Compassionate Music: Dar Williams
Dar Williams creates music that seeks a better world. She explores difference through the lens of compassion at the same time as she explores her own personal life in a wholly open and honest way. Read on for tips on how to make this type of art—art that counts.
I was lucky to take a class with “Professor Williams” last spring. Together, we investigated the way that music connected with social movements throughout history. Today, with the rise of Trump and white nationalism, this type of music is as relevant as ever. With this in mind, I sat down with Williams to discuss the function of art, in general and in relation to her career.
And Williams isn’t just a musician. On September 5th her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities–One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-mic at a Time (2017), will be released. Here, Williams considers the way that art is community.
Sage Marshall: What, specifically, drew you to the art form of music? I know that you considered going into theater as well.
Dar Williams: There were a few things. One was that there was a social scene for creating music and collaborating. You could learn so much about yourself in conversation with other people because there were so many ways that you could participate socially in music. I think more so than my choosing it, it drew me in.
The other thing was that the instant feedback that I got from writing a song and taking it to an open-mic was so exciting. You can work on a play for a year–I wrote a play that I worked on for three months, and I asked my friends if they would read it with me, you know, at my parents’ kitchen table. I was really into it, but they didn’t get it at all, and I was shocked. Theater is also dependent on other people in a lot of different ways, so the idea that you could do this thing by yourself, bring it into a wonderful social scene, never quite be too alone, get feedback on a song right away, and offer it as a gift on its own terms was different in music for me than in theater.
It was also a very political time in the 90s, and I enjoyed being part of a fringe of dissent against The Gulf War. That, again, drew me in. Then, once I got into the career, I started to see the kinds of magic that music could do. There’s a lot of unique beauty that comes from performing and sharing music.
SM: Right. We’ve previously discussed the way that music can be shared in a communal atmosphere, like at an open mike, at the same time as it can be an individual experience, like when you listen to music alone in your room with headphones on. Can you elaborate on the way that music navigates between the communal and the individual?
DW: I’ve decided that music–art–has the function of recognizing and consoling. It’s beautiful, it lifts you up, and it helps you think–it does all of these amazing things. But, it really gets into the soul when you feel recognized and then consoled by this recognition. So, you can feel reached individually, and, if you bring that into the social scene as an audience member or a fan, there’s no end to the kinds of relationships you can form as a social being who’s recognized and understood. This is opposed to going out cold and creating your identity without art and hoping that it flies. Music gives you common ground. This can be really empowering, especially for people who think that they’re unusual in a bad way.
SM: As a songwriter, you often talk about creating music that’s true to oneself. Why would you encourage other artists to create work that is true to themselves?
DW: This has to do with how you position yourself as an artist. Personally, I position myself in society with the belief that the more people that are trying to write things that feel honest, true, and clear to them, the more facets we’ll have on the diamond–the healthier, stronger, more interesting, more delightful we’ll be as a society.
That was very much the world that I was a part of when I was doing all of that open-mic stuff. Then, I had so much freedom during my career. Even with my record label, I would say ‘this feels true to me,’ and they took a back seat to that. As much as they wanted me to write something that was commercially viable, they allowed me to build an audience based on things that felt true to me. These types of songs were often my most successful anyway. So even from a business standpoint, I would encourage people to follow that impulse.
SM: Do you have any advice on how exactly to write stuff that is true to yourself? Like, I was really touched by hearing you sing “As Cool as I Am,” and you talked about the specific moment in your life when you created that song. I’m interested in the process of taking something that’s in your life and trying to express it as accurately as you can while also making it interesting and engaging. How do you go through that process?
DW: It’s funny because this is exactly what I want to bring to the songwriting retreats that I’ll lead this year. People will front-load a sentence in a song. They’ll put in factual information like saying ‘my life is a wall,’ you know? It just gets really big and that’s not in the voice of the song– every song has its own voice. One of my songs is about Wesleyan Pot Activists. It has no rhyme scheme, and it’s very funny. Another song of my songs is about having had clinical depression when I was at Wesleyan. That one has lots of rhyming and lots of imagery. The voices of the two songs are really different. Ideally, you feel the moment or experience coming out of you as a song, and the song will have its own rhythms and cadences. I’ll tend to start with one little musical phrase, and then I’ll take a fraction of it and play with the rhythm and melody of it. I go very slowly, waiting for a structure to suggest itself based on that first line. It’s like a little piece of genetic material, and I try to see what kind of life I can coax out of it.
The first sitting is when I’ll come up with the most material. It’s like a volcano. Then, I go back to parse and work on phrasing and rhymes. That part of the process is different. If you do a song where answer, dancer, and cancer rhyme, you’ll be like ‘ok, I’ll rhyme dancer and answer because I don’t want to do cancer.’ But, then you suddenly realize that there’s something quite cancerous about what you’re writing about. You’ll say ‘oh, thank you muse. Actually, let’s get rid of the word answer.’ The structure starts to inform your imagination.
