Even in song, life happens, and with her new album I’ll Meet You Here, artist and educator Dar Williams creates lyrical dioramas that melt forward in dreamy moment-to-moment evolutions. The songwriter turned author spent over 25 years traversing the globe, but her adventures throughout America’s communities led her to explore their successes and failures with her 2017 book What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities– One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time. With her latest musical effort, Dar leans into that journey with narratives and characters that could occupy any neighborhood, small town, or sprawl across the land while also realizing her own notions of time and place. I’ll Meet You Here is available to pre-save now and will be available everywhere on October 1st!
AI- I’ll Meet You Here… I always see, “First album in six years!” But you’ve been anything but idle! You’ve stayed busy in so many different ways, and as I understand it, you had this album written and principally recorded when COVID-19 was just kind of a whisper. So with the whole planet being different, do the songs feel different to you?
DW- A little bit. During the pandemic, I hung out with my kids and kinda got my head together and my house together and returned to what I call OTC Buddhism, which is over the counter (laughs)! Nothing with a guru! The whole thing is about meeting stuff as it comes to you as opposed to taking it personally or thinking that you should have been another person or should have done something else. So the pandemic was the perfect thing for just hanging out and looking at what is as opposed to what you thought it would be. The fact that there’s a song that says “Time, I’ll meet you here, I’ll meet you here,” definitely took on a deeper meaning.
One of the great songs on the record, “Little Town”… I’m intrigued by writing from that perspective of kind of a small town jingoist, someone mired in an old-world kind of racism. I know that in the song, the character evolves and grows, and it has a happy ending– but that couldn’t have been easy to write. There must’ve been things within yourself that you had to confront in order to bring that character forward.
Luckily, I had a great high school teacher who said, “Drama is the conflict of truth.” One of us was playing Queen Elizabeth and the other was playing Mary Queen of Scots in something, and he said, “You can’t play a part like you’re wrong. You have to play it like you’re right no matter who or what you think ’cause then you can really get to the honest stuff better to have conflict of truth.” So I think it was helpful to go into how a person could feel a bit invaded by new people.
I come from a town right now where Roger Ailes, who is the head of Fox News, lived here for a while. He actually amplified any division he could find. People think it’s about politics and about Republicans and Democrats. I think he just really enjoyed making people feel anxious and afraid that somebody was coming after them! There’s a whole part of your brain that’s afraid that somebody is coming after you. It’s a mammal thing. I really got to see how people would dig in their heels here, and they really got into that whole, “See that street sign? That’s named for me. That’s my family,” stuff. And then it got into this whole like, “Well, maybe you think that because you moved here from New York City and maybe you should move back.” He was like a smoke bomber! He just threw in a smoke bomb and we were all feeling our way around, defending ourselves or offending somebody.
So I got to see what that dug-in, anxious-about-the-new was, but on the other hand, I was writing this book, and it’s called What I Found In A Thousand Towns. What I was hearing about and seeing were the towns that had immigrant populations who would come en mass, so it would actually come as a force with cultural stuff and their own food and celebrations, they were embraced for what they were offering to these small cities. Like the Cambodian population of Lowell. Or in Western New York, there was a whole population from the Dominican Republic that was being embraced. We were just up in a small Vermont town with a lot of Turkish restaurants and spice stores– and I was wondering was that actively a group that had come in?
I was seeing towns that saw the new stuff as exciting and what they were all about, that they were all about evolving the old stuff with the new stuff. I did my best to really respect the opinion of the person who actually thinks new people are a threat to something. And then I had a lot of evidence of what it feels like when you actually feel like, “Oh my gosh, if I don’t let this town evolve and breathe, my kids are gonna move to Japan! My kids are gonna move to New York City! It’s gotta breathe or else nobody will stay!”
I’m glad you brought up the book, What I Found In A Thousand Towns. That concept, to see it all from the eyes of a traveling artist. You find these places, these communities, and how they’re all intertwined and they affect each other. As you get ready to get back out on a major tour, are you concerned about what you’re going to find in your new travels?
No! It’s really interesting. When you have a year like this, where you are spending time with your kids, everything goes slowly. The FedEx person shows up and I go into my house and write a page in my journal about how I feel about it (laughs)! You can really look at every step that you’re taking and say, “Wow, I like this pace. Maybe I’ll just kinda stay close to home and not deal with so many stimuli.” But I actively said, “No, I’m gonna get back out there and actually be a few new things, like really grateful.” I was just up in Vermont yesterday. My son was looking at colleges, but I went to a town that I’ve been to two or three times over the last 30 years, and I just loved seeing what was new, what had changed, and what was the same. It just hit me so much more deeply and with so much more happiness at this traveling life that I’ve had. It’s almost like I open up a different paint set everywhere I go and see all of those colors again and value them more.
So that’s different. I’m valuing the fact that I’ve been to these different places and that they all are so colorful in unique ways. And I can do a better job of managing my feelings. That’s actually something I learned from the book. Somebody said, “We manage change in Moab, Utah,” which has a town of 8,000 people– and 1.5 million tourists coming through every year! He didn’t say we embrace it. He didn’t say we resist it. He said we manage it. And I thought, “You know, I could be like Moab. I can manage myself as I encounter things that are very jolting and jarring.” And sure enough, I can! It’s not the travel that’s the problem, it’s how you manage your feelings about it.
