Something happened to Dar Williams in the mid-1990s. Her 1993 debut album The Honesty Room was a folkie delight and included the irresistible song “The Babysitter’s Here.” Just a few years later, Williams delivered the near-perfect Mortal City (1996) followed by the fantastic End of Summer (1997). Most of the albums that followed were consistently strong, but it’s hard to find two consecutive discs with the kind of staying power of Mortal City and End of Summer. To commemorate the 20th (what!) anniversary of the release of Mortal City, Williams is performing a series of concerts in which she performs the album live in its entirety (along with selected other tunes). I had the pleasure of speaking with Williams about the album and more near the end of summer 2016. [Williams performs on Nov. 17 at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.]
Gregg Shapiro: Dar, I’d like to begin by wishing you a happy Mortal City 20th anniversary. Where has the time gone?
Dar Williams: Oh, it went. I know where it went. I have odometer readings, kids; all sorts of measurements of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I get it. I get that it was a while ago
GS: Right from the start, with the opening song “As Cool As I Am,” and its resonant chorus, “I will not be afraid of women,” Mortal City sounds to me like an attempt to put some distance between the Dar of The Honesty Room and the Dar of Mortal City. Does that sound like a fair reading?
DW: Yes and no. There was a lot of distance between the Dar of The Honesty Room and the Dar of Mortal City, so there was no attempt. What happened on “As Cool As I Am” was, you know how in the `90s, “the personal is political, the political is personal”? That was a really big thing. Choices (you made) about how you recorded and what instruments you used and how much real versus how much synthetic [laughs]. Those were choices that were seen as very political at the time. I remember doing “As Cool As I Am” and Steve [Miller], the producer, saying “I really hear a drum loop here. I want to play it for you.” When I wrote it, I thought, “This isn’t going to sound very folky. I don’t think it’s going to go with mandolins and banjos.” Then he played the loop for me and it sounded right. I believe that’s the only song that has a drum-loop on it. In a way it’s not an indication of the whole album. The rest of the songs on the album have spare arrangements on them. Steve really loved that. He’d just come off of a project with someone who basically had to mask the fact that there were no songs there with production. He said, “Oh, my God, you have real songs here!” I would push for more production and he would say, “Why do you want to have more production when you have real songs? You don’t want to cover up the song.” A lot of the songs are pretty unmasked. If you listen to “As Cool As I Am,” it’s not all that different from what you were hearing from Ani DiFranco and some of the other indie women artists of the time. It was still in that context, still seen as folk music.
I went from having three little jobs that I strung together to being on the road full-time; having some savings that my managers told me to spend. You fly all over the country opening for these other people. You pay a publicist to get some press while you’re establishing yourself and you will be solvent in this career forevermore.
GS: That’s interesting advice.
DW: Yes, and it was true. But I spent a year pulling all-nighters and driving around in a really tiny fuel-efficient car relying on the kindness of strangers and seeing this incredible range of landscapes throughout the United States. That’s what happened with The Honesty Room. It was a huge night and day switch. And I started going out with one of my managers and he really grew me up in a lot of ways. He introduced me not just to being a full-time traveler, which I was, but he was also really very interested in history and art and continued to open my eyes up to regional history; less splashy histories. He was interested in historical societies and stuff like that. He introduced me to a way of looking at the way communities form that is the foundation for the book that I’ve just finished writing that has to do with what I see as effective community-building wherever I’ve been traveling.
GS: When does that book come out?
DW: That’s going to come out next year. It’s very much a Mortal City book. Basically, I have found that people who have tried to start communities out of good feelings or hippie-dippie abstract concepts of love – it doesn’t work. But if you just concentrate on what is the identity of your town – its waterfalls, its battles, its notable mill strike or those things – you dig into what your town is from its rock formations to its history to its food. Then this thing called community happens all the time. There’s tons of anger and angst and peculiarity and eccentricity, and good towns know that that’s okay. But towns that are kind of bullshit don’t know what to do with all those feelings.
GS: I’m really glad that you mentioned Ani. Of course, you didn’t (and never really have) abandoned your acoustic folk sensibility, as Mortal City songs such as “Iowa (Traveling III),” “February,” “The Ocean” and “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed,” among others, demonstrate. When the album was released in the mid-1990s, it was an especially fertile time in the female folk scene, including artists such as Ani DiFranco, Jewel, Jill Sobule, Jonatha Brooke and others. Do you think we’ll see another moment like that for folk music any time soon?
