It was about 25 years ago that singer Dar Williams started earning notice in the folk industry thanks to three small-release albums and opening for Joan Baez in concert. The folk legend even recorded several of Williams’ songs, and the two women have also had a successful duet in the song, Ring Them Bells.
Over the years, Williams has released nine successful studio albums, including her latest Emerald in 2015.
Williams has been involved in a wide range of different efforts and projects: teaching a course titled “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy” at her alma mater, Wesleyan University; working with children at several summer camps; leading songwriting workshops; and writing a book about the ways she’s seen towns becoming more independent and prosperous over her 20 years of touring.
Williams recently spoke with us about her upcoming performance on Jan. 11 at FTC’s StageOne.
Keith Loria: What can those coming to the show expect this time around?
Dar Williams: I will be joined by Trevor Gordon Hall as my accompanist. I’ve been working on some songs, and I hope to have at least one new song for the night. Also, my book came out in September and I might read a passage from there to let people know what that is all about.
KL: Tell me about your new book, What I’ve Found in a Thousand Towns, and what inspired that.
DW: It was watching nothing less than this whole country try to find its way back to its downtowns and its urban centers for the last 25 years. There are very few examples of cities going backwards since the mid-’90s in terms of people finding ways to dig in, and there was such a strong surge of the return of the downtown that I wanted to figure out how it happened. I wanted to find out how they’ve grown and grown so robustly, and I feel as if I figured it out.
KL: Did writing the book take away time from your music?
DW: It definitely took away time from music. When it got down to really committing and sitting down to write the book, over a period of a year and a half, I gave it all to the book.
KL: Now that the book is done, how far have you gotten with writing new music?
DW: I have about six different fragments in my head right now and I nudge at them separately and then they surface quickly. I have learned not to push the timeline.
KL: What inspires you to write these days?
DW: I go to places that are interesting to me and might catch me off guard. The best scenario for me is to walk around and have your creative windows open so a tree is no longer a tree but a symbol of your youth.
KL: What makes a concert special for you when you’re performing?
DW: There are certain audiences that seem more active than passive, and seem more engaged in what’s going on and you can feel that up on the stage, feel it during the first song. The most wonderful night is when you’re on stage and in tune and you come out and you see them watching and hear them listening.
DW: I would like to do some pieces around what I have learned since releasing the book. It turns out I couldn’t have released it at a better time in terms of wanting to talk about how they feel they are engaging with their towns and cities. I want to write some essays about that. I’m also excited about writing more songs and toggling back and forth. I expect to be in the studio by the end of the year.
KL: In 1996, the album Mortal City really put you on the map and you’ve said that these are the songs that have kept you travelling. What are your memories of crafting the album?
DW: Back then, I was working with coffeehouse volunteers, local radio stations and promoters who were trying very hard, with limited resources, to bring music, poetry and life back into their downtowns. Mortal City, a wistful and upbeat travelogue carried by a hopeful narrative, poetic lyrics, and a sleek full band comprised of friends, was a statement of faith, and now, 20 years later, I say it as a statement of fact.
KL: You have played the StageOne numerous times over your career. What is it about the venue that you enjoy?
DW: It’s very nice when you have a town that would do just fine without a concert venue, but it has one anyway. Fairfield is a lovely little town with a great Main Street, and as someone who just wrote about this, I can point to a lot of things that really work. And to have this great, state-of-the-art little space is wonderful. It’s the perfect size and feel and the community really embraces it.
KL: Twenty years ago, you teamed with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky for the group Cry Cry Cry as a way to pay homage to some of your favorite folk artists. You stopped touring with them in 2000 but last summer reunited. Is this something we can expect to see more of in 2018?
DW: Cry Cry Cry has reunited and it’s been a great homecoming. It’s taken some time to get it right, but it’s been great fun and we’ll be playing some more in 2018.