Songs want to be songs, and you can tell when a person is shoehorning an idea into a song. You’re really just hearing the person thinking, and that’s not what the song wants. The ideal is for the song to feel lyrical as you do it. Enjoy the fact that it’s a type of expression that is like no other.
If I were to tell people how to start a song in general, I always start with asking, ‘what’s the voice of the song?’ Is this person in a rush? Is this person sad? Is this person living in Romania during the 18th century? Asking these questions will influence the truth of that person’s voice–it doesn’t have to be your own voice. Everybody is everything. The voice of a song depends on how you draw out that piece of yourself. I wouldn’t have to say ‘be true to yourself’ because there’s a lot of us in here (touches her chest).
SM: That’s really interesting.
DW: As a writer, there can be a lot of different characters? Do you just write about yourself or nature?
SM: I do write about nature to make money… but no, I try to write stories that have a range of different characters. Actually, one of my philosophies is that art should be compassionate. I think that’s another way to conceptualize voice—as a means to bring attention to other issues or people from the world and engage with them through art, through compassion.
DW: Yeah, and the question becomes whether all art is inherently compassionate because it’s seeking to give voice to something for its own sake, or does it have to have that feeling of compassion behind it? Because Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) is brilliant, and I don’t imagine her sitting down to be compassionate as she wrote it. In a way, though, it’s such a compassionate act to record, to present personal things with such a captivating and poetic voice. Then, we go out into the world with more compassion and understanding of things. Is that the same as compassion? I don’t know.
SM: I don’t know either… going off of that, with Reverberations, we’re really interested in the way that art can reverberate beyond itself and connects with other people. This queues me into a real interest in artists’ influences. Could you talk a little bit about your influences? Who are they? What was your emotional connection to their art?
DW: I had a really visceral connection to music growing up because my family had vinyl records. I just spent a lot of time by myself with the record collection. It was alphabetized with classical on the left side of the T.V. and everything else on the right side. So, I listened to some classical via my dad and that really influenced my love of melody. I also fell in love with that type of structure and orchestration.
My dad also had his folk records. My sisters and I listened to The Byrds, The Beatles, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash. We loved harmony and sang it a lot around the house. That music was very much a part of my family.
Then, when I was 16-years-old, I was re-listening to an album, and I realized exactly how incredible the music was. It was life or death stuff. The artists took themselves very seriously.
Paul Simon became my biggest influence of all because he had that alienated, just outside the border of urban culture, perspective. As a suburbanite, it made a whole lot of sense to me. You could sense that he was a nice boy from Long Island before he was a songwriter. My sense of connection to him was particularly strong.
I loved Broadway shows as well. I had insomnia, and when my parents went to sleep, I would go downstairs and choreograph shows. I think that was good because I’m very schmaltzy. I’m not afraid of being sentimental, and that actually helped my music. There’s plenty of things in classes and from the judgment of others that weeded out my sentimentality, but it didn’t take it all out. I’m really pleased that I allow myself to be so moved and sentimental about music. This keeps a warm center in my songwriting.
SM: Since I’m interested in becoming a writer, I want to talk about your new book What I Found in a Thousand Towns (2017) that’s coming out in September. Your book investigates the conditions to create positive communal change, is that right?
DW: Yes. I don’t have any problem believing that people want to get along because I see it all the time. That is my bread and butter–watching venues and communities that work. The question is, in a postmodern and post-industrial society, how do we jump certain hurdles of convenient isolation to find ourselves back at the town green?
We could have become an incredibly granular society by now between the big box stores, the X-Box video games, and the internet. Downtowns aren’t viable now except as acts of faith, yet people find their ways downtown. Basically, the book identifies mechanisms that bring vibrancy to the commons despite ourselves.
SM: Where do music and art come into this?
DW: Art creates a whole layer of identity for people in towns which, in turn, allows people to find other ways of interacting. It breaks down barriers between people. You’re providing a new access to yourself that can create different kinds of conversations. The point of access is almost always about communication, not transaction. It helps to normalize and assimilate ‘weird’ people, especially at open-mics which are super democratic. Even community theater can give access to different voices that shows people that they aren’t freaks.
Art also brings people in and out of your town. Artists are unusual and have different perspectives. They can bring up different themes that become conversations.
Then there are the participatory aspects of art. In one of the towns that I wrote about, artistic creativity seemed to have a parallel to finding solutions. There’s a huge overlap between places that have a lot of participatory arts with having a participatory society in a deliberative democracy.
That may be a stretch, but I assert it all the time. I don’t know if I’m right, but I feel the correlation very strongly.
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.
What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities–One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-mic at a Time (Sept. 5th, 2017)
By Dar Williams
Publisher: Basic Books