Q&A: Dar Williams Talks About Tunes Before Labyrinth Cafe Show Saturday

The early recordings of singer-songwriter Dar Williams transport the listener to a New England coffeehouse -- the setting in which her songs came to life in the early '90s. The topical narratives' insights make every word essential. Over the course of Williams' career since then, a flower garden has grown where there was first just rich soil. More and more with each album, her sound has grown lush with accompaniment. As her songs have become less demanding and more accessible, they have also become easier to disregard as background pop music.

On her forthcoming release, Many Great Companions, due out this month, Williams sheds the decor and revisits many of her greatest songs acoustically with special guests including Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In the live setting as well, Williams stays mostly true to her folk roots, typically playing small venues and folk festivals and keeping the accompaniment to a minimum. An exception was her recent orchestral concert with the IBIS Chamber Music Society in Lexington, Massachusetts. South Florida fans can expect the more stripped-down version when Williams plays the intimate Labyrinth Cafe.

Recently, County Grind had the chance to chat with Williams about revisiting the tunes, her feelings on accompaniment, and her upcoming tour. 

New Times: What inspired you to revisit all the old songs?

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Dar Williams: They've gone a lot of miles at this point, and I felt like they sound different if not better than the old versions. Some of them I recorded almost 20 years ago, so it just seemed worth it to go back. I've also gone a lot of miles, and I've gotten a lot of feedback about them from audiences, fans, and journalists. So it's sort of like the songs have had a certain life too. I've changed, and they've changed a little bit.

On the records, many of these songs are rich with accompaniment. What is the value to revisiting them in a stripped-down way?

I'm not reengaging genre issues. It was more of a writer's choice than a genre choice. It was interesting to just go back and hear the words and the melodies without any accompaniment to see how they held up and to see how the elements hold together -- the melody, the voice, the lyrics -- and to allow the songs to sort of live without the accompaniment. I'm glad to have both though, actually. I'm glad to have both the more-produced and then the stripped-down versions out there. I think they're different, and they will live differently on a road trip or when you're in your kitchen making dinner at a certain time of day and you're remembering things. Different times of your day or different times of your life, you want something that's more produced, and sometimes you want something that's more stripped-down. Some people prefer music to be more built up in that way and to have a fuller environment, and some people are really in it for the lyrics, and they really want to sit with it with no extra accompaniment. So I think that both of them can be valuable to the same person depending on where they're at.

Are you envisioning the arrangements and accompaniment when you're writing? Is the accompaniment your vision, or does it come later form outside contributors?

You know, it's really the song. At the end of the day, the song takes on a life of its own. I've also learned that whatever your ideas are, they have to be pretty transparent in terms of allowing other things to happen once you're in the studio, because only the sound itself will answer the question of what the song needs.

Every once in a while, you'll here something out of the corner of your ear, and you'll say "How about this?" and it's nice just to try things on and see if it fits or not. But I'll have a lot of ideas that won't be a fit once I get in the studio, and other people, the same. Then you do something and you put it together and it just feels right. And then you walk away, and you say "I could have done it ten other ways," of course. Because there are an infinite number of instruments and players. I joke sometimes when people say "Why did you do that?" I say "Because this musician had cereal instead of a bagel for breakfast. And that musician was stuck on a plane, so we got the friend he recommended while he was grounded on the tarmac in another state." So you open yourself up to chance operations, and you accept that what happens is what happens, and also you listen to the song and say, "That song is ambient, and we weren't supposed to have a banjo on it." So there's the magic of it, there's the happenstance, and there's what a song wants, and somewhere in there, I'll have a good idea and it will work. But I'm always prepared to learn differently in the studio.

It seems, then, that the important thing would just be that you're working with people that you feel comfortable with. You have the right people in place, and then you just allow it to take whatever shape that it will.

Yeah. The best album for me was The Beauty of the Rain, and that was one where I sat back and really let everyone else make decisions. Also, we invited in amazing people. You don't tell studio musicians what to do. You just have a lot of takes and you take the one you want. So we weren't going to tell Bela Fleck how to do it.

