Discover Jersey Arts 5 Interview: Dar Williams
Dar Williams came of age as an artist in the early 90s, and almost instantly distinguished herself as a talented singer and musician. Her music is melodic and her delivery is engaging. But it is her skill as a wordsmith that, for me, sets Dar apart from the crowd.I’ve been a fan since I first heard her music on WXPN, but it was her duet with Joan Baez on Dar’s song “You’re Aging Well” that, for me, solidified her artistic prowess.
Shen Shellenberger of Jersey Arts: Were you a fan of Joan Baez?
Dar Williams: Oh, yeah! We all had little short haircuts. And we admired her so. She had it all – the voice, the manner, the political commitment, the beauty.
JA: How did the collaboration come about?
DW: Joan’s manager also managed another band on my label, and we just poked and poked (pause for a chuckle) until Joan heard the song and took a chance. At this time, there was a strong grassroots network of people and WXPN was a big part of that, tying the knots and creating a safety net for artists like me. And it was great because you could just get in your little car and drive from gig to gig, and, as Utah Phillips said, “make a living, not a killing”. Maybe Joan thought I was a poster child for that movement.
One of my favorite Dar Williams songs, and one that ranks way up there on my seasonal tunes hit list, is “The Christians and the Pagans”, a catchy, clever and exceptionally tender tale about a holiday family gathering.
JA: “The Christians and the Pagans” tells a story that – to my mind – must have come from personal experience. Is that so?
DW: Yes, it is based on people in my family. There were really strong religious, political and sociological differences, and there was one person who defined the tone and held the power. Over time, though, it changed. We came to respect his customs and his world, and he’d just smile and listen when we discussed whatever leftist candidate we were supporting. In the end, he became incredibly accepting of everything. And, I was just there all along, with my memo pad.
In the past few months, Dar completed work on a children’s musical, “The Island Musical”, which will have its stage debut soon.
JA: Tell me about “The Island Musical”.
DW: The idea for the story came in college, when I first learned about the crisis in Jamaica that was caused by too much mining. The story shows that this one imbalance causes a lot of damage and sets off a series of imbalances, which are quickly evident to the people on the island. To deal with this, they work on turning it around. They plant more flowers, recreate a café culture; just try to get back to Main Street.
Dar has had quite a varied tour schedule in the past several months, starting with the Cayamo Cruise, which sails to exotic locations with a boat full of fabulous artists.
JA: I’ve always thought that going on the Cayamo Cruise would be a blast. Is it really that much fun?
DW: Oh, it is! It’s like we’re all just so happy to be there together, swimming in a big pool of gratitude. People work so hard the other 51 weeks of the year and are there to recharge their batteries. And musicians are no different. With few exceptions, they’re just a pile of puppies. They love to play together. Like with Dan Wilson from Semisonic, I think he has one of the most beautiful voices, and I just jumped up on stage and sang with him. Or Brandi Carlisle - she performed with EVERYone! Oh, and I found out that one of my songs, “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”, was the first thing Brandi ever learned to play on the guitar.
Starting right after the XPoNential Festival, Dar will be taking her show on the road to summer camps.
JA: Why summer camps?
DW: I went to summer camp, and though I know it’s not for everybody, it is can be a great thing for kids. They can pull away for a little while from the digital soaking and the instant gratification that comes with it and just have fun.
I’m very interested in is bees, so one of the things we’ll be doing is planting bee-friendly gardens. It’s a way to fold in all these new experiences – swimming in a lake, building a campfire, seeing a snake – and show kids how it’s all part of a bigger picture. I want to teach, but not by sitting down in a workshop setting. Instead, we’ll be working side-by-side and sweating together.
As for the performance part, well, you know, it can be a little tricky with a younger audience. You think you have the perfect set and then realize you forgot about a certain line in the song and have to explain yourself. You have to be a little bit of a spin master.
JA: You play so many different kinds of venues. What do you like about an outdoor show like the XPN festival?
DW: With a festival, because the audience is so receptive, you can always do a “greatest hits” kind of thing. But it’s really fun to choose a song that might be totally wrong and just see how it goes. You have to leave a little room for mystery.
Dar Williams plays the XPoNential Music Festival on Saturday, July 23.