Dar Williams, a singer-songwriter from Mount Kisco, New York, has been considered one of the best in her craft for over 30 years. She is incredibly prolific as she has a large amount of studio albums, EPs, compilations and singles under her belt and she is completely consistent as well. Williams is also a constant presence on the folk festival circuit while sharing the stage with artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and Joan Baez to name a few. On October 1, she will perform at the Greenwich Odeum located at 59 Main Street in East Greenwich for what should be a unique musical experience. Wheelzie, who is the artist previously known as Amelia Chalfant, will start the show at 8 p.m.
We had a chat before the festivities about our involvement in theater before establishing a career in music, covering a variety of topics in her songs, a book she just released and what will make the upcoming concert a interactive concert.
Rob Duguay: Before pursuing a career in music, you explored a career in theater majoring in religion at Wesleyan University and working as a stage manager for a year at the Opera Company Of Boston. What first attracted you to this creative medium when you were younger?
Dar Williams: My parents did this thing where they took us to plays, even if they had to get us in the car. In my hometown they did a lot of musicals, which is amazing. I had no idea how good those musicals were, but they did The Music Man and my high school did Godspell so we ended up seeing a lot of shows thinking they were those magical people. I got really interested in playwriting and that was a good start because I’m interested in how we express ourselves. I led a songwriting retreat and someone said something really cool is that they like my non-omniscient storytellers, like how people aren’t omniscient and they try to do their best to communicate and I’m interested in how we make it all tie into the songwriting at the end of the day.
DR: Would you say that the communication aspect played a major role in your transition from acting to being a full-time musician?
DW: I’m kind of a little sociologist, I think our environment determines certain things about us and in Boston theater was mostly pushed out of New York or it was a very tough local scene. The music scene was covered in the papers, well attended and had a lot of buzz, whether it was Throwing Muses doing alternative rock or folk musicians like Patty Larkin or even new operas at the New England Conservatory or jazz. There were radio stations for all of them and open mics and tip jar gigs and opportunities like that, so I kind of dunked myself in the good water. That’s where the action was, that’s where it happened in the music more than in the theater and I missed the singing too. When I worked at the Opera Company Of Boston I realized that I missed it and I highly doubted that I could be an opera singer, but I took singing lessons to see in which direction that would go.
DR: I totally understand that, especially with the environment you were in in Boston. The themes behind your music are quite varied, including religion, adolescence, gender issues, anti-commercialism, misunderstood relationships, loss, humor and geography. How do you include these themes when writing songs? Do they happen quite naturally, do you seek out these themes, or is it a bit of both?
DW: It just comes to mind, I never had a chance to sit down and say I wanted to write a song about something. I call it “the filing cabinet silver key”, we have all kinds of information files in our heads and all kinds of things going on that are really burning questions that deserve to be written down. The silver key has to somehow materialize in my hand, that line of melody or that line of lyrics that opens the right drawer in the filing cabinet and lets me pull out the right files. Otherwise, I’m just all over the map and not interested. The key is also to find the thing that interests me and that holds my attention for the time it takes for the song to really work.
DR: It’s a very interesting process. You have this show coming up at Greenwich Odeum, so being from upstate New York yet familiar with New England, what do you think of playing shows in the area as a whole?
DW: Well, we’re all from the northeast, so there’s a lot of connection between all of these regional towns. I think Providence, Warwick, East Greenwich and other small towns like Fall River are very exciting because it takes them a minute to really make something like the Odeum work. They’re not in the middle of a big city, they don’t have big donors or big corporations to help them stay afloat, so they have to bring a lot of that community energy to be successful. When I come to these theaters, I feel the effort it took and I feel the pride they have in making that effort come to fruition. I will say there are certain places that traditionally have cafes, general stores, town halls and things like that where people know how to tap their energies and create something really amazing. Much of it is in the Northeast and much of it in New England, the region has been a model for other places.
DR: I couldn’t agree with you more on that. It’s been a year since you released your last album I’ll Meet You Here, so have you already started working on new music for your next release or are you just focusing on releasing the new material you already have live ?
DW: In fact, neither. You could say I’m still on tour with my new album but I just released a book on September 6 called How To Write A Song That Matters. We just finished it and I also recorded an audiobook for it, so that was my last job. Ideally, it’s a helpful step-by-step guide to songwriting while paradoxically not being pushy or prescriptive and took some effort trying to be helpful without being nosy and overbearing. I’ve done workshops and signings with gigs and actually one of the things we do to confirm that I’m really focused on songwriting and how that communicates is is that we’re doing on-demand shows for most of this tour, I’m sure so if people want to vote on the setlist, they can go to my website and make a suggestion. If people even have a cover that they recommend, if something really stands out, I’ll do it.