I remember reading a Buddhism book when I was in college about huge pastures with very small fence posts. Very little to establish what the parameters are. That seems to work with the studio. A little bit of feedback is fine. A gentle hand guiding the process. I would say that I like most of the people who have walked into the studio, and over 50 percent I actually love. I just have a tremendous amount of affection and warmth towards them. They make me laugh; they're very wonderful people. And maybe that's just who musicians are, but it's really wonderful to not just walk into this thing where I'm nodding my head and saying "I like what's going on" but to say, "You know, I love being here right now. I love what's happening right now. I love it when we're playing, and I love it when we're not playing." And I don't think that I'm alone in that. It's just [that] a really good situation will create a whole that's much greater than the sum of its parts and lifts the roof right off the room. I love that feeling, and I have it very often in the studio.

Ultimately would you say that's what ends up on record?

Yeah. It's rarely just good. It's either kind of not working, or it's great.

What Buddhist text was that?

It was "Zen Mind, Beginners Mind."

When you first started adding accompaniment, did you have any reservations about that? Was there any ever hang-up over whether you wanted to keep it simple and acoustic or go with the more lush sound?

No. Steve [Miller], the producer [on Mortal City, the second album, and End of the Summer, the third album] said, "If you sat down on your bed and wrote these songs, why would you want to put a bunch of production around them?" And I was the one who said, "Because it's great! It's great to get in your car and turn on an album that's got all these great sounds and ideas -- something that really rocks. And he said, "No, I really want it to hold us back." And so on some songs like "Iowa" or "Pompeii" or "February," there is very little stuff. Even with the songs with drums, he really pulled it back and did not want extra stuff. He was not a big fan of harmony. His thing was to be sparse. Honesty Room [the first album] had even more production, and that was one that I produced.

Then on the next three, I worked with Stewart [Lerman]. We were in New York City, and it felt like family. We kept adding on more stuff because there were all these talented people around. So it wasn't really an evolution of deciding on more and more production; it was personalities and time and place. I never heard my albums as being one more produced than the other. Except for Mortal City. So it wasn't sitting down and saying, "I need to do this with my career, or I need to do this with my music, or this is the plan." It's never quite as charted or career-tied as I think people have assumed in the past.

There is a retrospective vibe to this album and to this tour. In a blog you put up, you called on fans to go ahead and make some obscure requests. Have you gotten a lot of that? That sounds like it could be fun.

Tonight's my first gig since I put that up there. We adopted a little girl. I have a daughter that's 18 months, and every night when I put her to bed, I pull up the lyrics to one song or another. Then I have to make sure I know all the guitar parts. So hopefully it'll work out. I really have been reviewing stuff. And I'd say that really only three or four songs I've said "Wow. I was younger then. This is not a song I would have written now. And even those had meaning at the time. So they hold up as a younger person's perspective. Most of them I'm happy to go back and revisit. So I feel prepared to get the weird requests.

Do you feel any discomfort playing those songs which you wrote when you were in a very different place? Or is it a feeling that you can channel and feel comfortable delivering?

If I feel a discomfort, it's a good kind of discomfort for sure. It's good to go back and revisit them on their terms. And they stood up at the time, so obviously there will be someone for whom they'll stand up now [laughs]. And that's enough for me. There are songs that I cover that have real clinker lyrics that I would not have written, but you sing them on their own terms, and you love them for that vision that's different than your own. So I guess it's like I'm covering my own songs.

In the spirit of this being a reflective moment for you, is there going to be a bit of storytelling and background about some of the songs during the shows?

I think so. It's funny, I definitely speak between songs. There is part of me that's trying to do a little less of that. And also, with something like this I have to be very careful. There will be people for whom it'll be interesting to go back and eliminate something that was going on when I was writing it that even I did not know was important. But you don't want it to get too amorphous. You don't want to bog things down. Florida, you know lots about marshes and bogs. You don't want that to be your concert environment. You want things to zip along so that you can really get to the songs. But fall is a remembering season. And going back and relearning and rerecording these songs is a remembering time. I've been a lot of miles, and I've written a lot of lyrics, and I've really put myself into them, and I feel that when I perform them. They're important to me. So I will certainly be in that spirit of the best kind of time travel, and that's a really lucky part of my job. I get to have really great flashbacks on a stage: remembering where I was, the last time I was here, who I saw, and all of the adventures I've been through. But at the same time, I've learned. Sometimes when I'm too excited, my prayer before a show is not to get pumped up but to chill out and let things run and float the way they're supposed to.

Dar Williams, with Raffa and Rainer. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 2, at Labyrinth Cafe at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale, 3970 NW 21st Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20. Call 954-478-8637, or click here.


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