Dar Williams talks with Pollstar about her new album inspired by Greek mythology, which communities in her travels impress her, moments of synchronicity and what musicians like to talk about behind closed doors.
Williams latest album, In The Time Of Gods (Razor & Tie), was produced by Kevin Killen and includes guest appearances by Shawn Colvin and Larry Campbell. Although the songset was inspired by Greek mythology, Williams took tales about the grand ol’ gods sitting on top of Mt. Olympus and applied them to current social issues. It’s an album that challenges the listener while at the same time connects back to stories that have been told and retold throughout the ages.
But tales of Zeus, Hermes and Aphrodite weren’t the only things on Williams mind. She had just finished her first Huffington Post contribution in eight months, and was close to finishing a musical she has written for children. She was also preparing to teach a music course at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and planning to launch a travel diary called “Positive Proximity.”
As if all of that isn’t enough to keep most people running in multiple directions at once, Williams was also preparing for her spring tour. She’s a busy lady, for sure, and a very fascinating person.
Has mythology always been one of your interests?
It always made the most sense. When a person says Bible stories are reflections of our psyches, I would say, to me, they are more reflections of a code of behavior, a map of the super-ego. Because the Greek gods and goddesses are so vulnerable and flawed themselves, the stories of Greek mythology to me are much more sort of the whole enchilada of the human psyche, certainly the Western psyche.
They always kind of made sense to me, whether it was Icarus wanting to drive the chariot of the sun and driving [it] too close to the sun, or Hermes, who is the messenger of the dead and the god of travelers and people who live by their wits. Just that weird combination of things one god had. It always made sense to me. It would seem like a blueprint of the psyche that I loved.
It sounds like an inner journey as you explored Greek Mythology.
I don’t think that things evolve over thousands of years of oral history without having some reflection of something deeper than a story to tell around the fire. My parents read them to us while growing up and now my son listens to Percy Jackson audio books in the car. We keep coming back to those stories.
What are some of your favorite Greek mythology stories?
The ones that were most interesting to me were the ones that translate into grownup stories. Not just things that kids love but actually point to where people are very complicated. How could they have come up with these characters that are so rich and modern to me?
The Top Ten? Any story having to do with Hermes, my favorite god growing up. And I turned out to be a traveler. Anything having to do with Artemus, who was the goddess of the hunt, also more than that. Anything to do with Athena.
One of the first songs I wrote was about Hephaestus who was thrown to the Earth by one of his parents. He had a limp. A limping god is kind of like an antihero figure. He just wanted to work in his workshop all day and create stuff. He was married to the goddess of beauty and she had an incredible disdain for him even though he kept on making beautiful things for her. And she, meanwhile, is having an affair with the god of war.
In the Percy Jackson books, [author] Rick Riordan makes the exact same picture of the god of war, a big flashy bully in a bright red sports car. So wait a minute. I’m looking at this guy who likes to tinker in his basement, who is a genius, gives his wife things that make her more beautiful to other men. She’s philandering with a flashy boy-toy who is a real jerk. That’s a scene I’ve seen before. That’s all you see on TV. That is so much more refined than “I did a good thing, I got rewarded. I did a bad thing, I got punished.” It speaks to sort of these small casts of characters that tend to merge together in our lives. It’s a mirror you can get really engrossed in. The more you look, the more you recognize.
When I was writing about Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, I spoke to a hunter. He spoke with so much depth and intelligence about why he’s a hunter, what it takes to be a good hunter and the stewardship he sees as his role as a hunter. Then I remembered going to Vermont with an ex-boyfriend – this guy coming out with a big thing of ammo in one hand and a big thing of beer in the other. I just thought there was something wrong with the picture. That guy was not what we ever called a ‘hunter” before.
Artemis was spied upon by a hunter during one of her rites and she turned him into a stag who was killed by a hunting party. To me as an adult, I see her as a keeper of the balances of nature as opposed to this cold, aloof virgin goddess. That’s not very biblical either. That stewardship is portrayed very different in the Bible. There’s the sense you’re supposed to have this dominion over things, which means you’re supposed to be a steward. In Greek mythology we’re not stewards because we have dominion. We’re stewards because if we don’t pay attention to this stuff, we’re screwed.
Were you a longtime fan of the Percy Jackson books or did you learn of the series through your kids?
