Dar Williams casts her eye over the plush scarlet sofa and mirrored walls of the bar at the back of Bush Hall, where we’re to do our interview and photographs. “It’s kind of Electric Ladyland!” she chuckles, as we sit down to discuss her latest tour of the UK – which has sold out, even without a new album to promote.
Known for her raft of exquisite folk songs that touch on the personal and political, two decades worth of albums and many a high profile collaboration, Dar has also extended her work and philosophy to novel writing and lecturing. Our conversation spans myths and muses, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, education, politics and garlic festivals. Yes, garlic festivals.
When it comes to songwriting do you wait to be inspired or is it more like a craft where you set aside time to do it?
I wait. I’ve done the wake up and see what comes out and it’s all crap – it just doesn’t work. There is a moment after the lighting strikes the first time, that you have to go back and just spend the time putting together phrasing and rhyming. But if you’re not feeling it, the music doesn’t feel it either. So, the work is to put myself in situations that court inspiration and to figure out what they are. Which has been museums, parks, cafes – generally public spaces where people are and there’s something sort of resonating in the air. That helps a lot.
Is that because you see things that specifically inspire you or the atmosphere brings out something already inside?
It’s the atmosphere. The buzz of either a painting on the wall that was done with some intention that you can kind of sense in the air or just being in a museum where people are there to get beyond binary functioning. (Laughs.) They’re there to look at life and death stuff. But that happens in certain kinds of cafes too – a certain feeling, a kind of a conversation that happens – there’s different words for it in different languages, but it’s something that’s great. It’s a feeling of familiarity and spirit in the air. It just opens this window up that makes things seem poetic more than prosaic. I have to believe in that. I have no choice than to be someone who looks for that quality.
So, when you’re out and about in these places and something comes to you, do have away of recording it or do you remember things?
It’s funny, there’s this thing that happens where it goes in my head and it doesn’t stop. It’s 12 notes or 16 notes and it seems so fully formed that I can’t get it out of my head. I think, oh, I have plenty of time to record this or I won’t even need to. And then I forget it completely. It’s very weird. Sometimes it’s like there’s a librarian in my head and I send her back to find it and it’ll reappear. If I record it, then it all comes back. It comes in with cadences and chords around it in my head. So, it’s very important to make sure I’m not being arrogant. (Laughs.) It’s important to know the way my mind works. That I’ll lose it if I don’t grab it.
Aside from performing music, you give lectures in schools and universities – how did that come about and what does it involve?
From time to time you get invited to talk about music and social justice and some of the fundraisers one has done or how one sees the world of music in social justice movements. So, that was always in the mix. That showed me that I could show up and speak as well as sing. And then, you know, we don’t have health care in our country, so I called the professor once and said I will teach for health care and he said it’s really hard to get, but I’ll keep you in mind. Years later, when I had my health care all lined up, he said would you still like to teach and I said yes immediately. So, I taught a course about music movements and then I wrote a book for scholastics. I go into schools and talk to kids about the difference in the process between writing a book and writing a song. It’s very sweet. I’ll say to the kids what’s harder for you to write, a story or a piece of poetry? They always have an opinion!
What sort of age range do you speak to?
I’ve talked to middle school kids, high school kids, college students, it just varies. Then there’s this concept called positive proximity. It’s this kind of pop sociology thing that I’ve seen in towns where they have turned proximity to one another into a positive force. So, instead of being this typical American cheerleader saying come on Americans we can all get together and agree and find peace and harmony and then we don’t, I’m finding examples of places where people have. The building blocks where people have made co-existence work. Not in a hippy dippy way – in a very functional way. They tend to make the best use of public space and things like that. I’ve learned a lot by looking in a really unsentimental way at what is allowing the American town and village to return after it declined for so many decades. So, I’m sort of a witness and a mechanic. (Laughs.) I’d like to do more of that because I think America tends to see itself as very divided – I’m sure England has its share of that too – and where I tour, I actually see how the lines have disappeared a lot. Basically, if you have a garlic festival, you’re destined for great things as a town. (Laughs.) So, I talk about that. It hinges on my music work, because you can’t have culture in a town if you have division. Even corporate sponsored music doesn’t feel right. You always have to have the human touch. I work in towns that have found it and they’re just funny and eccentric. They know how to embrace their eccentrics too, which is nice – their weird, dreamer, odd, temperamental, cantankerous dreamers. They’ve harnessed that. It’s very interesting to me.
The last album In The Time Of Gods referenced Greek mythology and I wondered how you’d chosen that theme? Were you already a fan of it or did you have the idea and then go and research it?
