Singer/songwriter Dar Williams took my call while she was stuck in a traffic jam near Gainesville, Florida – and no, she wasn’t traveling to her next gig to support her latest recording, Emerald. She was on her way to conduct an interview for a book that she’s writing, with the working title of A Wayfaring Minstrel’s Guide to Urban Planning. The concept for the book is based on a study that she read about proximity and relationships, and on her experience as a touring musician for the past 20+ years. She’ll strap on her guitar again and be back up north by Friday night, December 4, ready to perform at the Towne Crier in Beacon, just up the road a bit from the town that she calls home.
“I’ve been to a lot of communities, and this book goes against the popular narrative: that people quarrel, that taxes are too high, that Main Street is disappearing because of Big Box stores. The truth is, many, many communities are doing things very well, and I want to accentuate what people can do. I’m focusing on eight cities,” she explains. “One town has created some really cool ways to make history come alive in their streets; another town, in North Carolina, is doing some very cool things culturally. It’s about positive proximity, about building bridges between communities and creating critical mass.” The bridge-building creates social capital as residents work together to prosper and revitalize or create unique, embracing communities.
Williams, a highly acclaimed singer/songwriter, first gained recognition in the 1990s, and her ninth studio album, Emerald, is a burnished beauty of poetry and music. Like all her releases, it’s steeped in her distinctive, personal/universal view of our world, and she explores themes that range from brotherhood, love and ’70s radio to planting gardens at summer camps and the lives of young Honduran women to New York City neighborhoods and the people who created them. She’s joined by a stable of fine artists as musicians and co-writers, including Richard Thompson, Jim Lauderdale, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters, Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche and Jill Sobule.
She released Emerald independently, after 20 years with her label, Razor & Tie, and crowdfunded it through Pledge Music. “My decision to break with my label is an experiment, and I feel like I understand what’s going on in the music industry today. I didn’t choose this to get more artistic freedom; I always had that. It was just that the conversations were getting chillier, weirder. I loved that we both worked hard, but I started to feel like I was being nickeled-and-dimed, and I’d rather do that myself. I’m good at math, so this approach is more à la carte,” she says.
That wrapped up a longer conversation that had started with her statement: “The music business is done. I loved the owners of Razor & Tie, but I didn’t see myself in the picture. People just stream music now. The streaming entity is sort of awful, and we all need to do a really big, sit-down math lesson. The artists are all swimming in the same pool, and that’s where I belong. We have to be there for each other. Something needs to come next, and people say, ‘This is not worse, it’s just different,’ but that’s wrong: It is worse.”
Releasing an album as an independent isn’t really where the true risk lies, though. Williams says, bluntly, “Every song is a risk. When I teach at songwriting retreats, it refreshes my memory about the initial excitement you have when writing a song and about how to preserve it. You’ve got to learn to pull out that golden thread, and ignore the voices that say, ‘It’s too long; it’s too short; it sounds like someone else.’”
“People are so worried,” she adds. “I encourage them to pursue their fascination a little bit longer, without that interruption. It’s something you have to learn to do, over and over. ”
Much different from the American Idol philosophy of creating art in a vacuum: “Singing in your closet for 17 years, and then emerging from behind the coats to enter a contest and sign a contract…it’s so gross. That’s not what I did,” she says. Williams’ early years in Cambridge and Boston as part of the coffeehouse folk scene were full of enormous learning, and she did a lot of things right “by coincidence. I tell kids who want to be in the music business that they need to find a ‘scene.’ Find out what your audience wants from playing gigs, from listening to them instead of being told what people want. Help each other. Buy a big old house and live together. Garden and cook together. Find a church in decline, and ask if you can do a concert series there. Get two mics, a sound system and someone to run the sound. Start an open mic. Take one small step.”
Her wisdom about how to till and protect the sacred ground of her personal creative process has served her well as a teacher – a role that is, like many other areas of her life, multifaceted. Teaching a course, “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy,” at her alma mater, Wesleyan University, led naturally to the summer songwriting retreats that she has conducted at the Garrison Institute and Omega, and several panel discussions and speaking engagements that she offers for youth. The impetus to teach mines deep and meaningful territory, and her songwriting retreats honor the enigma of songwriting. “I won’t do them about ‘How to Make It in the Music Business.’ I focus on how to write a song that matters. It attracts people who want to write a good song, who want to focus on the song first,” she says.
When asked what she likes best about her life right now, Williams says that her kids, ages 6 and 11, “are getting old enough to participate in these conversations and understand this world. My worlds are coming together, between family and music. I always wanted to teach, and when my friend kicked my butt, saying, ‘No, do it now,’ that changed my life. Community, music, teaching…I’m standing at the crossroads every day, and can take any given road.”
Williams grew up in Chappaqua and now lives in a small town near Beacon. She serves on the Board of Directors for Friends of Fahnestock and Hudson Highlands State Parks, and her concert this weekend is a fundraiser for the non-profit group. “It can be kind of an invisible organization, so it would be nice to let more people know about our work, which includes things like safer swimming holes, Maple Sugar Days and trails,” she adds. “Anything I can do to build a bridge, a relationship, between my town and Beacon is a good thing. People see me out with my kids, wearing no makeup, so when I perform locally, it’s not always easy to get people to come out. This is a good reason to come out for a good cause.”
It’s actually one of several good reasons to come out to hear Dar Williams perform at the Towne Crier on Friday night. This artist crafts lovely, searing songs, and knows how to deliver them with her rich vocals and soulful guitar. You’ll hear a master who has learned to ‘pull the golden thread’ over and over, and you’ll be fascinated with what came up.
Dar Williams, Friday, December 4, 8:30 p.m., $45, Towne Crier Café, 379 Main Street, Beacon; (845) 855-1300, www.townecrier.com.