When I was laying out some of the stories for my friends, my friend Molly said, “Do you know there is this series of books called ‘Percy Jackson?’” She took her kids to private school. She had these long drives every day and she would listen to the audio books. She became completely engrossed in them.
It was one of those moments of synchronicity that made me realize that there must be something in the air. It was a simultaneous thing where I was feeling very committed to writing this and there was one who had already done it. It was like joining a Greek mythology club with some cool people.
Do moments of synchronicity happen very often in your life?
Yeah. There was moment in time when I was in college where I was meditating a lot and I was also clinically depressed. Basically, there was very little “me” there and very much everything else – All of the weird stuff in the air. Coincidences happen to me all the time.
There is this one friend. Every time I spoke to her, I would get off of the phone and the number [length of the call] was either 2 minutes and 22 seconds or 22 minutes and 22 seconds or 44 minutes and 44 seconds. It was always the same. So it’s fun to think that there might be some funny clockwork somewhere. More to the point of what may be the collective unconscious; in the early ’90s I went to a Jane Siberry concert in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was so inspired by it. She said she had an album coming out in April.
And every day in April I looked for that album. And every day in May I looked for that album. And then in June I recorded an album and was finishing it up in July. That was my first album, The Honesty Room, and the first track on it was “When I Was A Boy.” Then in August I got a phone call from somebody who said, “Did you know the Jane Siberry album has come out?”
And I said, “How did you know I was looking for this Jane Siberry record? I’ve been looking for it every day since April.” He said, “I didn’t know, but it’s called When I Was A Boy.
I think that’s because in the ’90s we were all looking at gender. What’s a girl? What’s a boy? How do you define yourself? What counts, what matters, who do you sleep with? It was a very playful time, so I think people were just thinking that way.
Now, we have tsunamis, earthquakes and stock markets that cut themselves in half in a day, massive epic failures. Even Rick Santorum seems like something out of fiction to me.
So I think a lot of people are thinking about Greek mythology. I think that people are sort of saying this comes from an epic, ancient set of characters that are of, what we call ‘civilization’ for better or for worse. As opposed to saying Armageddon is coming or the end is near or we’ve sinned or have done terrible things. Great things are happening to terrible bankers and terrible things to very honest farmers. That’s just not fitting right now.
Tucson Benefit Concert, Tucson Convention Center, Ariz.
March 10, 2011
You’ve covered a lot of ground in your travels. Is there anything you take with you from the places you visit?
I take a very strong impression with me. Part of what the town is comes across in the restaurants, the cafes, the streets. It’s not in the hotels but in the environment around the venues and in the audiences. I think in your early 20s you’re not supposed to have a firm opinion about something. You’re supposed to keep your mind open. Yet you have strong opinions despite that. In my 40s it’s kind of the opposite. I’m more than willing to open my mind to things. But I do have a very strong sense of what the future needs to look like in this country, where our strength really is. If you have enough community strength to put on an all-volunteer music series with really eclectic stuff, you have this actual human conduit that helps everybody be more global citizens, that’s the best of civilization. It doesn’t have a corporate sponsor and it very much reflects and builds these really interesting connections that are bipartisan, multigenerational and creative. That’s the thing I draw from the proximity.
I kept looking at one thing, like a town’s relationship to music, to parks, to beauty, to food, education. Actually, where you have strength in one thing, you generally tend to see that strength growing in other things every time you go back.
Not only have I covered a lot of ground, I covered a lot of ground on an annual basis. Denver has a lot of interesting green space and really nice little neighborhoods. One neighborhood has been building its café culture and it’s next to a river that has a pedestrian and bike path on either side. You’d see people walking and talking, you’d see flowers growing. My bet is the next time I go there, there will be a hydration station for your water bottle as opposed to people selling water bottles. And I’ll bet somebody is going to start growing beans and I’ll bet there will be more flowers the next time I’m there. Then I’m going to start to see drop-in Yoga classes and free art classes for kids, maybe some interesting impromptu galleries at cafés that allow local artists to show their stuff.
There are places where I see something take hold and, dollars to donuts, it’s grown the next year. I consider that to be such a great strength to witness, such a cool thing. [It’s] something I always point to when people speak despairingly about this country. I say I see the good growing in certain ways and certain places. And people say, “Yeah, college towns.’ And I say, “No, it’s not that,” because Rockland, Maine, doesn’t have a college. And, frankly, there are college towns that don’t have the formula down at all.
