Dar Williams sings modern-day folk music for the suburbs
By Greg Cahill
“The scare for me growing up in the suburbs,” says singer/songwriter Dar Williams, “is that it’s so sterile that you don’t feel like you’re able to make mistakes, and all of the beauty of that fallibility is lost because you’re just watching your back all the time,”
Williams, the 29-year-old neo-folk phenomenon, doesn’t mince words. During a brief phone interview from her home in western Massachusetts, Williams is an open book, baring her soul and sharing her deepest feelings and innermost thoughts.
It is disarming, to say the least.
These days, Williams is making the leap from relative obscurity after two critically acclaimed CDs, 1995’s self-released The Honesty Room and the new Mortal City (Razor & Tie), a collection of mostly original songs dealing with displacement and the search for a home. The new disc was recorded in Williams’ bedroom and produced by Steven Miller, who has worked with Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, Marianne Faithfull, and Juliana Hatfield. Williams, who already has found a home among college radio’s coffeehouse crowd, is seeking new mainstream fans among listeners of the so-called Triple-A radio format. Her deeply personal, apolitical songs are peopled with lesbian lovers home for the holidays, college coeds in crisis, and young women coming of age.
After a two-month tour with folk legend Joan Baez, who recorded Williams’ “You’re Aging Well” on Baez’s 1995 comeback CD Ring Them Bells, Williams is catching her breath before hitting the road for a solo tour that will bring her to the Luther Burbank Center April 26 and eventually end in London.
But Williams doesn’t expect to land on the cover of People anytime soon. “I’m used to the folk audience being an underground group, and I think that’s pretty much how I’m going to stay,” she says. “People who keep their feelers out for less commercial stuff are going to be in the minority, and that’s just the way it’s going to be–and I prefer that anonymity.
“But by and large, people involved in alternative lifestyles will groove to alternative music in some form or another.”
Williams has been hailed as a continuation of such ’60s folkies as Baez, Paul Simon, and Judy Collins–closer akin to modern-day neo-folkies like Christina Lavin and Patti Larkin than the dust-bowl balladry of Woody Guthrie or some piney-wood Appalachian storyteller. It’s easy to envision Williams, a Wesleyan University grad dubbed by Ms. magazine as a “suburban griot,” lounging on the pink canopy bed of her parents’ Westchester County, N.Y, home, listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and pining over boyfriends and prom dates.
Indeed, life in the American ‘burbs informs her latest work. “My sense of the suburbs is that you have to fight for a sense of place; that it’s there, but that it’s so low on the list of priorities that you have to really search for it,” she says. “I mean, I’ve heard people say, ‘Of course, our suburban town had a strong sense of nature because we had a strong sports program.’ But I remember that our sports program was about triumph of brawn over brains, competition, peer pressure, subtle forms of misogyny, and workaholism–the idea that you always had to be busy doing something and that working on your studies wasn’t enough.
“As it stood, my sense of place was defined by social pressures and the desire to keep up.”
Williams, an ex-jockette who landed in a high school production of Godspell after suffering a sports injury, says that situation led to an “existential crisis,” albeit one that would pale compared to Courtney Love’s.
“My parents did something that was very right for squelching rebellion by making it seem ridiculous,” she explains. “I know kids who rebelled and their parents got really angry and they were grounded, paid the price, and went out and rebelled again. At our house, there was a horrible, painstaking process of trying to explain why I had done what I had done. I had no curfews, and an enormous amount of privacy and respect for what I did with my time, so there was this horrible trust that I would do everything right. I didn’t recognize until I was in college that I was being forced to conform to someone else’s stuff. Plus my sisters had done so much stuff ‘right’ that I always felt like the black sheep. I worked hard to look like I wasn’t too much of a mess-up.
“It’s funny because I realize now that if I had pushed the envelope, my parents had a great deal of unconditional love. But I didn’t test the waters because I was too embarrassed to pierce every part of my body or to drive a car into a tree or listen to really loud music.”
“No,” she adds with a girlish laugh. “But I’ll probably drop acid and get a big tattoo when I’m about 50.”
Dar Williams performs Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, Tickets are $12.50. 546-3600.
From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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