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The Beauty of Dar

Folk Singer Dar Williams Discusses Her Life, Her Loves, and Her Latest CD

By Keith J. Winstein

News and Features Director

Dar Williams’ latest CD, The Beauty of the Rain, is a 37-minute pearl of catchy and somber songs that Williams is now playing on tour across the United States. The album has sold 72,000 copies since its release in February, according to SoundScan, already more than the 52,000 for Out There Live, her previous CD released in 2001. The Tech recently caught up with Williams -- who travels under a pseudonym even when staying in an Indianapolis hotel -- for a telephone interview.

The Tech: What process do you take writing your songs? Do they just pop out?

Dar Williams: Nope. Patience is not my virtue anywhere but songwriting. A lot of times if I try to force a song, try and sit down and tell myself I need to be writing, I’ll just crumple up the whole page the next day. I mean the whole thing.

I walked outside last night. There was this lightning that was just sort of passing from crowd to crowd. It seemed sort of like something you would hear about in Buddhism. It reminded me of passion at certain points in your life. That’s the kind of thing, find yourself waiting for the metaphor to really assert itself, and you write these things down and sort of talk them away, but generally when you write a song you mix sitting down with your guitar and sort of thinking about it or find yourself sort of steeped in it conceptually or giving into a sort of serendipity.

TT: This is the MIT newspaper, so here’s an MIT question: The standard deviation on the lengths of your songs is down from 51 seconds, on Out There Live, to just 37 seconds on this release. The average length is down from 4:10 to 3:25. And the whole CD is only 37 minutes, versus 71 minutes on Out There. So the question is ...

Williams: (laughs) I’m becoming a pop song writer! Well, no. I think economy was something I was pushing for. I don’t know if I just happened upon too many reviews that say I was all words in my songs, or if I heard pop songs that I liked and wanted to try to say more with words than they did or if it seemed like an exercise for my brain.

When you get older, you want to say more with less because time is dear and important, and you don’t have to say everything. So I think that that’s that because it’s interesting.

TT: Some of your critics say Beauty of the Rain is too abstract, too Yoko Ono ...

Williams: Well, that’s bullshit. A lot of people have said they [the Beauty songs] were pop because they think these songs are more accessible, so there we are.

So when I talk to journalists under 25, there is this question about whether I’m trying to go pop. And that’s not a question I get from journalists who are over 25. Some day maybe I’ll write an article about you.

It’s true, the music needs to have a certain purity of intention. The question of whether the artist is selling out is really a very important question. I think that a lot of younger listeners, people to whom music is very important and so the the writer is very important, have been sort of poised since my second album with that fear. There is this kind of contract with teenagers that high school is a safe time, and their sense of betrayal is really acute.

TT: At your concert, I met several of your diehard fans, and some of them were shocked to learn you were married and weren’t gay yourself. How do you feel about having your songs become almost anthems for young lesbianism?

Williams: That’s a complicated question. Some of the strongest feminist inspirations for me have been lesbian writers and lesbian speakers and lesbian friends. So that’s one thing.

Number two, I didn’t want to cash in on breeder status: “Don’t worry, it’s safe, you can like me, men or homosexual women,” because so much of the music industry is predicated on the male gaze of the camera: “Are you the doe in the headlights, are you the bad girl, are you the good girl, are you the virgin.” I wanted to be self-identified, I wanted to jump through that loophole, and I also wanted to be equal-opportunity in terms of who I reached in terms of my lyrics. Therefore I was not clear about my own sexuality, therefore I was pretty gender-neutral in my songs, and I was as inclusive as possible in terms of who I talked about on-stage.

Three, I did have a number of boyfriends, and I was very public with them at festivals, and there’s a lot of lesbian leadership in the audience, in terms of people who write in on the computer list, the Dar list [].

We never sat down and discussed it, but there was this sort of tacit idea that in the 80s, so much of the gay and lesbian movement was about visibility and how you identified yourself, while the 90s were more about allies and transcendence, and whether this person is a lesbian or a lesbian ally, can we kind of all be on the same boat in terms of seeing this as a really important social movement to grow. And I was helping to grow it and make the “are you/are you not?” question less important. And that could have been because we were all tackling the issue of: I was a big ally but I was not a lesbian.

This is my personal opinion, but I think I would have sounded kind of prissy saying, “Okay, I’m straight, but I love you girls.” It seemed like it would be too tokenizing of lesbians. I think ambiguity put me more into that cool blur between the gay movement and the allies, made it a more fluid connection between the two.

And then it just got to a point where I just couldn’t find a date. So I had to come out or else I could never find a date.

TT: More than most singers, your fame has been built on the Internet, but you must have sort of mixed feelings about fans sharing their love of your music by illegally trading copies of your recordings, or your lyrics, or guitar tablatures. How do you feel about that?

Williams: Well, I’m off the beaten track, but I’ll tell you, the better known you are, the more of a bummer it is. And the better known you are, usually the more people do it to you. If you’re playing for 30 people, and they know that your career is where you need to sell three CDs in order to have enough gas money to get to your next gig, that audience is aware of that.

If you’re basically an artist who is known and loved for their entertainment value and you’re associated with a major label, there’s a sort of “Who would notice?” mentality, and it is sort of like peeing at McDonald’s. You sort of think, “They put all these golden arches around the landscape, they owe me one.”

I love hearing about people putting songs on mix tapes, and I love hearing about people who heard about me in one way or another. I used to tape stuff off of my Dad’s record collection as a kid, and I remember my handwriting on those tapes.

But I think that’s how I feel about kids. I did a photo shoot recently with somebody who is an affluent grown person who works with musicians and showed me his collection of burned CDs and asked me what I wanted to listen to, and I didn’t dig it. It gave me a chill, that there was absolutely no ethic around downloading those things.

I think kids sharing, I think mix-tape sharing, that makes me very happy. That big picture, about people being moved, it’s like how you connect to music is the footprint in the sand. You are able to be imprinted in a very special way to the world when you listen to music.

There is a line that gets crossed sometimes that does give me sort of a spook. I like the ethic of people buying the whole thing. Instead of spending a dollar on that CD and getting it from your friend, don’t you want the lyrics and the liner notes and who I said thanks to?

I don’t care if anyone wants to get my guitar tabs [on the Internet] because I only have one songbook anyway.

TT: I took the liberty of e-mailing the Dar-list [her diehard fans] and asking them what questions they had for you.

Williams: Uh oh.

TT: So number one, they want to know if you’re planning on having children.

Williams: Tell them that this [The Beauty of the Rain] is the only child I’m focused on right now. Getting this record into the world. It’s very important to me to do this tour. It’s fabulous but stressful, kind of like having a child. Some day I would love to have kids.

TT: Number two, what books are you reading these days?

Williams: They’ll be very disappointed; I’m reading mystery novels by Laurie King. It just really helps my brain to read mystery books, so on tour that’s what I’ve been reading.

TT: And number three, they want to know how that song about your husband is going.

Williams: (laughs) Slowly but surely. Oh no! It’s going to go more slowly now that I know they’re waiting for it.