Though Dar Williams is entering her third decade as an active recording artist, she is still learning about the language of music and the art of inspiration. "I think music is another language," says Williams. "John Lennon's [lyric] 'Imagine all the people sharing all the world' — I don't think that's a good idea, I feel like that's a good idea." In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, the folk singer/songwriter discusses her musical influences, where she finds inspiration, her humble career beginnings, touring, and her latest album, In The Time Of Gods.
A New York native, Williams began her career performing on the coffeehouse circuit in Northampton, Mass. There, she befriended GRAMMY-nominated artist Joan Baez, and the two subsequently toured together. In 1993 Williams released her debut album, The Honesty Room, and two years later signed a record deal with Razor & Tie Entertainment, which has evolved into a 17-year partnership. Prior to her record deal, Williams recalls a career turning point when she played a batch of songs for a close circle of friends, including an emotive autobiographical song that addressed a recent failed relationship.
"I played all of my songs for some friends around a kitchen table," says Williams. "This one guy who was very quiet [and] intelligent said, 'That's the one I like. … It's you. … Could you do some more of that?' It was so earnest and so kind. And I just thought, 'Yeah, I'll do that.'"
As she had found her voice, Williams gained experience performing everywhere she could. For aspiring artists still searching, Williams suggests a similar diet of creativity, immersion and repetition.
"The very best thing you can do is to try to write a song that has some sort of impact," she says. "And the very best way to write that song, in my experience, is to be part of a scene. … In Cambridge in the early '90s, [I tried] open mics, hootenannies, song circles, tip-jar gigs, busking…anything."
In addition to drawing on personal experiences, Williams finds inspiration in a variety of art. "I like to go to museums," says Williams. "The funny thing is musicians often love to go to see visual art because you've got all these pictures to turn into metaphors. … Somehow that triggers these creative connections."
That symbiosis of creativity applies to artists across various media, according to Williams. "Painters often listen to music. I've gotten a lot of compliments from people saying, 'I paint to your music.'"
Released in April, In The Time Of Gods finds Williams channeling inspiration from ancient Greece. The ambitious song cycle explores current social issues against a backdrop centering around various characters from Greek mythology. The project crystallized when Williams wrote a song about Hermes, "the Greek messenger of the dead, and the god of thieves and travelers and people who live by their wits. Which is kind of what I am, the living by the wits part."
With nine studio albums now under her belt, Williams continues to follow her muse wherever it leads. With her concert itinerary booked solid in the United States through December, the "roller-coaster" ride of touring is something she has not only grown accustomed to, but enjoys.
"I've learned to sort of fall in love with all of the little cities and towns that I've gone to because now some of them I've been to 15 times," says Williams "I'm becoming a professional nomad and enjoying that whole part of my life."