Dar Williams

Dar Williams' career began in  the New England folk scene of the mid-1990s but since then she's become one of the premier singer/songwriters in America. An idiosyncratic songwriter who writes folk songs from a unique, often insightful perspective. Her songwriting and performing style have been compared to Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. The thing is, people believe Dar Williams. People believe her because - if you've ever seen her live - you know she is a terrific performer: funny, communicative and powerful. And she's an accomplished singer; her three-octave voice is supple, fluid and gorgeous. But more than that, Dar Williams is a great writer. A great writer for the next generation.

She was born in Mount Kisco, N.Y., but raised in Chappaqua the daughter of medical writer/editor Gray Williams and Marian Ferry, an active figure in Planned Parenthood. Her parents were educated at Yale and Vassar respectively. Raised  in a decidedly liberal arts atmosphere, Williams began studying guitar at age nine and wrote her first song at eleven. In high school she was  interested in athletics, but an ankle injury led her to audition for the musical  Godspell. She became active in drama and by her senior year, after  composing more music and writing plays, considered herself a playwright.  She blames an 'Existential Crises' at age 16 for her creativity and sharp  sense of humor.

In her sophomore year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Williams  spent a few months in Berkeley, CA, where she wrote songs and performed  at the Starry Plough. After earning a B.A., with a double-major in theatre and religion, she moved to Boston in 1990 to  find a career in the theatre where she dabbled in everything from directing plays and operas to performing. She became the stage manager  for the Opera Company of Boston and began taking voice lessons with, Jeannie Diva, who encouraged Williams to try the  coffeehouse circuit. Dar recorded two early tapes, All My Heroes are Dead and I Have No History. Things didn't exactly take off, and in 1993, Dar left Boston for the relaxed, artsy atmosphere of Northampton, Mass.

Things turned around and in 1993, she released The Honesty Room under her own label, Burning Fields Music. It was later picked up by Andrew Calhoun's "wonderful sanctuary for singer/songwriters, Waterbug Records," and in 1995 re-released, with two new tracks, by Razor and Tie. And she's made believers out of a lot of other people in the years since her first album, The Honesty Room, hit the national airplay charts. Here are a few of those believers: Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn, who toured with Dar as "Real Life Songs". Joan Baez, who has recorded three of Dar's songs and toured with her in the U.S. and Europe. Ani DiFranco, who toured Australia with Dar earlier in 1998. Pete Seeger - who did the Conan O'Brien show with Dar - The Indigo Girls, with whom Dar played a now-legendary show at Alcatraz to benefit the prisoner-rights group Bread and Roses. and Sara McLachlan, who brought Dar on two years' worth of the Lilith Fair.

In 1996, she released Mortal City, which many fans say is her best album. With songs real and moving. But also full of humour and understanding of the nature of the human spirit. "As Cool As I Am" is about overcoming the power struggles in personal relationships. The holiday gathering in the "Christians and the Pagans" is a lesson to us all.

Dar has brought the idea of "folk" music to a new generation - she has a fanatical following at colleges and schools in the U.S. and Canada. Dar Williams has hit a wellspring of support with her post-modern humanity. "Wisdom flows through her songs in delirious, wordy rushes of truth," says The New York  Times.

In 1998, Dar's song "What Do You Hear In These Sounds" (her ode to therapy) charted on MTV's cutting edge channel M2; she filled Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; and in the States she became on of the Top 50 Grossing touring acts. She's sold well over a quarter-million records. Dar was the  highest-charting independent artist on Triple-A radio for her 1997 album End of the Summer. And her concert appearances are routinely standing-room-only.

Dar's collaboration with highly-regarded singer/songwriters Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, Cry Cry Cry - a collection of cover songs by contemporary singer/songwriters - has received rave reviews from the press. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, calling it an "eclectic, unrushed trasure trove of gorgeous acoustic covers stripped to their folk essence." Robert Earl Keen, whose "Shades of Gray" appears on the disc, called it "the best cover anybody's ever done of a song of mine."

Dar says she draws inspiration from her home community. Her  love of the folk scene stems from her admiration of its integrity toward  honesty and real emotion, and a creative freedom not found in more popular music genres. She loves trying to use traditional methods to express the realities and foibles of contemporary life.  Dar writes about what life is like, really like. She doesn't fake it. She doesn't pose; she doesn't preen; she doesn't take on and put off attitude like a change of clothes. People believe Dar Williams because she tells the truth.

