'Promised Land' reflects Williams' transformation
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
In the 14 years since her recording debut, Dar Williams has continued to grow. While early songs, like "The Christians And The Pagans" and "When I Was A Boy" elevated her to the upper echelon of contemporary folk music, the former Boston and Northampton resident takes a step forward with her eighth album, "Promised Land."
"I had a new producer," Williams said, who performs at Great Barrington's Mahaiwe Theater on Oct. 3, from her home in Cold Spring, N.Y., "so whatever growth was happening in my life came out through a different filter. There were so many new things."
With Brad Wood, who previously worked with Liz Phair and Pete Yorn, overseeing the production, Williams framed her songs to extremely sympathetic accompaniment.
"The musicians that [Wood] chose were well versed in rock," she said, "but, they were sensitive to the lyrics. The drummer [Travis McNabb of Better Than Ezra] is a hard hitter but he's from New Orleans so there's a swing to what he does."
In addition to a new producer, Williams began this year with new management and a new booking agent. "It felt like a lot had changed," she recalled. "Some of the songs [on "Promised Land"] are what I call my 'business breakup' songs. Some of the quick turns of change came from my business life more than my personal life. The content of the songs reflected that."
The most striking tune on the album, "Buzzer," was written about the Milgram experiments at Yale University in the 1960s. "It came out of a dream," Williams said. "A piece of the melody came out as an aria. Shawn Colvin was singing it in an opera. In my dream, I remember thinking, 'Why does Shawn always get the good songs?'"
The message of the song is revealed in the last line that Williams wrote: "When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game.'"
"That's what the song is about," she explained. "It's about a person who does something wrong, knows that it's wrong while they're doing it and their life is transformed as they understand that nature of obedience is something that they have to question every day of their life."
"Buzzer" tells the tragic tale of an event that happened more than four decades ago, but many of Williams' tunes reflect a more autobiographical tone. "I'm interested in a lot of things," she said, "and I try to write about them honestly. It requires a little spurt of courage. It's a little scary. But, it helps to give a song some personal nuance."
In addition to showcasing Williams' finely tuned songwriting, "Promised Land" spotlights her interpretative talents with two cover tunes -- "Troubled Times," by power pop-rock band Fountains of Wayne and "Midnight Radio" from the Wood-produced soundtrack of the musical and film, "Hedwig And The Angry Inch."
"["Troubled Times"] is very deceptive," Williams said. "It says a lot with a little. You're defining this person whose comfort zone seems to be defined by a single, comfortable, chair. Yet, the chorus alludes to an epic jump that he seems to be able to make in terms of the relationship coming through and everything being okay and having this happy ending. I just loved that."
"Midnight Radio" was composed by Stephen Trask, a friend from Williams' days at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., where she studied theater and religion. "He made us listen to music with a kind of reverence," she said, "whether it was the Talking Heads or Tammy Wynette. It calls out to the people who feel like freaks but are joined by music. As a teenager, I thought that, when you turned 23, you forgot what it was like to be a teenager. The truth is you don't. The song is true."
Perhaps the biggest change in Williams' life, over the past four years, was the birth of Stephen Gray Robinson, her first son with husband Michael Robinson. "Being a mother has been good for time management," Williams said, who is also the author of two children's books, "Amalee" and "Lights, Camera, Amalee."
"It's required me to take the time for writing in a very serious way -- lurking around a caf and scrawling things in a notebook or walking around a museum or an empty field for two hours. There's something so decadent about it but the songs don't come unless I give them space," she said.
The youngest of three daughters born to medical writer/editor Grey Williams and Planned Parenthood activist Marian Ferry, Williams (born Dorothy Snowden Williams) wrote her first song at the age of 11. Though she initially planned a career in theater, and spent a year as stage manager of the Opera Company of Boston, music remained her most effective outlet.
In addition to building an extremely loyal following as a soloist, Williams spread her influence as a member of a late-1990s folk supergroup -- Cry, Cry, Cry -- that she shared with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky.
"I listened to a lot of music," she said, "and I took it all in. I wasn't listening with my ego. I was listening with my heart."
An early career boost came from folksinger-songwriter Joan Baez, who covered three of Williams' songs, when she brought her out on tour and shared a duet, "You're Aging Well," on her live album, "Ring Them Bells."
"She was really kind to me," Williams said, "extremely generous about the way that she brought me up on stage and introduced me to people."
Like Baez, Williams has used her musical success as a springboard for social activism. Allergic to dairy products, she compiled and published a directory of natural food stores and restaurants, "The Tofu Tollbooth," in 1994, and co-authored, with Elizabeth Zipern, a second edition four years later. "Local foods and community gardens are my new passion," she said. "They're so effective and they put so much power into people's hands."