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Author: Richard Skelly. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
26, 2000. All rights reserved.
Dar Williams, Eyes Open, Singing for Peace
Just five years ago, singer-songwriter Dar Williams
was booking herself around the U.S., playing every dusty coffee house
in every corner of the lower 48. Now Williams is too big an act for
most coffee houses, and her tour stops in 1997 and 1998 included
like McCarter Theater, the Beacon Theater and Town Hall in Manhattan,
and other large concert halls.
Dar Williams and Cheryl Wheeler share the limelight at the Coalition
for Peace Action’s 16th annual Concert for Peace at Nassau
Church on Saturday, January 29, at 8 p.m. At press time, the two top
folk artists had already sold out the house, right up to the balcony.
What qualities separate the 32-year-old Dar Williams from the herd
of singer-songwriters out there in the late 1990s, a group that will
only grow larger in this first decade of this new century?
She writes good songs, for one thing, and has the ability to tell
great, detail-packed stories in three and four-minute time frames.
Add to this mix a pleasant, at-times whispery voice and adequate
skills, and you’ve got all the makings of the next Joni Mitchell.
Williams has three albums: "The Honesty Room," a 1993 release
on the tiny Waterbug label; "Mortal City," a 1996 release
on Razor & Tie Music; and "End of The Summer," a 1997 release
also on Razor & Tie. A lot has happened to Williams in the last five
years, including the chance to share concert hall stages with Joan
Baez, one of her primary influences, as well as the chance to work
with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky in a folk trio they call,
Cry, Cry, Cry.
Another key factor that separates Williams from the common lot of
singer-songwriters is her lack of aloofness. She gets glowing reviews
in the press because she doesn’t take herself too seriously onstage.
She jokes with her audiences. She also gets good press because she
makes time for all her interview requests and stays after shows to
chat with her fans. It’s a hard-learned lesson for some performers,
but many just don’t have the time — for whatever reason —
to sign autographs and talk to fellow folk enthusiasts after their
Asked about the high points of her busy, five-year climb from grungy
bars and basement coffee houses to theater shows, Williams says that
opening for Joan Baez was certainly important. But more often, it’s
one-on-one interaction with fans that leaves a lasting impression.
"Usually, it’s a small thing, it’s that moment when somebody says,
`My teenager locks herself in her room, and I hear your music coming
out.’ Or there’s someone who’s dealing with clinical depression and
she says hearing one of my songs is her basis `for coming back from
"I’m not saying all of this to be a Polyanna," she stresses,
"it’s just true. Working with Joan Baez in 1996 was just a dream.
It was great, and as it was happening I realized how incredible it
But for Williams, the spiritual touching of other people
that goes on through her songs is more important than the co-bills
at fancy venues with Baez.
"It is an honor to work with her and you learn a lot from working
with people that you really admire," she explains, "and I’ve
been able to travel a lot. One of the jokes I make from the stage
is people say how impressed they are that I’ve been to Alaska. But
if you can’t appreciate Connecticut, you’re not gonna appreciate
If your eyes aren’t open to begin with, you’re not gonna be able to
appreciate the big stuff."
Williams was raised in a musical family in Chappaqua, New York, in
Westchester County. Both her parents loved the folk music and
of the 1960s and ’70s. Her father was an editor for an educational
publishing company and her mother volunteered and then worked for
Planned Parenthood before becoming a full-time grandmother recently.
Williams has two sisters, both older than she is. She wrote poetry
as a kid, taking her cues from singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell,
Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Phil Ochs, and Joan Armatrading.
After graduating from Wesleyan College, she moved to western
outside Northampton, where she has been ensconced ever since.
Her career began to blossom after a showcase at the North American
Folk Alliance conference, held in Boston in 1994. Recalling the gigs
she was able to scrounge up in bars and coffee houses in 1992,
says she knew she wanted to pursue the life of a traveling musician.
"I knew then what I would be doing now, but of course the nature
of it is that you can’t know how it will turn out and that’s what
makes it so great."
Recalling those first few professional gigs in 1991 and 1992, Williams
says she remembers how she idolized Cheryl Wheeler. "I loved her
album, `Circles and Arrows.’ I had this fantasy that someday I could
sing with her on stage," she explains, "I recall thinking,
`God, wouldn’t that just be the ultimate?’"
Three years ago, Wheeler and Williams appeared together on a
show at the Bottom Line nightclub in lower Manhattan.
"I requested a song for Cheryl to sing and she was in a really
sad mood. It was before the second show and I knew she was in a really
sad mood, and I said, `God, why did I request this song? She should
sing whatever she wants.’ So I sang with her, and it was sort of a
way of distracting her. I added this harmony on it and she turned
to me after she finished, and said, `Hey, that was great.’ And this
is very much in the same vein as fans who tell me how a song on one
of my albums touched them," she explains.
"I realized, I made her feel less depressed. Later on, I also
realized I had sung on stage with Cheryl Wheeler," she says.
Williams says that at some gigs in 1991 and 1992 in
New England there were six people at a bar to see her perform. How
did she find inspiration with so few people?
"Inevitably, almost 100 percent of the time, the gig turned out
to be better than I expected," she recalls, "so that by the
end of the evening, people were offering me beer and cigarets. There
would always be some funny story or some funny thing a person would
do that was really kind or perceptive. I learned to build low
and that was good!"
Everything began to change rapidly for Williams in 1994, after her
record "The Honesty Room" was released. Through 1994, 1995,
1996, and 1997, she was performing upwards of 150 shows a year,
internationally and doing every interview she was asked to do on radio
and for the print media.
Not surprisingly, some of the songs that appear on Williams’ latter
two albums for Razor & Tie Music were composed on the road. Only
has she scaled back her performance schedule. In 1998, she performed
120 shows; in 1999, she did 100 shows.
"Last year, for the first time, I was able to spend a lot more
time at home," she says, "and the only thing I learned on
the road is that it just doesn’t end. Also, while you’re on the road,
you can become sort of dead to the world. You can become so numb that
you treat it like a job you hate. It became important to me to find
ways to keep my mind open and to get past the stuff that upset me
— and to stay open to inspiration for songs."
Williams recalls the sense of awe she felt the first time she saw
Mount Shasta in California’s Cascade mountains.
"Every time I saw it, you would think you would just write a song
right there, it’s such an incredible sight," she says. "You’d
think that something would just come spilling out of you. Sometimes
it did and sometimes it didn’t. Cities tend to remind me of people
and people tend to remind me of cities. If a person reminds you of
Detroit, you’ll have a good metaphor to work with."
But after spending more of 1999 at home than on the road, Williams
realized being home was just as complex in a lot of ways. Fortunately,
for fans, one thing that’s not all that complex for Williams any
is the business of performing. She’s become a master at pacing her
sets, throwing in humorous anecdotes from her travels, and she has
learned from her experiences on the road with veterans like Shindell
"The idea that the spirit will move you from song to song is a
little more trust than we should really put in the universe on
she says, laughing.
"It’s important to bring new ideas and thoughts into your
she explains. "It’s great if someone in the audience comes up
with a suggestion, or if something weird happens. It’s good not to
be so stuck on your set list that you can’t respond when these weird
and special things happen."
— Richard J. Skelly
Peace Action , Nassau Presbyterian Church, Nassau Street,
The 16th annual concert features Dar Williams and Cheryl Wheeler.
Concert $15 to $35; patrons $60 & $100. Saturday, January 29, 8
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