You Will Ride With Me Tonight: An Interview with Dar Williams
Dar Williams' new album is about Greek mythology, but not in a literal sense: loose, interpretive, fun, and smart, Williams tells PopMatters all about the creation of her dynamic new record ...
"I was trying to figure out what would tip the hand that there are lots of allusions to Greek mythology without seeming like I was going backwards," Dar Williams says, speaking of the title of her latest album, In the Time of Gods. This, Williams' ninth studio album, finds her tangling with ancient archetypes as she battles the hubris she fears has been setting in as she ages.
"I think present times, the embroilments, the natural catastrophes, the egos, the power clashes, sounds more like Greek mythology than Biblical times, [where] we're all ramping up to this big Armageddon. I think it's just a maternal clash with some more lightning and thunder and more tempestuousness, but it is filled with strength and frailties of being human and being in the stride of one's power. And, also, because I'm in my 40s, I'm also in my stride of being susceptible to hubris and being able to really connect things and really how things synergize. I can be a power player in the world that I want to be a power player in, which is helping people get more access to renewable energy and things like that. So it's not a vertical ladder of power that I've been trying to climb. I've been trying to shake the ladder and make it more horizontal, so I hope that gives me less distance to fall. I'm friends with people who know how to get things done. And that's new and that's very much of the forties."
While many other female musicians would rather avoid the topic of aging, Williams is proud of the wisdom that has come with her maturity and sees it as being an invaluable counterpart to a collective struggle: "The climb is epic as we try to get to more equilibrium, more harmony. There's no doubt about it. There's an ability to solve problems and to know with a lot more experience that you can find the solution. The combination of knowing how hard that is and of knowing that it will take cleverness, as opposed to just saying 'I'm sure when I tell the world this great idea I had, it will make so much sense, that everyone will start singing at once like a perfect choir.' It's not the idea; it's how you find power cords and how you find extension cords and the small connection, as opposed to the big connection. I'm much more aware of that stuff now in my 40s."
When I bring up a concept that seems to run through the record, that of permanence (as on the single, "I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything"), this idea is new to Williams herself.
"That's brilliant! That's so funny. Because I'm not a person who likes that expression 'the only thing that doesn't change is change.' I just feel this kind of shifting sands under my feet. I said in one of my albums 'I don't like change but I am very good at it.' I've proven that everything can turn to shit and I can deal with it. So what's the constant, what is the permanent thing that allows me to deal? What's great about the gods is that they represent through-lines, and that is a permanent thing.
"And the funny thing is [on] 'I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything', I based it on Hera, the goddess of marriage, so I assumed she was the goddess of family. But she hates children, so I kind of made up my own goddess, my own sort of warrior goddess of children. But it's true in the Native American totem animals, there are all sorts of animals, like the whale and the spider, that embody the record of time. That's what she is. She says 'When you create a generation of orphans, those orphans become the Taliban in 20 years. And like the narrator says 'You drink the smoke and ride the noise' and be caught up in the fray of this life-and-death battle, but you've left your children behind, unless you sit them down, read to them, love them, civilize them, school them, and parent them. There's this sense that whatever we do in time, there are philosophies that record the time, that keep the time, that holds that, and holds us to that. 'Storm King' is like a big old mountain, and it also embodies a movement and a history here on many levels here in the Hudson Valley."
On the other hand, songs like "I Will Free Myself" hold very different messages and serves as cautionary tales against too much ego and too many vices: "I think that one is just about a big old alcoholic. Dionysus is the god of wine, and the Dionsyian rites are things where you get yourself chemically altered, and there's revelations that come from that, and it's literally translated as freeing oneself. I had this awesome conversation with a friend's dad once when I was in college. I got drunk once when I was young, and I learned something. I always thought that I thought too slowly, that there was something wrong with me. And the first time I got drunk, I realized I actually thought too quickly and slowing down would help me. And that lesson helped me a lot in school. Of course, I puked my brains out and my friend's dad said, 'I got stoned once and I learned the importance of eye contact.'
"But we learned the things by doing it once; we're not discussing making a habit of them. If you drink a half-bottle of wine a night and you tell yourself that wine is good for your heart, it's that kind of thinking, combined with -- this is in the song -- 'this is how I'll free myself' -- combined with that idea that experience is a commodity you can buy and ingest, the ancient cognac or the liqueur that's made with the finest cherries gathered by Andalusian virgins. And somehow by ingesting these things, you'll ingest the purity as well as the product.
"And that's a big pitfall in America, I think, that you can buy meaning and gravitas. I don't fall for that one. I do do the one where I'll drink several glasses of wine and tell myself it's good for my heart; I do do that one. But, at the end of the day, there's a profound loneliness, and we're trying to get back something that is quite beautiful -- an innocence -- a youth. It's gonna be a real pain in the ass when I'm having a hard time getting up steps, but the interesting thing I learn as I get older, is that there may be a decline in physical vitality, but there's no decline in spiritual vitality. So if I'm drinking wine instead of meditating, I'll miss out on something that I won't be able to get back. I think that's the paradox of the song -- 'this is how I'll free myself" but the person feels imprisoned by the very philosophy of that.
Another god that makes his way into Williams' pantheon is Hermes, the messenger god, who narrates "You Will Ride With Me Tonight". Says Williams, "That was the first song I started to write because that was the thing that inspired the album. I was in Canada. I saw this beautiful kind of rain, just after the rain, highway, everything was very silvery. And I just imagined Hermes, the messenger of the dead, getting this call in modern speak from a woman who's just prepared to throw in the towel.
"So he picks her up on his motorcycle in my mind, and he says, 'I love worldly people. I love travelers. I love people who have some tread on them. And that's you. And who are you to have made this call? I don't experience you as done. I think that it's the Furies [sic—they are actually referred to as the Fates] that measure out your life on a string, and when your life is done, they cut the string. I think about that all the time. You know, like, am I going to be in a car accident and die? Time to cut the string! I could have a nice, long piece of string, but, you know, today's the day to cut the string.
"But he's [Hermes] saying, 'they have that power. You don't have that power. I'm not going to take you to death at this point. I'm going to seduce you instead.' I heard my husband telling somebody the story, and he was saying it was based on a Greek myth, and I had to jump in and say 'It's not based on a Greek myth! I made it up! Woo hoo! Fooled them!' It's pretty much based on that archetype. This isn't a guy who goes by the idea that finding a rosy young virgin is a real catch. This is a guy who likes people who have been around and appreciates that, so that's why I created that story around him."
Like Hermes in Williams' vision, Williams herself appreciates people who carry experience with them. Take, for example, the recording of In the Time of Gods, which Williams describes as "quick, exciting, fun, and a little nerve-wracking." She elaborates: " I was heading out on the road with Joan Osborne so we had to finish up, and Kevin was heading back into the studio, and we really understood our time frame. But, again, it was age and wisdom to the rescue. We brought everybody in and said 'can you hit your marks?' so there was no noodling and no self-indulgence and no giant, catered meals where you have to take a big siesta. People came in, hit their marks, had some lunch, hit their marks again. And it was still filled with lovely people and conversations and great dinners and talk about the music. It was extremely fun. But there's something great about saying, 'I'm hearing 30% less. That sounds a little cowboyish. I want to make it a little more spare.' And to hum a few bars, a person goes back in the iso[lation] booth and knocks it out of the park. These musicians are, like, 50. These are people that are at the top of their game."
Once again, experience comes to the rescue.