In the book, there’s this thing that I call positive proximity, which is the state of being in a town, where living side-by-side with other people is seen as a beneficial thing. You’re not in the woods alone, you don’t feel like you’re alone, you’re not in a fortress of wealth or distrust or guns or any of those things. Your positive proximity is saying, “I’m gonna have to depend on these folks sometimes, and I’m gonna contribute things that I hope make them feel safe about depending on me sometimes. And we’re all going to be co-independent as opposed to codependent. We’ll all be independent in our own ways, but we will find ways to do things that we couldn’t do alone, and we’ll know that’s part of who we are, what’s good about us. We’re not gonna like everybody, and we’re gonna ask different people to do different things ’cause some people are introverts and some people are jerks (laughs)– but we’re still gonna work with them!”
People said, “How do you measure this? How do you measure this positive proximity in a town? How do you know that White River Junction is going to have more positive proximity than another town in New England?” And the response to the pandemic was a really good indicator of which towns had positive proximity because when you know one another’s skillsets and temperaments pre-crisis, then when the crisis comes, you know which blocks of people and which skillsets to draw on and which people to avoid (laughs), which conversations to avoid, and how to adapt and manage.
I got to see positive proximity in the places that I pointed to and said to people, “Buy your real estate now! These are the places that have something special and people will be attracted to this in the future. And you’ll have to manage that.” I said, “There are towns that have positive proximity, and I can point to them.” Sure enough, the towns that had positive proximity were the first to bump out their sidewalks for restaurants. And we’re the first to look at their immigrant diversity and those restaurants in those cultural institutions to pull out the strengths, their strengths in the face of this [pandemic] in terms of food or ceremonies or how they can access making sure everybody’s okay. And elder citizens. Some cultures have much more proactive strategies around how to really include elder citizens. So the places that had positive proximity had a better response to the crisis, and I could have predicted before I went to these places, what they would be.
You lecture on social movements in music, women’s movements, civil rights movements. When I was growin’ up, I was at what I would call the beautiful mercy of oldies radio, where you had, what at the time in the 1960s and early ’70s was considered counter-culture music. But by the time I was a kid, they were just golden oldies. I don’t think I ever knew that music could be anything other than some form of protest, whether it was poor protesting rich, protesting the draft, standing up for civil rights… What about right now? We see things are happening at once. Are you preparing to tackle this era as we’re living in it? Are you writing music about it?
It’s not like the Vietnam War started and the clouds parted and Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs descended from the heavens and wrote incredible music, followed by Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens. There was a culture of teaching and learning and looking at the historical roots of music and of not just loving music the way it comes piping through the speakers at the mall, but really being interested in where it comes from and in its diversity and its message for building what’s called a homology. A homology is kind of like your thinking, feeling circle. You can have people with a lot of different ways that they dress or different backgrounds, but if they all love Neil Young or they all love Sly and the Family Stone, it’s a way of connecting that can then be a springboard into marching in the streets together and taking on social change that can require perseverance and some bravery.
I have a friend who grew up in a black neighborhood and she had a friend in a white neighborhood, but they both love Freddie Prinze. And that was it! That was the bond (laughs)! When you have that participatory cultural feel around music, then it can become a whole society that doesn’t feel shy about saying, “We want better recycling. We want Black Lives Matter movements to grow in our community. We want more inclusion. We want more diversity. We want more gardens.” Making music together and loving music together is so vulnerable. Once you’ve crossed that line, there’s a lot that you can do together in the social sphere. And the civic sphere, as they say. I lead a songwriting retreat and I watch the way people are able to step out and have a lot of feelings that surface, and we are able to really support people and whatever comes out of them! I think that a lot of these songwriting retreats are leading to people having a comfort zone around going into the public square together in that sociopolitical way and making other kinds of harmonies besides just music.
There’s a lot of music by committee. It’s very safe. You write in committee, you go with the demographics, you go with the algorithm of what sells, and you have this aperture of TV talent shows. That’s the way you find your stars. I’m in a world that’s apart from that. I think that being in a participatory music world apart from the entertainment juggernaut is my contribution to us trusting the more human scale voice. Does that make sense?
It does. I recently had a conversation with Todd Snider, and if you know Todd and you’ve spoken to Todd, you know that he can keep you very unbalanced sometimes between tears and laughter. He told me that when he was a young man, he wanted to write songs and say things that could change the world. But now, he didn’t think that’s the way that it works anymore. That’s not a possibility. I disagree. I don’t think that. As I mentioned, I think that’s one of, if not the only point, but one of the main points about music is to do what you just said, cross those barriers and bring things together.
There’s a few things where I think Todd might can have some hope.
I think he really does. I think he was having me on to a point.
I think that rap music in a lot of ways is the new folk music. A lot of the commentary, whether it’s Kendrick Lamar or Beyonce, is really generous in the way we are able to understand society and both its strengths and its weaknesses. Number one, that’s been a real turnaround. There’s a lot of forward movement in terms of how society’s wheel is able to turn with not just the breaking boundaries and us having common ground, but also the messages. That’s number one.
I’m writing a book called Writing A Song That Matters, which is the name of the retreat, and one of the things I am trying to write is this essay called “You Wrote The Other Song”. We have the hits and we have the powerful Ariana Grande ballads, but then at the retreat, somebody wrote recently about how she found out that she has some brittleness in her bones, and she doesn’t know if she can do things without breaking the bones. She brought all sorts of stuff into the song about how we live our lives when we know this about ourselves, and we walk around knowing that things could break so easily. It was really specific, and then it got general, and then it got specific. Everybody was talking about it that night when we had our after-the-song circle. Everybody could relate to it. And it was peculiar! It wasn’t quite on the nose, but for some reason, because it wasn’t on the nose, people just dove into it and found their own reference points. So Julie wrote the other song. We’re always gonna need the other songs. That’s more “out in the world” and not just what you’re gonna hear on the radio.