I did some research after I decided to follow this line. It’s not really a theme album because there are a few that don’t quite track with it. I mean there’s a song called The Light And The Sea and there is a sea god but it’s not really…the theme is that in turbulent times you need to find your personal beacon or even an assortment of characters. It’s not just making god happy it’s what you do when your whole world is falling apart and you need to find all sorts of different ways to make it an epic journey, just to get through your day. It just feels a little more Greek than biblical. But it started with one – I realised I would up the stakes of an interesting biker song, basically by making it about Hermes, who is the god of travellers. Then another idea came to me and suddenly I realised that all of these stories were already so multi layered. When you write a song, one word can kind of ring in a lot of directions. The Hermes song is called You Will Ride With Me Tonight and that ride has a lot of layers to it. There’s a sexual reference, there’s some mortality reference, there’s a letting go of your inhibitions element and then there’s life’s journey – which is better than just a biker song, you know? So, by attaching the mythology you automatically have all these allusions. It kept on springing open for me, so I followed it. If it had shut, I would have abandoned it. It was never forced. It wasn’t a term paper, it was an album. (Laughs.)
I understand Pete Seeger was partly an inspiration for Storm King from this album. I know you knew him and, sadly, he passed away recently – did he get a chance to hear the song?
He did. He said he liked it. (Laughs.) And that’s all you need to hear. I really miss him. He’s like a friend and he’s kind of like a father and he’s kind of like a mythological figure, so when word gets back to you that he liked it…it’s, you know. I could of gone up and visited him and asked, but it’s like word came from on high. And that was great.
Which god or goddess represents you best?
There’s a song I wrote for my daughter and it’s funny, you think I could write something sentimental, but it wasn’t. She’s adopted and it’s a kind of a ‘welcome to the United States’ song. In my mind it represented Athena, who’s the goddess of wisdom and justice-to a fault sometimes. There’s a story that we read in college about how the Furies wanted vengeance and blood and an eye for an eye and she said no, it’s the law, the law, the law. The audience that I have is a very hard working, justice-seeking audience, they’re teachers and social workers and therapists and non-profit lawyers. So, they remind me to stay committed to the path that we have of law and democracy. Every day, for me, is about figuring out how we increase that sense of democracy, so that it can really actually work because it is an experiment. So, for as much I like being in the clouds and courting inspiration, I feel like my feet are actually more rooted in this question of social justice and democracy – even to the point of being a little nerdy about it. (Laughs.) Which is fine with me! So, that’s the goddess I’m like, the one who says let’s stick to the rules and see how far we can get as a civilisation.
Given your work with lecturing and your interest in community and law and justice, do you think the relationship between that and folk music has generally become lost a bit or do you still see that as apparent?
I think that people in the 60s felt like they were steeped in the life or death questions of the day. They felt they were more part of the process, so that line between the personal and the political was being crossed back and forth, all the time. So, you have a song like Our House (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and then on the other hand you have Neil Young writing Ohio after the Kent State massacre. I think these kids had this sense of permission to go in and out of the personal and political sphere and they took themselves very seriously in the process. So, that I think is what gave that era such a sense of gravitas. I think that you gotta write what you want to write and that’s what they wanted to write. I think that sitting down now and trying to find a social justice theme for the sake of finding it, is actually kind of dangerous, because you’re going to come up with something very clunky and easily mocked. Which is, I think, one of the reasons people felt removed from the political process. They were mocked for trying to understand it. I think that the way to get back to writing folk music that has that kind of anchor in social issues, is to steep your life in a sense that you can participate meaningfully. Then out of that life will come songs about your cat, your garden and your government. That’s what I’ve learned from hearing some of the most awful social justice songs written by people who took it on as a responsibility and not out of inspiration.
You’re worked with a lot of people over the years. I first came across your music on the Joan Baez live album Ring Them Bells. Is there anyone that you’d like to work with currently?
No. I saw Anais Mitchell for the first time yesterday in over a decade and the last time I saw her, I just assumed we’d run into each other again and I keep on not running into old friends and I miss them. So, I wish that I had more opportunities just to see the ones that I know. I say to hi to Joan Baez through people and she says hi back to me through people. (Laughs.) And it’s just a lot of people to keep up with over time, so you send each other little notes and sometimes leave them in the dressing room or something. So really, there’s no one new that I want to meet at all. (Laughs.) I just want to find time for the ones I know already.
When you tour, do you find you get a different sort of reaction in Europe and particularly the UK than you do in America – whether it’s to different sorts of songs or any overall different reaction?
I used to. I think the United States embraced feminism and psychotherapy a little ahead of Europe and what we would call folk music but in its revival form. So, when I first came here I felt some of the coldness towards women at that kind of ‘psychobabble’ that they thought I was engaged in. (Laughs.) They kept on saying well, we’re British, we just don’t go for that – we do embrace feminism but we don’t want to talk about it, we do embrace the psyche but we don’t want to talk about it. And it’s so funny because now it’s just the same, as far as I’m concerned – we’re all the same. Now everyone in Britain is drinking coffee! So, now I feel like I can talk about anything on stage. There’s a lot more in common now – for better or for worse. (Laughs)
What would you like people to take away from your show tonight, what would you like them to have with them when they leave?
You kind of hope that people experience it like they went some place, just like a trip somewhere. A place that was a little different than what they know. A mini mini-break.
Dar laughs at her own summing up with the use of such a quintessentially English holiday concept, before heading off to get ready for the show and to take another audience on a short trip to other worlds.
Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk on 5 March 2014.
Imelda has her own website here with great photography. Rebeladelica.