times).
Dar: Thank you. Well you know with that one, we wanted a bit of a lift at the end of the album, and everybody at the record company and management - there was just this deep pocket of Fountains of Wayne fans and so there was this murmur in the air, and they actually write very deceptively complicated songs. And Troubled Times has a lot going on, and I was like this would give us a nice pop feel at the end without compromising anything , without any narrative duplicity. This is a very interesting character, and I love the Fountains of Wayne guys; they're just very funny, and so I chose to do that one.
Comfortably Numb - I think within months of our invasion of Iraq, the iPod came out and there was this juxtaposition to me of all of these feelings that people were having about being in a war and then this incredible ability we had to use this really elegant beautiful crystal clear technology. There's ways we could just disappear into the beauty of our technology alone. I called it like beaming up onto the spaceship iPod. And I don't say that politically; it was like a moment when I realized that as an adult I had so many opportunities that I probably wouldn't have given myself as a child, as a teenager, to just slip off and not really come back into the public square as it were, and I thought, "Oh my God, that is Comfortably Numb.
You just take the pill and you perform your job, and you know that it was different, but you're not even quite sure how you're going to get back to that dream like place, so you're just comfortably numb. And someone said, "Thank you for rescuing that song from the stoners and giving back to us aging people." (laughs) That's exactly how I felt - and all of the opportunities you have to make things easy for yourself and taking one kind of pill or another.
Louisville.com: One thing with all of these covers - they are all very good songs in their own right - but you king of make them your own. Troubled Times sounds like it could be one of your songs - sort of with the empathy for the character. That song's a good example of Promised Land - I really like the production on there. The thing is, good songwriting holds up regardless of arrangement, and that's what yours does. But do you like both? Do you like doing something solo acoustic, or do you like sort of the more glossy production, or does it just depend on the time when you're going to do a record?
Dar: I just re-recorded a bunch of songs solo, and there were a couple we referenced back to the original for tempo, and I was amazed at how much production there was because I was so in my head with my headphones and I thought, do I need all of this? But at the same time, there's something more at a concert when everything is tightened up, as they say, and people are making music together, and you have real dynamic opportunities. Nothing better than that, or you can argue that there's nothing better than one person, one guitar , the power of song riveting an audience a 1,000 people towards that one intimate thing. So I think I'm really, really both.
Louisville.com: What will you be bringing to Forecastle? Will it be you and the guitar or will there be anybody else?
Dar: It's me and the guitar, my keyboard player Bryn (Roberts) who is wonderful, and Sara and Sean will be there, so hopefully we can get them up on stage, too. They are very gifted, so we're trying to see what we can do.
Louisville.com: Sara will be playing at Forecastle also I believe. (She plays right after Williams on the same stage). They (Nickle Creek) have some very good songs. The Hand Song was a very touching song she did vocals on. Maybe this is just grasping, one of those English teachers sort of analogies, but We Learned The Sea and The Ocean and The Tide Falls Away, and The Beauty of the Rain - was there ever an attraction to the ocean metaphorically or just nature - like Calling The Moon? Is that a pretty important thing to write about, or is that just merely coincidental?
Dar: I don't think it's coincidental. I just dream a lot about water. Somehow my unconscious went to that metaphor pretty early on, and I have dreams about being in a canoe with three other women and myself, and they got to the shores and they pulled up their canoes and they got onto the land and they were walking around, and I got out of my canoe and I pulled my canoe up and I got up on the land and I realized that the three other people were my sisters and my mother. I love the way the unconscious and the bodies of water are just similar.
When I'm fishing, sometimes I pull up something horrid and often I will pull up something terrible and painful (Laughs) in my fishing exhibition, and other times I'll get nothing, and it won't be fun; it won't be as pleasant, and I'll just be very bored. Or sometimes something wonderful comes up, so the metaphor keeps on growing and sure enough it was always showing up in my dreams of me swimming across the body or water and making it across and realizing that I wasn't going to drown. And I went to a Pacific Northwest town with a very dynamic ocean slamming up against the boulders just as the people were slamming up against their own addiction problems which was a complete parallel that I don't think anyone could have missed. You know, there's a lot of water around, so it's both. It's inside and outside.
Louisville.com: When you come here for Forecastle - you do a lot of festivals - is there anything different other than maybe the brevity of the show because of the time slot? Will it be pretty much what you do at the other cities?
Dar: I'm used to the brevity. I have to say I love Louisville because there's a lot going on. Some towns have kind of been sucked out to their edges and everyone is just kind of mulling around in their big boxes and doing their things, but in some towns, they're really pulling the energy in. And one of the last times I was in Louisville was for a dedication at the big public library, which is such a big part of Louisville, and I just thought there's all this pulling towards the culture of the city and not just whatever that great pie is (Laughs) that Derby pie. It's a very hip, interesting audience, so I'm looking forward to coming back. The first time I came was with Joan Baez and ever since it's been very good.
Louisville.com: Well, we're glad to have you as often you'd like to visit. We often believe we're the big city that feels like a small town with a good arts community. You're also played on the radio here a lot on WFPK. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, and your music means a lot to a lot of people who can emotionally connect to it, and not every artist can say that. So, thanks for that.
Dar: Well, thank you. But you were a great interviewer. Thank you so much.
Louisville.com: Well thank you. That's very kind of you. We'll look forward to seeing you on that Sunday.
Dar: Thank you. Great, see you then.
Watch Dar's video for What Do You Hear in These Sounds .