The singer and the song

Dar Williams. Photograph by Tom Moore.
Dar Williams. Photograph by Tom Moore.

Written by Gregg Shapiro

Her 1993 debut album, “The Honesty Room,” was a folkie delight and included the irresistible song “The Babysitter’s Here.” Just a few years later, Williams delivered the near-perfect “Mortal City” (1996), followed by the fantastic “End of Summer” (1997). To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the release of “Mortal City,” Williams is giving a series of concerts in which she performs the album live in its entirety (along with other songs). When WAG caught up with Williams prior to her Oct. 6 gig at The Ridgefield Playhouse, she talked about her singular songwriting voice, women’s — and men’s — individual voices and how solitude refuels her for life on the road:

From the opening song, “As Cool as I Am,” and its resonant chorus, “I will not be afraid of women,” “Mortal City” sounds like an attempt to put some distance between the Dar of that album and the Dar of “The Honesty Room.” Does that sound like a fair reading?

“Yes and no. There was a lot of distance between the Dar of  ‘The Honesty Room’ and the Dar of ‘Mortal City,’ so there was no attempt. What happened on ‘As Cool as I Am’ was, you know how in the ’90s, ‘the personal is political, the political is personal’? A lot of the songs are pretty unmasked. If you listen to ‘As Cool as I Am,’ it’s not all that different from what you were hearing from Ani DiFranco and some of the other indie women artists of the time. It was still in that context, still seen as folk music.”

You didn’t (and never really have) abandoned your acoustic folk sensibility, as “Mortal City” songs such as “February,” “The Ocean” and others demonstrate. When the album was released in the mid-1990s, it was an especially creative time in the folk scene for women, including artists such as Ani DiFranco, Jewel and others. Do you think we’ll see another moment like that for folk music any time soon?

“They say that everything takes a 30-year cycle. What was nice about the ’90s is that it was an example of music that responded to a desire of the times. It spoke to the social conditions of the times. Women were saying, ‘My voice counts.’ A lot of men were also becoming more attuned and less afraid of women (big laugh). I really lucked out with that song (‘As Cool as I Am’). Women were showing up with the range of ways of being female in the world and men were showing up with the range of being male in the world. I think the music was speaking to that opening up of whose voice gets heard and how multidimensional that voice can be.”

You perform “Mortal City” in its entirety on the 20th-anniversary tour. How do you keep that interesting for you as a performer, night after night?

“Oh, there’s no problem there. Just like my career, I’ve sung the same songs night after night in so many ways. It’s always different because every space is different. It’s about engagement. It’s not about the lyrics. It’s the engagement of a show.”

When you perform in a region where you have roots and history, does it feel different than performing in another city?

“Yes and no. This is the thing about doing ‘Mortal City’ now. ‘Mortal City’ was really influenced by geography. (The song) ‘The Ocean’ is the Pacific Northwest and ‘February’ is very much about New England. ‘Mortal City’ is Philadelphia. The whole album is this anthropomorphized landscape (laughs) where the metaphors live in this geography. At this point, I feel like I have roots in a lot of places. I have friends who have put down roots in Seattle and San Francisco and Portland, and I feel very close to them. The only thing I would say is a little different is when I know my parents are in the audience (big laugh). That’s never going to be the same as another concert.

Finally, we began with an anniversary and to end with one, have you started thinking about how you will celebrate your 50th birthday next year?

“(Laughs) You know how people say they’re either like a cat or a dog? I feel like a cat. I just want to be alone. Isn’t that weird? It’s a lot to take in. I think ‘Mortal City’ reflects that. There are a lot of people out there who are exactly half extrovert and half introvert, and they love to be extroverts as long as they have enough time to go off and figure it all out (laughs). For my 50th birthday, I just want to make it all make sense and then a couple of weeks later do the blowout with all my friends.

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