It's hard to figure when she has the time to do it, but Dar has published two editions of The Tofu Tollbooth, her directory of natural-food store for travellers. As well, she donates her time and efforts to causes she believes in, such as a solar-powered music festival in Vermont; The Nature Conservancy and Clearwater for whom she is doing a series of benefit concerts along the Hudson River, and the movement to legalize industrial hemp (her song, "Play the Greed" is the lead single for the fund-raising cd Hempilation 2: Free the Weed, featuring artists as diverse as George Clinton, Fun Lovin' Criminals, and Willie Nelson).

 As the Seattle Rocket put it, "There were Deadheads and now there are Darheads. This is NOT your father's folk music."

Her fourth solo album is The Green World, released in 2000. For The Green World, Williams enlisted producer Stewart Lerman and recorded the album primarily in Woodstock, New York with some session work
done in New York City. The main band features Steuart Smith (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash) on various instruments (including guitar, keyboards, and accordion), Rob Hyman (Joan Osborne, The Hooters) on keyboards, Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, Natalie Merchant) on bass and Steve Holley (Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker) on drums.

The Green World showed Dar's maturity in both voice and subject. It is a much more spiritual offering that makes the listener think about the world within and without.  She learned about the "green world" in an undergraduate class on Shakespeare, whose plays often centered on the conflict between the orderly closed world of  Elizabethan court life and the "green world"—that place which takes you deep into the woods (literally or figuratively), where you face the unpredictable and undergo great transformation.

The North American tour following The Green World's release featured Dar's first with a full band. That combination led to the release of Out There Live, a 19-track CD that includes songs from all her previous releases and a smattering of the "Dar chat" that makes her live shows even more entertaining.

On the night The Green World was released, Dar ran into Michael, someone she had known briefly in university, who was there with some other friends from college. " He didn’t know anything about my career, which was great. He was actually going to call me once upon a time after the Honesty Room was released, that a mutual friend had given to him that he thought I’d sort of put out on a vanity label — on a self label. He said at one point he was going to try and track me down and call me and say “keep up the good work” like as End of the Summer was coming out. So that was very sweet."

"After The Green World tour I went on a date with him and that was it. Just one date." The two were married in a small family ceremony in Chappaqua, NY on May 4, 2002.

With The Beauty of The Rain, released in  February 2003, Dar took another step forward, showcasing a new, fuller sound, as well as her mastery at mapping out the emotional terrain of people whose lives are in transition. Recorded in a studio in NYC's Chelsea neighborhood, The Beauty of the Rain was produced by Steuart Lerman and Rob Hyman, and features guest appearances by a remarkable array of talent: Alison Krauss on vocals, Bela Fleck on banjo, John Popper manning the harmonica and backup vocals, Stefan Lessard (of Dave Matthews Band) on bass, John Medeski on keyboards, Chris Botti on trumpet, Cliff Eberhardt on vocals and Michael Kang (String Cheese Incident) on fiddle.

The idea to bring in so many illustrious guests came from Dar, who decided to make her song arrangements richer and denser this time around. "It can be a little lonely sometimes being a girl with a guitar," she says. "I wanted to reach out into the world and see what else was going on."

Dar and Michael now have a son, Stephen Gray Robinson, who was born on April 24,  2004. After his birth, Dar cut down dramatically on her touring but still spent time out on the road.

In May 2004, she released her first book through Scholastic - a novel for teens entitled Amalee.
With Amalee, she brought her exceptional story-telling ability and creativity to a brand new medium.  A remarkably moving novel of friendship, hardship, and the power of coming together, this story marks the debut of a talented new voice in children’s literature.

Her most recent CD, My Better Self, was released in August 2005.  Lyrically a political album, it is also particularly personal. It com
bines songs of love and hate with tales that illustrate some of the many social and environmental issues that Dar holds dear to her heart.

“I’m thinking about where we are right now in history,” she said upon its release. “The other common theme to this record is that the songs all put stuff I find important out on the table. Less metaphor and more me. As to the album’s name, it’s best illustrated by the image on the cover, that your better self is not always the one you plan out or even motivate yourself to be.”

She is currently working on an album that will probably be recorded in 2007.

Updated Jan. 26, 2007

Home    Back to the library