I remember the first time I heard Dar Williams. It was 1996 and my new girlfriend, in a fit of recently discovered sisterhood, made me a shitload of mix tapes of different feminist folk singers, one of which was a copy of Mortal City, Williams’ second album. Damn did I listen to that rickety tape over and over again, but it wasn’t until 1997 (and another new girlfriend later) that I could get past song number three on that album.
Williams’ songs are intense. At least in Mortal City, which is arguably her most heralded album, the charm of her lyrics and the emotion present in her voice will get you to do things like rewind an old audio cassette repeatedly to indulge (dysfunctionally, perhaps) in the feelings of loss and nostalgia fueling those now-classic ballads, “February” and “Iowa”. To my surprise, the rest of that album turned out to be just as engaging as the first few songs, largely because of Williams’ knack for superior storytelling of the commonplace.
Since those college days of unshaven legs and pro-choice buttons on backpacks, Williams has risen from being a humble coffeehouse folksinger to an accomplished singer-songwriter with six albums under her belt and a recent cover shot on Vanity Fair magazine with Beth Orton, both tagged as, “The New Folkies.” Her cover of R.E.M.‘s “Fall on Me” has received significant radio play, and her most recent album, The Beauty of the Rain, is brimming with talented musicians, including Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, and John Popper from Blues Traveler.
This season marks yet another new chapter for Williams’ musical resume: she has just kicked off a two-month tour with three other female singer-songwriter greats: Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, and Mary Chapin-Carpenter. But the real clincher is that this tour will feature all the performers on stage together, giving the audience a rare chance to watch established musicians interacting and harmonizing on each other’s songs. When I asked Williams how the idea for the communal tour came together, she said the grouping just seemed to form itself.
“The only stuff that ever really works comes together pretty naturally,” she said. “This was not done with a shoe horn.” Indeed, it does seem an organic coming together of sorts considering the long-standing friendship between Colvin and Chapin-Carpenter and, thanks to there being “kind of a Nashville-New York well-beaten path,” Williams and Colvin share the same manager, as do Chapin-Carpenter and Griffin with each other.
While the tour was not intended to be women-only, Williams is not complaining. Reflecting on past performances with Nancy Griffith and the Indigo Girls, she describes women artists as “so easy to work with, in terms of being easy to talk with them, to not talk about music.” Though I hesitated to launch into the “what is your perspective as a female artist” spiel because I didn’t want to sound lame, Williams laughed off my sheepishness and whacked me on the back (over the phone) and welcomed discussion on what it feels like for a female folksinger in today’s flashy music industry.
“It’s a nice advantage being a female artist,” she said. “For a long time, there had been ‘a junior quality’ given to women when they do something. There’s a remedial ring to it. You know what’s nice, that’s really changed.”
Williams said the successes of the savvy Lilith Fair tour and the hairy Michigan Women’s Festival boosted what was largely a “do it yourself” movement among female singer-songwriters into commercial careers for artists like Suzanne Vega or Sarah McLachlan. “Hats off to Lilith!” she said. “Lilith definitely helped me in my career. I was a big fish in a little pond of a folk scene.” While one major plus for lesser-known Lilith Fair artists was that it enabled them to stay with independent labels while drumming up a loyal fan base, Williams said she learned something valuable yet sucky during the tour.
“Radio stations don’t like to play women back-to-back because they think they all sound alike.” She made a comparison between Me’Shell NdegéOcello and Shawn Colvin, who receive little to no radio play, and Don Henley and Tom Petty, who inhabit the radio. Still, she said, when it comes to mainstream bands being overplayed on radio stations, “It doesn’t affect my career enough to bitch about it. You hear the innovations and you hear the copies.”
It might be frustrating to see the high level of visibility given to crappy bands, but as far as Williams is concerned, slow and steady wins the race, and Williams is comfortable in her tortoise shell. “With those bands, kids download one song. I am more successful in the long run,” she said. “It’s all good for me.” During a brief period of intense number-crunching related to sales of her albums, Williams realized how doing so can ” get very addictive and get bad quickly” and finally decided it wasn’t worth worrying about. “Ever since. I have been really able to accept what has happened and not happened with my career.”
So rest assured, Williams will likely not sell out to become the next Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake. But that doesn’t mean she can’t admire pop culture icons for indulging in outlandish publicity stunts. She giggled about the recent onstage kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears and compared it to a choreographed dance. “When you go to see a dance concert, you think, ‘Brilliant! Riveting! Transcendent,’” she said. “In the choreography of marketing, you can get an incredible, resonant, interesting image, like a new kind of stripe on a dress on a runway. That kiss did exactly what it was supposed to do.”
But it sounds like the marketing choreography for Justin Timberlake caught Williams’ eye. “He’s looking pretty hot, but I’m happily married. Don’t you think he looks good?”