DW: They say that everything takes a 30 year cycle. There’s one variable that might have tipped a certain balance in terms of how people formulate their social movements; which is that there are so many things to keep us fragmented, in our houses, in our earbuds. The kind of organic wave, the way that waves move, and I’m not just talking about feminism, the way that a social movement might rise like a wave. It’s harder to build any kind of wave now. Things are important to you and then they recede within a day. That’s the only thing that keeps me from believing that there’s going to be any one organic big wave; although the Americana (music) thing has been happening for a while. What was nice about the nineties is that it was an example of music that responded to a desire of the times. It spoke to the social conditions of the times. Women were making more money. Women were saying, “My voice counts. If we’re going out on a Friday night, I don’t want to see a Rambo movie. I want to go see a singer/songwriter who sings about my life.” And a lot of men were also becoming more attuned and less afraid of women [big laugh]. I really lucked out with that song (“As Cool As I Am”). Men were becoming much more comfortable with all the different facets and parts of their identity, including their gentler, funnier, sillier, nurturing parts. They started showing up. There was so much exploration of gender at that time. Women were showing up with the range of ways of being female in the world and men were showing up with the range of being male in the world. I think the music was speaking to that opening up of whose voice gets heard and how multidimensional that voice can be.
GS: “Christians and the Pagans” is a song that has taken on increasing meaning as the years pass, and particularly now in this election year. Do you plan to or have you been asked to perform at any candidates’ benefit concerts?
DW: Well, Hillary Clinton [laughs]. I’d do one for her. But no, I haven’t. I was talking with Tammy Baldwin (U.S. Senator from Wisconsin) at a Pro-Choice fundraiser and I said, “If you ever want me to come (and perform), I’m swinging through Wisconsin on a tour and I have this band opening for me. The man wears bright red lipstick and they’re queer. Would that be okay with you?” She said, “I’m the first openly lesbian Senator in the United States.” I was like, “All right then [laughs]!” There was this moment in 2003 when I was asked to do a fundraiser for someone who was speaking out against the Iraq war when nobody was. I said, “I will do a fundraiser for that guy.” And then my friend John Hall, from the band Orleans…
GS: The No Nukes guy.
DW: Right! He ran for Congress in my district and won. I did a bunch of fundraisers for him. I am happy to do political fundraisers. I always hope that my friends will be, too. It’s part of who you are and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of what you believe in. It’s just that you don’t have to bring it to every stage. You can do a fundraiser for people that you support. You don’t necessarily have to talk about one thing or another when you’re on your own.
GS: You perform Mortal City in its entirety on the 20th anniversary tour. How do you keep that interesting for you as a performer, night after night?
DW: Oh, there’s no problem there. Just like my career, I’ve sung the same songs night after night in so many ways. It’s always different because every space is different. I lost my mojo once. It was like Austin Powers. I don’t know why or how, but I had to get it back. And I did. But there was one tour where I thought, “If I can’t get this feeling back of being excited to be on the stage, then I will quit.” Because I have friends who have dialed it in and I watch their concerts and shake my head. I’m sure the audience can tell, too. Then I went to Canada and played in this tiny bar where the windows were steaming up and everybody was so animated and singing along right there at the foot of the stage, looking up, and I got my mojo back [laughs]. It’s about engagement. It’s not about the lyrics. It’s the engagement of a show.
GS: I can’t resist asking if there will be an End of Summer tour next year for that album’s 20th anniversary.
DW: I don’t foresee that, no. But there might be another album for which we’d be celebrating something down the road. But that’s still in the pipeline.
GS: Is there a new album in the works?
DW: Yes and no. Basically, I finished the book and I want to edit it. I have a fantastic editor. We’re going to work on this book. There’s nothing specifically in the pipeline, but it never feels like there’s anything far off, so we’ll see what I write in 2017.
GS: When you perform in a region where you have roots and history, does it feel different than performing in another city?
DW: Yes and no. This is the thing about doing Mortal City now. Mortal City was really influenced by geography. (The song) “The Ocean” is the Pacific Northwest. Southern California and New York (also figure into songs, and Iowa. “February” is very much about New England. “Mortal City” is Philadelphia. The whole album is this anthropomorphized landscape [laughs] where the metaphors live in this geography. It was also the beginning of the reality of the fact that I was going to have little pieces of my personality identifying with all of these different parts of the country. At this point, I feel like I have roots in a lot of places. I have friends who have put down roots, in Seattle and San Francisco and Portland, and I feel very close to them. The only I would say is a little different is when I know my parents are in the audience [big laugh]. That’s never going to be the same as another concert.
GS: Do you ever cuss on stage?
DW: No, no I don’t! But every once in a while I’ll say something…I dropped the F-bomb early on in my career. There was this lesbian couple and they looked super-hip. One of them looked at me and shook her head, like “Don’t do that.” I think she was doing it to say, “It doesn’t work.” She didn’t say anything but it was this cautionary moment. I knew it didn’t work. There are just so many other words to choose from.
GS: Finally, we began with an anniversary and to end with one, I was wondering if you have started thinking about how you will celebrate your 50th birthday next year in 2017.
DW: [Laughs] you know how people say they’re either like a cat or a dog? I feel like a cat. I just want to be alone. Isn’t that weird? It’s a lot to take in. There are a lot of people out there who are exactly half extrovert and half introvert and they love to be extroverts as long as they have enough time to go off and figure it all out [laughs]. For my 50th birthday I just want to make it all make sense, and then a couple of weeks later do the blow-out with all my friends.