Dar Williams finds the Beauty in her new surroundings.

City Folk 

Dar Williams finds the Beauty in her new surroundings.

It's a story line that's fueled countless musical dramas: Take a small-town coffee-house folk singer, drop her in New York City and observe the emotional bruises that result from the uneasy transition. These Coyote Ugly-caliber tales usually offer hard-won happy endings, but in some cases the metamorphosis can be immediate and painless.

Dar Williams had no trouble with the transition. Currently on tour in support of her latest release, The Beauty of the Rain, she shares her observations on her recent move from Northampton, Massachusetts, the town she called home for many years.

"Everyone thinks moving to a big city will drive you crazy," Williams says by phone from a Northampton hotel. "For me, it was a relief, because I lived in a college town for eight years. It was a healthy place where people were aware of their physical, spiritual, mental well-being -- avoiding television, taking all of their vitamins and all of that stuff. That's great, but I also think it's great to move to a city and be completely anonymous and discover exactly how healthy or unhealthy you are based on how you get through your own day, what you need to do that and how well you keep the big picture in mind."

Being a newcomer in the Big Apple can be intimidating, but Williams says she has yet to suffer from any adverse effects.

"Once you get used to the subway system and the rats, you feel like a native," Williams says with a laugh. "My career is so busy, so multifaceted, that it requires both attention to my public life and attention to my private self, so it's like living in a city all of the time in your head. You're always figuring out how to think on your feet and be with people in this civilization. Coming to New York felt like coming home. I don't know if I'm going to stay there forever, but it actually felt incredibly familiar to me."

Williams considers The Beauty of the Rain less a leap from her college-town roots to a new urbanized aesthetic than a logical progression in her development as an artist.

"Most of it is unconscious," Williams says of her flirtations with world beat and pure pop on the new disc. "The Green World was with the same group, so this album was just the next step. It was really about friendships as opposed to having a specific agenda going in. That always backfires, I think."

In addition to Williams' core players, Beauty features a diverse, distinguished list of guests that includes jam giant John Popper, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, John Medeski and contemporary jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.

"The original mission -- and again, original missions usually backfire, but this one just changed -- we wanted to do a lot of cross-pollinating with people from different kinds of bands that were on their own planets, whether it was Galactic, Soulive, moe., String Cheese Incident," Williams explains. "The other thing we thought these bands would have is wonderful instrumentalists who we wanted to take out of the context of their band and just show their virtuosity. Then people that we were working with would come forward and say, 'How about John Popper? He's a virtuoso, he's in a jam band, they have their own following and they're on their own planet.' Our first response was that he's had a lot of commercial success, so that doesn't fit the subculture idea that we first had. But who could say no to someone like that?"

Williams laughs for a moment, then continues. "It became a very interesting cast of characters," she says. "I sat in the corner of the studio with the band waving as these guests would go into the recording booth, and I would just say, 'Show me what you would like to do.' I trusted everybody more, so when the mission statement didn't stick to the one sentence we had written about who we wanted the guests to be, I just crumpled up that sentence and threw it away and completely enjoyed what happened."

Yet even before the first track was laid down, Williams had given a lot of thought to her own process, which appears to be evolving and changing as much as her personal circumstances.

"In terms of songwriting, I go into every album saying to myself, how can I say more with less?" Williams explains. "I love lyrics, and sometimes I just can't help but fill a song with them because there's something to say. But sometimes music can do a lot of your work for you. I was trying to find that kind of economy of language."

Williams also found new avenues of personal introspection with this material, particularly with the disc's final track, "I Have Lost My Dreams."

"That was an important song, because I hadn't written songs for a while and I had become a lot happier in my life," Williams says. "I knew that there was a deeper well of meaning and things to write about and insights that came from being happy. When you're a little happier, you're much wiser and less defensive, less likely to be blaming and pointing."

Happiness hasn't distracted Williams from supporting environmental causes.

"It balances me to have something besides just my creative life, which is so abstract," Williams says. "That's another reason being in a city works for me. College towns are a wonderful place to be if you want to have an ongoing conversation about what it's all about, whereas the city is more about doing something. I spent a long time building my foundation of what I believe in, and now it's a lot about being involved. I think the city kicked me into action, so I'm obsessed with the question of action and what we can do."

Like many politically active artists today, Williams doesn't mask her disdain for the country's current conflict. Yet now she feels even more empowered than before to be able to do something about it.

"One of the reasons I'm working with organizations like SELF [Solar Electric Light Fund] is that I think the best time to end a war is thirty years before it happens," Williams says. "You don't arm people in the name of protecting yourself. You just don't feed that. You build civilization. I watch this stuff on TV to sort of see what happens, and I don't just see it as the ham-fistedness of the last year, although I think the last year has been incredibly clumsily dealt with. Instead I see it as a three-decade cycle of nurturing destruction and nurturing destructive people.

"I used to say, 'They should do something, they should do this, they should do that. Oh, there's all this incredible political imbalance in the world, they should create this opportunity. They should ...' Now it's we and I saying, 'What can I do?'"

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