New songs in hand, Dar Williams coming to The Ark for 2 nights
Well, they can take heart, because Williams recently finished mixing the final tracks for a new, still-untitled CD, due for release next April.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” says Williams, who comes to The Ark for a two-night stand on Friday and Saturday. “A lot of the songs came together around ideas of power and how we exercise it, especially when you get to place in life when you’re putting down some roots, and you experience the power of picking up the phone and getting things done, in ways you couldn’t imagine when you were younger.”
And she’s not talking about her career, or having more “clout,” now that she’s an established and acclaimed recording artist after 18 years in the business.
“No, I’m more interested in ‘clout’ in the larger sense, like improving your community or schools, whether it’s organizing a park cleanup, or being part of a fundraiser, or knowing what program your child’s school is going to be able to add,” she says. “It’s more about having that sense of how things come together, and what your responsibility can be, as opposed to thinking that something needs to happen but not knowing how to participate.
“And on some of the songs, I look at recklessness, and what happens when somehow your life explodes based on one or two bad decisions,” says Williams during a phone interview from her home in the Hudson River Valley area of New York, about 90 miles from Woodstock.
“As a writer, I’ve also become interested in the sin of pride, and, just in general, I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching that that time in life when you stake a claim and say ‘this is what I believe and this is what I’m going to act on.”
Sonically and emotionally, Williams says the record is “my usual mix” of uptempo folk-rockers and more pensive, sparsely-arranged ballads.The disc was produced by Kevin Killen, who, instead of inviting all the backing musicians into a studio at the same time, set it up so that he and Williams traveled to their homes.
“He starts by choosing these musicians who have great sensibilities, like Rob Hyman (keyboard / accordion / vocals) from the Hooters. We went to his house and spent three days there, and then went up to (guitarist) Jerry Leonard’s house near Woodstock for a few days, and so on. And then we eventually finished up the tracks in a studio in New York City.”
Williams’ last album was an anthology of her previous work, but an unusual one. Titled “Many Great Companions,” and released last fall, it was a two-CD set. One disc was a collection of fan favorites, culled from her previous seven studio albums.
The other disc consisted of acoustic re-recordings of 12 of her songs that she wanted to revisit, featuring several of her musician friends, like Gary Louris of the Jayhawks (who produced that disc of re-recordings), as well as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Larkin, and Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek.
“I wanted to re-record those because I’ve traveled so many miles with them, and some of them I had recorded in more ‘produced’ fashion”—with layers of instrumentation—“and then after performing them so many times, I found that the more stripped-down acoustic versions were more popular.”
As an example, Williams cites the song, “What Do You Hear in These Sounds?” “That was heavily produced, with an extra layer of production because it was one of those that was designed to be radio singles. So it ended up being a pop song about seeing a therapist—which is an intimate topic, and the narrator is alone as she experiences her revelations, so plays better as just one person, singing it alone, with minimal acoustic backing.”
Plus, like many middle-aged singers, Williams found that her voice had changed. “My range has lowered, and my voice is more ‘traveled,’ so I sing a lot of these songs differently now, compared to how they sounded on the original studio recordings.”
One example of that is another older song, “When I Was a Boy.” Williams recalls doing a phone interview with an Irish radio station, and the station played the song. “I hadn’t heard that studio version in about three years, and to my ear, my voice sounded so chirpy—I actually thought there was something wrong with the recording, like it was sped up or something. So I really wanted to re-record that one.”
Williams notes that she was primarily a solo performer for the first 14 years of her career, “but I would, and still do, go out with a band for an album release or for the summer festival season.” But she mostly performs with just her on acoustic guitar plus a keyboard player.
Williams says that her motivation as an artist is to "experience meaning without fooling myself.”
“When I was a teenager, my dad helped me write my papers,” she elaborates. "He was an editor, and he would say, ‘What do you want to say?’ And I would tell him I wanted to do the assignment—five pages worth of something. And he said, ‘No, I’m only interested in you knowing what you want to say, even if it ‘s only two pages. I don’t care what grade you get.’ So I would get annoyed, throw my pencil across the room, and he would wait until I picked it up, and he’d ask me again, ‘What do you really want to say?’
“That was a great gift that he gave me.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. This is his fourth interview with Dar Williams since 2007. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.