by Karen Iris Tucker
November 6, 2001
Splayed out in her record company's conference room, strands of long
blondish brown hair dangling over her face, acoustic performer Dar Williams
is signing freshly pressed copies of her forthcoming sixth record, Out
There Live (Razor & Tie), a folk-pop release punctuated by the piercing
screams of adoring college girls. She is unequivocally ready to admit something
big. "I have to tell you," begins Williams with a heart laugh, "coming
out has been so great!" After nearly a decade of having engaged fans with
lively lyrical discourse on feminism, gender and lesbian and gay visibility,
Williams is loud and proud: She is straight and recently became engaged.
"It's as much a revelation of living in my truth as coming out as a gay person," says the Chappaqua, N.Y.-bred singer, who, in a quest to be inclusive (and private) over the years, has written non-gender-specific verse and avoided pointed questions regarding her sexuality.
There are other straight songwriters who support gays and lesbians and write earnestly about related themes. Yet few manage in their lyrics to dig as deeply or as authentically as the 34-year old Williams does. Some argue that we're on the brink of a post-gay world, in which being gay is so beside the point that the politics of it don't matter. In her own way, Williams is a forerunner in getting to that distant world: In listening to her music, it becomes incidental that her utterly tangible songs about queer life are channeled through a straight woman.
"Maybe I was one of the guinea pigs of 'Can this person be an ally if she's not a lesbian?' " theorizes Williams, who spent her formative years in communities with a strong feminist and lesbian presence, studying at Wesleyan University and performing and living in both Northampton and Cambridge, Mass. "I'm very grateful," says the tiny singer, who now lives in a small town two hours from New York City in her native upstate New York. "It was all very much in the world in which I was able to find my identity. Here I was, surrounded by my good friends who were gay and lesbian, and I really wanted to write songs that made them feel that they were part of the mix."
It was no doubt through these early experiences that Williams learned to stare down such tough lyrical subjects as meeting the family with your same-sex partner. In Williams's hilarious musical universe, this event plays out as a solstice-celebrating lesbian couple crash one of their Christ-fearing uncle's Christmas dinners in "The Christians and the Pagans" from her 1996 CD, Mortal City.
It was Williams's signature song, "When I Was a Boy" (from her debut, The Honesty Room, and also on the live album), that first resonated deeply with her gay and lesbian fans with its regretful ruminations on the way we forsake pieces of ourselves in adapting to socially acceptable gender roles. There's also the infamous line from "Iowa" on Mortal City where Williams sings in her dusky soprano "I've never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could."
"I thought it was going to out me as a straight person, but instead people said, 'Well, now I know she's a lesbian!' " says Williams, dissolving into a full-throttle giggle. "So I said, 'Well, I guess it could be about a lesbian with poor social skills or that I was kind of going in the lesbian direction and the landscape of Iowa was the last straw!' "
This kind of giddy, brainy postulating crops up in ample doses between the songs on Out There Live, a 16-cut "best of" of Williams's career. It spans a period from the early '90s, when she strummed out her quiet poetics in Boston coffeehouses amid the music world's thriving grunge-rock explosion, through last year's release, The Green World, which found her selling out large theatres. The CD's songs were compiled from three concert performances that she did with a full band, composed of guitarist Steuart Smith, drummer Steve Holley, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and keyboardist Jeff Kazee. Williams is touring in support of Out There Live, and she is also writing a novel for readers in their early teens. Despite this burst of artistic activity, the singer does not seem worried about finding time to plan her wedding.
"I've seen people become totally crazed over this whole bride-for-a-day thing, as if it's the pinnacle of experience," says Williams. "There's a part of me that doesn't want to fall into all the comfy aspects of breeder culture."
So where does Williams fit within all the multilayered communities she falls into? "Right now," she says, "I feel that I'm living in whatever confluence there is of third-wave feminism, '60s folk rock, and my work as an environmentalist. I'm in solidarity with all this. And in my songwriting, what you dream for is this trellis that has really interesting flowers on it. You don't just want a message with really thin characters hanging from it. What I'd like is to tell stories that are interesting and have overlap for all kinds of people."
Thanks to Nicole Winfield for the transcription