Dar Williams: Singing for the Small Towns

When it comes to thinking local, Williams practices what she preaches – and sings.

It takes guts to perform at an “open mic” night. The prospect of standing in the heat of a glaring spotlight in front of an expectant audience is enough to send most people on a beeline toward the neon exit sign. Add in a handful of nervous butterflies and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

Fortunately for her thousands of followers, Dar Williams is not “most people.” Today the acclaimed folk singer-songwriter is just as comfortable singing her heart out in a concert stadium as she is crooning in a local cafe. After all, it is not so much the venue that matters as it is the storytelling process. At her core, Williams is a master storyteller. She weaves tales with her lyrics and entraps audiences with her melodies. Her songs embrace perspectives that anyone can relate to. They also give voice to powerful narratives that keep her fan base coming back for more.

Boston in the Nineties

Williams, 50, latched onto melody making at an early age. Growing up in Chappaqua, NY, in the 1970s and 1980s, she started playing guitar at age nine, but set the instrument aside during her pre-teen and teenage years. She went on to attend college at Wesleyan University, where she studied drama. Although she planned to continue on in the theatrical world when she moved to Boston in the 1990s, she stumbled upon the folk music scene there and latched onto it in no time.

“I was interested in being a playwright, but I moved to Boston where they had such an amazing music scene in the early nineties,” she recalls. It was in Beantown that she began to venture onto open mic stages. The nerves were there, but so was the excitement. As she grew musically and advanced her status as a live performer, she also recorded her first album, titled “I Have No History.”

“It was all the angst and romance and insecurity of playing songs for your peers,” she says of her apprenticeship and her debut recording. Slowly but surely, her creative presence expanded. From earning tips at cafes and getting reviewed in local papers to opening for friends and joining nationally touring performers, Williams rose in rank to where she is today – a multifaceted celebrity songstress with nine studio records to her credit. She continues to write her own songs, drawing inspiration from almst anywhere.

“It can be anything from mishearing a melody coming from your neighbor’s house to just a melody floating out of the air,” she reveals. She likes to work backward and explore wherever that initial sentence or tune came from so she can build a world around it.

“I let my unconscious bring things to me,” she says. Depending on the song, the process can take anywhere from a month to a year to complete. Her dedication is well worth the effort, of course. The passion and meaning she weaves into her lyrics continue to attract a vast, adoring fanbase.

Across America Today

At the start of 2018, Williams is very much in demand. She is in the midst of a nationwide tour that will take her from Ithaca to Iowa City and beyond. True to her roots, the singer songwriter offers hybrid events at different destinations, performing songs and reading excerpts from her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns (Basic Books, 2017). The book draws upon Williams’s experiences on the road as an intinerate musician and the notes, memories, and observations she collected as she hopped from town to town. It is also a celebration of community – and what makes special town’s so special.

“A friend of mine told me the relationships in our towns are determined by our proximity to each other. My first thought was that he was wrong,” she admits. As she thought about her travels, however, she began to change her mind. “The towns that I loved and were growing over time were the ones where people had a lot of different kinds of relationships,” she says. Acknowledging these relationships is part of the reason she enjoys touring so much. Williams enjoys performing across America to experience new destinations and re-experience familiar ones.

At Home on the Hudson

That is not to say that she is a perpetual nomad, however. Williams has been a resident of Cold Spring, NY, for the past 15 years. During that time, she has made a point to immerse herself in the community.

“I started a Beatles sing-along, a community herb garden, and a trick or treating neighborhood in housing for older citizens,” she says. When it comes to thinking local, Williams practices what she preaches – and sings. She gives back to the region in ways that foster growth and development and build the area’s identity.

On Saturday, February 10 at 11:00 a.m., Williams will perform at the Hudson River EagleFest at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson as part of the fourteenth annual outdoor community event to celebrate the bald eagle’s return to the Hudson Valley. (To learn more see the Out and About calendar on page 14.)

Dar Williams is a creator, a narrator, and a storyteller. Yet she is also a builder. She verbalizes communal ideas and brings together individuals from all locations and walks of life. She makes art and helps communities thrive.

If her calendar of “to dos” in 2018 is any indication, she is only getting started.

Learn more about Dar Williams at DarWilliams.com.