By Ed Rampell
Starting on July 28, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand...
Folk singer Dar Williams came out with her ninth album last fall, My Better Self, that addresses some of the major issues of the Bush Age. With songs like “Teen for God,” “Empire,” and “Beautiful Enemy,” along with covers of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (where she’s joined by Ani DiFranco), Williams makes her statement on our current moment.
Inspired by Joan Baez, whom she toured with early on in her career, Williams has often expressed her feminist and environmental convictions. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she may be most famous for her earlier songs “I Will Not Be Afraid of Women” and “The Christians and the Pagans”—about a holiday family dinner where people get over their differences.
In addition to making music, Williams has published a novel for young adults entitled Amalee, and she is just completing a sequel to it.
I spoke with her on November 2 last year in Madison, Wisconsin. I picked her up at the Barrymore Theatre, where she was rehearsing for her show that night. As we drove over to Audio for the Arts, where we recorded the interview, we shared our disgust with Bush’s policies and our shock at Katrina. After we set up, she mentioned how outrageous it is to make people “swim in toxic stew for the next five years.” As she put it, “Justice does not get served.”
I’d never met her before, but she seemed very familiar to me: intelligent, engaging, informed, dedicated—the type of stellar activist you can find almost anywhere in America. Except this one plays the guitar, has a beautiful voice, and sports a poetic sensibility. And she’s been using those talents to reach her audiences for more than a decade now.
As I drove her back to the Barrymore, we talked about kids, since she has a two-and-a-half-year-old son. And she had me point out where the Willy St. Grocery Co-op was, which she recognized as one of the nation’s most successful. “I used to work in a co-op,” she said. I wasn’t surprised.
Q: My Better Self seems more political than some of your previous albums. Do you have a heightened sense of urgency right now?
Dar Williams: That’s right on. It’s a temperature reading for what’s going on, for better and for worse. I’ve been sussing out the politics that sort of came to my doorstep, along with some of the more overt things, such as the song called “Empire.”
Q: What is the temperature reading? Are we at 105?
Williams: In terms of our democracy, we are sort of shrugging our shoulders and saying, oh dear, Guantánamo, that’s so awful, that’s so awful, but it’s here. The pendulum usually swings from left to right and then right to left, but there are so many people in power who have taken the pendulum and just pinned it to the right that there is a fear that it’s never going to swing back.
Q: Tell me about the song “Empire.”
Williams: The best, most solid place to stand as you look at our present situation is on a foundation of history. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Nazi empire all have things in common. It’s a cautionary song because empires are doomed. They become more diffuse, more broke, demagogues rule, and so I was just pointing out some similarities between past empires and what’s going on right now. They all have had to apply more and more harsh rhetoric of superiority and divine right to justify the building of hegemony.
Q: Now there’s a word you don’t find on a lot of albums. You rhyme it on the song “Beautiful Enemy.”
Williams: I love that word. It’s very poetic. Hegemony is not defined by rivers or conventional borders—it’s dominance, it’s influence. So we get to decide in our hearts, are we in Iraq to help restore something, or are we there to establish dominance? How can you torture people and say, well, that’s just a few bad apples in our culture? When you visit war upon a country, you’re visiting it upon the whole country. The song “Beautiful Enemy” points to the inevitable moment when you say, if I’m having a war over the hedges with my neighbor, how can I expect Israel and Palestine to get along? It looks at the flags and symbols and jingoisms of our personal fiefdoms.
Q: What’s your view of patriotism?
Williams: I read this beautiful article by Amos Oz that I actually carried around with me where he said America is great, North America is really so incredible, why would you want to flaunt that? Why would you want to use that so inappropriately? Why wouldn’t you want to be the envy of your neighbors by being so good and so generous and so smart in how you use the power that you obviously have? So I aspire to be part of that America. That’s my patriotism.
Q: You have Ani DiFranco helping you on “Comfortably Numb.” How did that work out?
Williams: It was great. Hopefully, it points to a certain collective unconscious that we were able to tap into, because we sent the files off to her and she added her own thing to it and sent them back with no direction from us. She really just nailed it. I almost felt like she was reading my mind.
Q: Why did you choose that song?
Williams: I know how hard it is to be awake in my life. I probably started to numb out in the extremities around the time of my first mortgage. The song is just a constant reminder to wake up. Some of us have such incredible things that can keep us from acting. We have the luxury of drinking such good wine, and having such good information at our fingertips. I can look up anything on my computer. And I can call any friend at the drop of a hat on my cell phone. And I can have beautiful clothing and great food in a world where people are being tortured. I have some responsibility for that.
Q: You’re big on taking responsibility. I hear that you try to make sure that even the plastic bottles of water you drink on stage are properly disposed of.
Williams: I’ve become aware of the issue of bottled water companies taking the water out of the aquifers and depleting the water table. But I have to confess that we came into a few cities where the water quality was just such that I preferred bottled water, and I tried to recycle. And then it kind of just went to hell, because I have a lot on my plate. So I’m going to try to offset my waste in some other ways, a la Bill Clinton.
