Catching Up With: Dar Williams

Music Features Dar Williams
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Catching Up With: Dar Williams

Beloved folk singer, songwriter, teacher, activist and author Dar Williams began a 20th anniversary tour in support of her 1996 sophomore record, Mortal City, back in September of last year. It was before Donald Trump became the President-elect, before racial tensions rose even higher and acts of religious discrimination in the name of the regime began proliferating. Yet, the more she toured these songs—revisiting topics ranging from the acceptance of those of different faiths of “The Christians and the Pagans” to the innocuousness of most cannabis usage (bringing up current debates of legalization) in “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed.”—she realized the continued resonance of Mortal City.

After taking a break around the holidays, Williams set back out on the road this January for another month-long string of dates. In addition to performing the whole album from start to finish, Williams is also welcoming local poets and authors to read their work before her sets. We checked in with her to discuss importance of place, optimism in a time of contemporary politics’ unnecessary divisiveness and what “the mortal city” means today.

Paste: Where are you now?
Dar Williams: I’m in Tuscon, looking out my window at a bunch of desert flora.

Paste: How’s this second round of the tour going?
Williams: The whole thing has been great. It’s an album called Mortal City and kind of defined by the fact that we are mere mortals trying to figure out how to live together and govern ourselves. We have these poets, these writers who are opening these shows, so there’s this clear reference point to the fact that, in some ways, we are doing a very good job staying civilized and respecting our culture. It’s been a good way-finding point for audiences at these shows. At least that’s what it feels like right now because they’re very worried about Trump.

Paste: Yup. Well good, let’s just jump in from there, then! How do you feel that some of the things you wrote 20 years ago on The Mortal City are even more relevant now?
Williams: Everything that’s flagged in the album Mortal City has actually come farther into the present that it was socially in 1996, by which I mean that we have progressed as a country to become more inclusive more sensitive, better at ensuring one another’s rights in many ways and much more sensitive and aware of the problems at hand. There’s absolutely no perfection, but there are some incredible milestones that have happened that came out and you just can’t deny it. We’ve got marriage equality. We have a greater understanding of religious diversity. I think that Trump is a sense of reactionary anxiety to those things. We have gays in the military. We have a better understanding of what being transgender is. We have a much better understanding of our food and our air and our water, as well as what it means to buy local and what it means to live in a place and choose to experience it, not just go out to the malls.

Everything was shuttering up in the mid-‘90s when I wrote Mortal City, and everybody was very tense about where they stood with their orientation in the ‘90s. Feminism was going through a lot of different fits and starts in the ‘90s. There’s so much more elegance, so much more understanding now and that’s what I keep on coming back to when I sing these songs, even though we have these flash points of recognizing deep bigotry, deep injustice and deep things to address. There’s still a greater awareness out there right now and hopefully there’ll be more solutions to accompany the awareness. But it’s weird because I’m sitting here singing these songs, realizing how much farther we’ve come than when I wrote them, but in an election cycle where people are feeling very cynical and scared.

Paste: You said that you’ve noticed people are worried about Trump. Have people spoken to you about it after shows? Have they cheered or booed during sets?
Williams: At first after the election, there were visible tears. People like to tell me their stories after the shows… I feel like I get a lot out of hanging out and hearing from them. But the stories were longer and more panicked and more tearful right around the election. And now, there’s sort of a numbed anxiety and a mystification about what we’ve done. It’s good insofar as people are realizing that they have to clump themselves together better, not just respond individually. [They have to] find each other and dig in more to back up these values that they embrace—and that our country as so clearly embraced—since the mid-‘90s. So there’s a sense of “We can’t get this wrong,” and that’s heartening to see. There’s also a sense that there’s so much that endures right now in our culture.

The last line of “Mortal City” is, “We are not lost in the Mortal City” and I feel like people are seeing that as a reassurance, as well as a statement.

Paste: Absolutely. What has this been like for you, though—singing these songs in their original track-listed order, so many years later and realizing their continued relevance?
Williams: Well, it’s funny. I think the first album I did, The Honesty Room, was like a big long letter to myself about this traveling life that I was embarking on with all of the angst and the heartbreak and all of the excitement of getting in motion. I think that Mortal City was a big long letter to this country about where I saw it coming in a way that wasn’t being echoed by Ellen DeGeneres, yet, or the Unitarians, and all the kind of ways that they manifest so many ways of looking at things and believing in things. I feel like you have these seismic rumblings of things—like the Midwest being very progressive and filled with really innovative interesting people who were going to make more of a mark on agriculture and green energy than we gave them credit for. I was seeing stuff and I was seeing all of these movements gaining some traction early on. That’s what was interesting to me. That’s what I wrote about. Now, a lot of them are in place.

