I discovered Dar Williams back in high school when I was, misguidedly, trying to be a singer-songwriter. A few people told me that I reminded them of her, so I got the first CD of hers I could find, End of the Summer, her third commercial release. As soon as I heard the angst of the opening track “Are You Out There?” and the bittersweet poignancy of “If I Wrote You,” I knew I had found a kindred spirit in song. And so, over the years, I’ve seen her play numerous times in at least five different states. Her rapier wit and unique sense of humor are always some of the best parts of the show. I remember one show in Madison, WI, where she had the crowd laughing so hard that it seemed inappropriate for her to transition into the ballad she’d planned next. So she got very quiet and she told a story about how her father had once kept bees and they would stand in silence together as he smoked the bees. The crowd got quiet, and she simply said, “I think we’re there now,” and started the ballad.
I didn’t know then that in 2006 I would be writing a book of poems about bees, but I mentioned the book to Williams after a show in Greensboro, NC. She asked me to send her the finished version, so I passed along the manuscript to her and was thrilled when she wrote me back, filling up all the space in a card with the humor and warmth I have always loved about her.
Now it is 2011, and I am writing my second book of poems about bees, and Williams is still playing the kinds of songs that have made her a mainstay on the singer-songwriter circuit, and she is the one following the bees as well. When I spoke with her, she was in LA recording her forthcoming, as yet untitled album. We talked about the bees, of course, and about Many Great Companions, a double-disc best-of that she released in 2010 on Razor and Tie. The two discs are a trip through time, showcasing her early, more timid vocals and their maturation into the delicate-yet-powerful vox she has now. It is hopefully only the first part of many stories Williams has yet to tell.
The Rumpus: You wrote me a very nice letter. I sent you a manuscript I’d written of poems about bees; I don’t know if you remember.
Dar Williams: Yes, I remember those! Thank you for those.
Rumpus: Have you been following the honeybee crisis?
Williams: I’ve become bee-obsessed! I planted these bee-friendly gardens with campers at summer camp this summer, and I’m writing a Huffington Post [article] about that experience, and I’m reading a book called The Beekeeper’s Lament. Are you a beekeeper?
Rumpus: No, I’m not. I wish I were.
Williams: But you sent me the poems about the bees about five years ago, and I loved them, and I was like, “wow, I bet a person could really get into this, go deep into this.” Now I feel like that person. It seems like, unfortunately, more of it is about the mite than I once realized. Once I decided to make these gardens with kids, I backed up and tried to learn as much as I could. And the more I learned, the more I discovered I didn’t know. So, in terms of the incredible varieties of bees, how important honeybees are, how important all bees are, who are the best pollinators, how everybody needs to attract every kind of thing. I even go down highways and shake my head and say “all of that scrubby grass and lawn could be bee forage.” I look at every piece of land differently in terms of how it could be transformed into a more pollinator-friendly expanse. So I think about bees all the time now. And the nice thing too is kids. I think bees are a very good issue for kids, that kids should get more involved in planting more bee-friendly gardens, and adults need to get over their phobia of bees. Once I told these kids what was going on and what we needed to do, they were heavily invested. I’ve never seen such a connection.
Rumpus: It’s commendable that you’re getting so involved in that.
Williams: I love to connect, and I’ve never seen such an immediate connection as the issue of bees and kids. It’s been a real gift to me to be part of something that actually engages people, as opposed to a few people who want to do something. I think this could be a real movement. I’m happy for me. It’s good for my soul.
Rumpus: Would you like to talk about Many Great Companions? I was wondering how you made the selection and how it felt going back over all those songs and what narratives you found as you were working through them.
Williams: I perform them a lot, and I tried to pretend that I was performing. Then we were looking together for the best take and comping things together, which really means mixing takes. I was trying to just do the crossword puzzle and not think too much about it. Believe it or not, if you’re standing on a stage or any recording area, saying “this rendition of this performance has to be the best rendition,” it does’t help the performance! So I was doing my best to minimize that historical moment as possible. In terms of going over the songs, two things. Yes, I was thinking about things historically because of the nature of the album, but these are also songs that I’ve been performing out already. The way that I chose them was that either I had recorded them a long time ago so I was getting to redo them with the voice I have now or we were taking stuff that had been very heavily produced and stripped it down a bit.
Rumpus: That makes sense. In the span of your career, do you think the role of gender in the music industry has changed? I read a recent interview where you were talking about that with regard to Lilith Fair, put I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the present situation.
Williams: The ’90s, we’re looking back at something that was over a decade ago–Lilith Fair was something I call the flower of the roots. It was something that was able to be done because of all the work that had been done at the roots, all sorts of not just finding equality but finding a voice and finding supporters of that voice. The feminist movement fights for equality, an even playing field, even exposure, but the ’90s were about celebrating all the manifestations of gender, boys who get to act like girls and girls who get to act like boys and people getting to question what being a girl or a boy is. It was a really molten, mystical swirl of lava, and I feel very lucky that I was writing songs that had a lot to do with gender in a decade where we had that great upheaval and explosion of gender experimentation. And I don’t think that goes away. I think that 2002, 2010, tried to put the genie back in the bottle, but that just can’t happen. Every way that women have stepped out, stepped into the system is a big part of how things are getting better and better in our society. I’m very pleased that I was a part of the ’90s. It was a great decade for that.
Rumpus: Now, it seems to me that the trans movement is more visible now than ever. Do you think that visibility grew, in part, out of that ’90s gender experimentation?
Williams: I hope so. I hope that that helps more people feel like they can make the move that they needed to make. I think we need to feel like we have found permission from people that we like to step forward; we don’t just do it in a vacuum. There was a terrible story about a sportscaster who became a woman, and he spent a year presenting as a woman before actually got the sex change. He was so derided and belittled by his male peers and called ugly. I saw these pictures and thought, “My God, this is a liberated person. She looks better than he did. She looks happy. She looks like she’s in her life. She looks vital.” I saw that picture and was so excited, and I wanted to write her a letter and say, “Wow, you look so happy, you look so genuine. You found beauty.” But because it was a man who hadn’t had all that “Don’t listen to that white noise; have people accept you for your real beauty–your smile lines, your laugh lines, your clarity, your affect,” we didn’t get to him in time. He went back to being a man, and he committed suicide. And it was just, like, damn. We want to create a world of acceptance for every kind of decision. I know people who haven’t had the operation but they present as a different gender than the one that is expected. That’s a great world too. And there’s a lot of anger in some of those folks, and that’s okay too. We just want to create a whole world of “be who you are.”
Rumpus: Exactly. It’s definitely been in the forefront lately, at least in my own life, but, then again, I do live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a really queer-friendly town.
Williams: That’s the good news! Spread the love. You’ve got a good thing going in Madison. You don’t have to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just Madison.” The world is following Madison now. They’re actually waiting for me in the studio, so I have to go in a minute, but I’m really excited about this album. I worked with Rob Hyman, who is a powerhouse songwriter and musician. He was in The Hooters and he wrote “Time After Time” and he’s working with Kevin So, my producer, and the last I saw, Rob was in there showing Kevin some of his incredibly cool keyboard settings. I don’t know how long they’re going to keep it up, so I have to go in there. But I will say this much: this next album has a lot to do with power, and that not always being a bad thing, but that sometimes being a horrible recklessness. Decisions we make when the stakes are higher because we have power in our lives. And it’s a different thing than when I was 20. I’m writing about something that’s distinctly different than what I would have written before. I don’t feel like I’ve connected with a theme so strongly before. It’s probably going to be four musicians making all the music, and they’ve been doing some heavy hitting. I’m very impressed.