Q: Even you can’t do everything.
Williams: [laughs] I’m really, really aware of that.
Q: You’ve been talking about environmental issues for a long time, way before Katrina and the recent concern with global warming. How did you get interested in it?
Williams: I took a class called “The Human Prospect” in college. It was great. It was taught by a professor who really tuned us in to looking at all facets of environmental awareness. I’m committed to renewable energy. The current Administration is so convenient to billionaires, people who have built the infrastructure of nuclear plants or oil platforms. What we need to do is pull the rug out so they wake up one morning and say, wow, 80 percent of the country has a solar panel, and we can’t make our billions anymore because other people are making millions, but not billions, on alternative energy that doesn’t require war. Suddenly, the war-making machinery is not necessary. So I’m just trying to be part of the movement that decentralizes and hopefully creates peace that way. By supporting smaller, democratic structures, you can effect change.
Q: I read that at one point you were an atheist and then you became a believer in God. Is that true?
Williams: Yes, that is true. For so many years, I was trying to believe in God. And when I was a teenager and then in college, I was a Buddhist, and I was always trying to tap into this divine energy. It works sometimes. I’ve had that experience in meditation, and I’ve had that experience in the Quaker church. But it turned out to be different from waking up one morning after my cousin had died and believing in God.
Every once in a while I check and I say, do I still believe in God? [laughs] And the answer is absolutely yes. And then I think, I suppose I should go to church now. But after going to so many churches in my life and trying to go with the flow with so many denominations, Eastern and Western, I don’t really feel I need to go to church at all. In fact, I feel like it would sort of overly structure the free-form belief that I have now.
Q: You lead off your album with a song called “Teen for God.” It’s about these fundamentalist teenagers who say they are never going to have premarital sex.
Williams: Yes, they’re not going to smoke pot, they’re not going to drink, and they like to swap stories about all those terrible things that happen to people who do drink and have sex and all that stuff. There’s a lot of scare tactics in that adolescent devotion. [laughs] It’s a very purist time, as a teenager, but when you find people in our society who can’t temper that kind of passion with some wisdom about the human condition, then you have a sort of immature culture. So it was an interesting contrast between my religious fervor as a teenager and how I feel now. I kind of miss the fervor, and at the same time I feel more adult as I go forward.
Q: What do you make of the heightened influence of the rightwing fundamentalists in this country?
Williams: I’m amazed at the adolescent nature of some of the religious fanatics in our government. And they’re full of double standards. I mean, you have someone like Rick Santorum, who is incredibly ambitious and very overbearing, and it just doesn’t seem to jibe with my spiritual experiences.
Q: What power do you have as a folk singer?
Williams: To be honest, as long as I don’t get completely overbearing, I have plenty. I do as many fundraisers as I can, and I try to make fundraisers into a poetic opportunity to galvanize a community. And from my income, my husband and I give a certain percentage away right off the top.
Q: But what about awakening people with your music itself?
Williams: I could very easily say that is 100 percent of what I do. People want to feel tingly with that hope that they can do something, and I try to give them that. They want a sense of interdependence and a sense of involvement, and they can get that by going out to hear live music, and by hearing the poetry in certain lyrics. I just write songs as they come to me. Now that I believe in God, I have an extra layer of saying I’ll write about what I write about and assume that I’m being offered the opportunity to illuminate something important. But when you think you are too important, you become some sort of fascist.
Q: You have a very hopeful song on the album My Better Self called “Echoes.” Can you explain what you are trying to convey there?
Williams: The most important thing is that I didn’t write it. [laughs] It was written by Jules Schear and Rob Hyman and Stewart Lyman, who are friends of mine. Stewart brought it to me since he knows I am a giant optimist.
Basically, the lyrics are: Every time you love just a little, you get one step closer to solving the riddle, it echoes all over the world. The lyrics are all sort of like that, almost very child rhymish, and yet profound. It’s been nice to sing it because it reminds me of something that I could not put into words. I don’t think I could ever be so open-heartedly optimistic in a song. I always feel like I’ve got to gunk it up with more complexity. But God bless him for singing out for the open heart.
Q: Well, you are right out there too calling yourself a giant optimist.
Williams: I had a really bad depression when I was twenty-one, and thank goodness friends of mine insisted that I go to therapy. They saw the crash coming.
I am one of those sort of “lesser” types, those sensitive types, those people who wouldn’t have made it on their own if other people hadn’t helped them. A straightforward capitalist society would’ve cut them off and let them die. So I was saved by my friends and by my family and by people who cared about me, and by modern psychotherapy that cared about women. That was profound.
I came out of that and said I don’t want to go back to feeling depressed. So I asked myself, what can I be optimistic about, in terms of the course of the planet? And I discovered there was no end to the optimism I felt. Now almost twenty years later I’m still right there.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.