But, there is a reactionary reality to it. There’s also an economic reality. What I was seeing in the ‘90s was people grappling with a post-industrial future in the United States. The liberals weren’t there to transition everyone from manufacturing into tech and the Republicans were just desperate to create a blame culture where you could blame it on somebody else. So a lot of people fell though those cracks. People became unemployed overnight in the thousands and it changed the cities. Where could they go but blame? The government didn’t help with the transition and the word on the street was, “If you could only just work a little harder, you’d be okay.” And neither of those were solutions. And then there was this third option, which was in the ‘80s, “Blame the blacks,” and now it’s, “Blame the browns.” And it’s just pure bigotry. I can imagine that millions of people being unemployed overnight are going to feel very disenfranchised. So the question is, “How do we transition without losing our shit.” That is the problem in “the mortal city” right now.

“The mortal city” is doing really well right now with sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and inclusive social values. I just see so much wonderful stuff going on right now. But the question is, “How do we diversify the economy so that everybody can feel like they’re stable and at the table?” both with systemic racism and this massive unemployment. Both of them are hovering at the edge of an increasingly stable center.

Paste: When you titled the record, was there a specific place that represented “the mortal city?” Or was it more of an all-encompassing metaphor?
Williams: It was an all-encompassing observation of the cities. Also, this was the mid-‘90s, when people where just starting to find their way back to their urban center… I was watching how people didn’t quite know how to come back to their urban centers, but [I was seeing] their loneliness and their longing to do so. “Mortal City” the song is literally based on an ice storm that happened in Philadelphia.

Paste: Over the course of traveling across the country multiple times since the album’s release, are there certain places that meant a lot to you or that have been especially influential in your career that you’ve been able to visit on this anniversary tour?
Williams: What was happening when I was traveling across the country was that cities and towns seemed to have really strong personalities. I’m in Tucson right now and there is a type of person who chooses to live amongst sawtooth cacti and beautiful blooming purple flowers and red sand. There’s another person who gravitates towards really beautiful brick historic old industrial cities with rivers running through them. And there’s other people who like to have picking parties on their porches in the South. That’s a real thing. I was just struck by how people really lived in their regions by these different palates and different sensibilities with a lot of different senses of humor. But they were all revelations to me. I fell in love with Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Iowa City—and those are the unusual ones! Of course you fall in love with Minneapolis and Seattle. I went to this little town called Pistol River [on the southern Oregon coast], where I was really late because I got caught on a snowy path. The audience members just played for themselves, just got up on stage and played for each other until I got there.

Paste: Going back to something you said earlier about having authors and poets open up the shows, why decide to go in that direction and what’s coming up?
Williams: It was really intuitive… I felt like there was an existential component to the record, a desire to locate ourselves. A lot of Mortal City is excitement about what I was seeing, but also identity through where you are, a sense of place. There’s a lot of geography in there.

I was getting a sense that people would want to hear from people in their regions and really experience themselves in their regions. That just took on a much deeper meaning when the election cycle heated up.

People have been writing poetry based on lyrics or titles from Mortal City. We said, “What do you think of when you hear the expression ‘Mortal City?’” A lot of them took off and really created a lot of poems based on these songs.

It was kind of mind-blowing. It happened the first night [of tour] in New York City and I thought, “Wow! David [Levithan] really pulled out the stops!”

The other night, this woman in Albuquerque wrote something based on “Mortal City.” She described Albuquerque and she named all of the colors, but with incredible rich Crayola…spectrum of color, and she said, “And this is us.” It was so unique and so New Mexico and so proud.

In Lawrence, Kansas, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, who was the former Poet Laureate, who wrote something based on “Iowa” that was called, “Kansas Just Wants to be Kansas.” She wrote, “Kansas just wants to be Kansas… able to carry six different slices of pie cascading down one arm / and in the other hand, a pot of coffee, fully-loaded, ready to serve you.” It was so Kansas! It was such a beautiful, loving way to locate oneself in Kansas. And she said in the middle of her set, “Well, I know we’re all really freaked out about Trump,” so it was also nice to see—whether you call yourself Red State or Blue State—that there’s a group of people who are truly alarmed and concerned about our democracy.

In every region that people have been concerned about Trump, it’s coming from somebody from another state, it’s coming from within these cities where a lot of the audience knows them already and there’s something very comforting in that, as well.

Tomorrow, there’s this woman named Aisha Sloan and I asked her if she’d read some poetry and she said, “I’d love to, but I have some friends who would really love to read their poetry, too. Can they come?” So we’re going to have five young women reading their poetry before I start!

And coming up, Sherman Alexie is going to open for us in Seattle, that’s probably a name you might know. It’s just been fantastic.

Paste: Anything else you’d like to add?
Williams: I am here to say that cities are doing great things. There’s a lot of good to be grown, but it does need to be grown. We do need to continue to bridge outward towards our fellow citizens who have been disenfranchised and towards our citizens who have been subject to systemic racisms. That’s our opportunity and let’s keep doing that. Don’t follow Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Don’t put your brain on that wavelength. It’s useless. It’s not who we are.

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