Sometimes it’s the opposite. No one would say New Haven has prospered from Yale’s presence. And Stanford [University] is in Palo Alto, which is a very wealthy town, so you have this opportunity to cross-pollinate. But I think its so competitive and fast-moving that I don’t see something growing.
Whereas in Phoenixville, Pa., when I went there, they had just renovated this theater, they were struggling, they were sort of getting grants and doing things to get going. When I went back there, the café I liked was even groovier. They had something called “Blobfest” because ”The Blob” was partially filmed in the theatre. Every year they have a screening of “The Blob” and it’s a big celebration. Because it’s called Phoenixville, at another time of the year they burn a phoenix made out of wood. They build this beautiful phoenix and then they burn it. It’s so popular that it’s kind of a hazard – fire, parking and stuff.
But I’m watching this town getting greener and groovier. People want to congregate, people want to stay, they want to walk and talk. Did it start with the theatre? That might be part of it. Or did the theatre come out of the way people were starting to walk and talk with each other and the conversations that said, “What about that abandoned old theatre Shouldn’t we do something with it? It’s probably so beautiful on the inside.”
Is every journey a reaffirmation of your hopes?
I’ll say this, I’ve never seen it go in the opposite direction. I’ve never seen a town that’s starting to get a foothold in non-motorized transportation, greening, farm-to-tables … I’ve never seen it slip backwards into less of that. I’ve seen it branching out into more age groups, income groups and creative expressions.
Shawn Colvin and Larry Campbell appear on your new album. Haven’t you worked with both artists before?
Larry had been all over a couple of my albums and I’ve known him ever since. He’s a lovely person. Everybody who knows him loves him. And then he’s got this talent on top of that. So that’s Larry. Shawn I know from touring together.
When artists spend some social time together, is there a lot of name-dropping or talk of “Bob” or “Pete’ or “Levon?” Or is it all kind of subdued?
It’s both. It’s a lot of subdued name-dropping because these are the people you work with. If you were a chef, you would want to talk about the extra-fancy swordfish you wild-caught in the ocean. These people are very interesting and eccentric. So you end up talking about them but it’s always in the spirit of camaraderie and how we’re all getting there.
One of my friends has this great story about gently counseling a big rock star to drink water during the shows and only drink alcohol before and after the show and that maybe he wouldn’t have to throw up on stage so often if he’d follow that simple rule. And we had all sorts of talks about where that artist had discreetly vomited during his set.
So if you have a choice between talking about that and talking about the latest book you’ve read, somehow, as colorful and weird as they are, they are more vivid shades of the colors we know. The follow-up is that this guy still barfs, although at one point he was only drinking water. It turned out they were in this arena in Spain and everybody lifted their hands to clap … and he still lost it.
I hear stories like that all the time and they just crack me up. I just heard about a big record company story where this guy had this massive collection of liqueurs from all over the world and in one night the guests drank all of it. They’d point to orange and say, “There’s orange in my flag, so I’m going to drink that whole orange liqueur.” A great international, crazy blowout. So there’s a lot of name-dropping and a lot of information about people you know.
Are there artists that inspire better stories than other artists? Say, when someone says they have a new “Bob Dylan” story or a good “Willie Nelson” story, you’re all ears?
Yes, those two do. You know Ferron from Canada? She’s very wise. Usually people come away from her with something she said. Somebody asked her, “What has all this fame and fortune been for you?,’ and she answered, “It’s a life.” When I saw her I said that meant a lot to me, and she said, “If you can pay attention to that at this point in your career, you’ll do well.”
“I take a very strong impression with me. Part of what the town is comes across in the restaurants, the cafes, the streets.”
Dar Williams launches her spring tour in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the Soho Restaurant & Music Club April 17. During her first week on the road she will play Los Angeles at Largo April 18; Berkeley, Calif., at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse April 19; Portland, Ore., at Aladdin Theater April 20 and Seattle’s Triple Door April 21. Upcoming stops also include St. Louis, Minneapolis, New York City, Savannah and Cincinnati.
For more information, please visit DarWilliams.com.