Dar Williams On Songwriting

Singer / songwriter Dar Williams talks about her craft, life on the road and her upcoming tour with Joan Osborne.

If the best songwriters make creating music sound easy, then Williams’ compositions seem like they entered this world fully formed with words perfectly combining with meter and melody.

The artist recently spoke with Pollstar, talking about what inspires her creative process, working with other artists, how she approaches recording other writers’ songs and what sparked her upcoming tour with Osborne.

Photo: AP Photos / The Arizona Republic
Tucson Benefit Concert, Tucson Convention Center, Ariz.

You sing so effortlessly. Is it as easy as it sounds?

The work goes into setting things up so that it sounds easy when you do it. It’s like using machinery. If one part is working too hard, it will break eventually. The goal is good maintenance.

I enjoy singing, as I think a lot of people do. I also write within my range. I sort of fix the game there, too.

How do you take care of your voice?

I warm up before concerts. That’s all I ever do. If I’m at a place where I’m really yelling or singing full-out, and my throat starts to hurt, I just take a day off with my voice. It’s not the end of the world. If you get yourself to a really rough place, you just decrease. You keep an ear out for yourself.

How did the upcoming tour with Joan Osborne come about?

Her keyboard player has played with me a few times. I don’t know how the idea for the tour began, but I think she probably sealed the deal. When you’re about to go out on the road with someone you haven’t worked with before, and you’ve been doing it yourself for 15 years, you just sort of need that person to vouch for you. So, I think a lot of these ideas get floated.

I was thrilled because one of the rules of thumb of putting a tour together is to try to have some kind of contrast – younger/older, new on the scene, more experienced, male, female. And to have someone whose profile is very similar to mine was music to my ears because that’s the most fun. I can’t speak for Joan, but it will be great to be with someone who has seen a lot of the world. She’s made a point of doing things on her terms as I have by design.

Do you think you two have a spiritual connection?

I think so. I don’t know Joan that well but my feeling is that she has worked hard. It’s like Pilates or yoga. You’re always kind of reflecting back on your core, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, what compromises you’ll make and won’t make. Because you will make compromises. I feel like she has done that as well. She kind of knows that terrain of decisions and trying to grow as she is out there in the world If you’re trying to pay attention to that, the road is an excellent place to grow and to grow up.

Is it difficult to transition from being your own boss on the road to working with another artist and having to compromise at times?

Well, when I was on a tour bus with nine guys, I was not in charge of the content of the humor or of the recreational drugs. Those were other people’s decisions. I look forward to things like that [working with others]. I was on the road with Sara Watkins and you have to be adaptive. At the end of the day, the people with that kind of “my way or the highway” [attitude] don’t make it.

If you can’t be interdependent, it’s not going to work. Even divas have to concede to what’s going to make their careers grow, which is not always a comfortable thing, no matter who you are. You’re always going to have to wear some sort of strapless dress in Antarctica for a photo shoot. That’s like the rule. You have to be wearing something very cold in a very cold place.

[For example] I was with Sarah and Sean Watkins and the air conditioning was out in the van we were driving around in. No one complained once. I mean it was a pain, so we were bummed out. We were going through the South and the temperatures were into the three digits in half of those towns, but everyone adapted to it. And in the meantime, Sean was playing stuff by The Dave Rawlings Machine and Jay-Z and some kind of contemporary bluegrass stuff he was involved with. It was everything you hoped from rubbing up against other people in your life. I learned a lot, I laughed a lot and we made a lot of music together. I think it worked and I feel like we were friends at the end. I think when you’re on the road like that, you just bring your stories and try to leave your ego behind.

I’m anticipating [the tour] will be like that. Some people have to be very self-protective because the road can be very hard on your ego.

Photo: Rudolf van Dommele

When you’re with other artists and there’s no audience, just musicians hanging together, what do you play?

Generally we’ll play stuff for each other on each other’s iPods and not actually pull out the instruments. In the case of Dave Rawlings or John Bryan, a lot of Rawlings’ virtuosity is in his performance and a lot of John Bryan’s genius is in his production. So we’re pointing to aspects of production and performance as much as songwriting.

With songwriting, if we love the song that much, we usually end up trying to play it together and bring it to the stage. There’s definitely that moment where I’ll hear just one song and play the hell out of it, and then think how I can get the song onto the stage because I can do something with it, as opposed to jamming.

Sarah and Sean have been doing this since they were nine and are consummate jammers. They probably do a lot more collaborative stuff. I love to sing harmony, so if someone got on that jag I wouldn’t leave the dressing room. But we generally don’t get to that place. In the van, you say, ‘Let’s hear this very slick solo,” and you listen to it together like a bunch of teenage girls.

You’ve recorded some very interesting versions of other people’s work. How do you approach recording another person’s song? Do you do it because you like the song or is more along the lines of hearing a song and thinking you can do something with it?

It’s gotta be both. As much as I would love to find a great song by another woman, preferably a woman who could use the exposure and the cash, I find myself dipping into [songs by] men who are quite well-known between [the years] ‘65 to ‘85. It’s The Kinks, it’s Richard Manual. Robbie Robertson co-wrote “Whispering Pines” that I did of theirs. The one exception is this guy named Pierce Pettis who is a contemporary of mine and he wrote a song called “Family.” My first time I couldn’t hear it without crying. Then I tried to sing it and I couldn’t sing it without crying. Then I thought , “It’s just a simple, well-written song and I can’t hurt it.” So I recorded it and Larry Campbell played violin.

I just played for a camp over the last two weeks, a summer camp. Three camps have adapted the song “Family” in their songbooks and campfires. Sometimes it’s just a matter of spreading the word, not creating any alternative version.

Something like “Comfortably Numb,” you have to do something with it. With “Comfortably Numb” and “Whispering Pines” I just thought “whatever I can do.” I have a female voice and I have diction. I can bring out the words and the melodies beyond these incredible instrumental interpretations they are known for. “Comfortably Numb” has so much integrity as lyrics. “Fall On Me,” The R.E.M. song that we [Williams with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky] did on Cry Cry Cry, those are really interesting lyrics. They deserve the extra attention the way an acoustic artist will do.

[“Comfortably Numb”] is kind of astounding. I was on stage once and compared it to a Samuel Beckett play. Because there are two voices. There’s the pusher and then there’s the pushee. That can be the voice of compromise and getting older. That can be a record executive, a road manager, a “Dr. Feelgood.” That could be anything. “Comfortably Numb,” as I told people, it was in 2003 that we headed over to Iraq, the same year the iPod came out. It was like everybody beamed up to the “spaceship iPod.” That was “Comfortably Numb.” The technology got excellent the same year we were heading off to this really bizarre war. I think we are both voices. And I love that.

This one woman journalist said, “Can I say ‘Thank you’ for rescuing that song from the rec rooms of stoned teenagers?”

And I think that’s right because I think it has so much to do with that loss of youth and that glimpse that you get back to it – “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye, I turned to look and it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown, the dream is gone” – it’s like, that’s it.

You mentioned the number of male songwriters versus female. Are there male songwriters that capture a woman’s point of view, and if you didn’t know who they were, you would have thought the songs were written by a woman?

I would pull it out a little further, maybe, and say they capture something about being human so you’re not feeling excluded, or you have to pretend you’re a dude. Like that song “The Night We Met” by Cat Stevens – “You’re mother came into the room, she had the best figure by far.” Well, good. I’m glad to know when you’re 22 and you’re insecure about your body, you’re like “Oh, okay, so this really spiritual dude wouldn’t like me. Okay, I got it. Then later in the song he says she was a junkie. So she had a nice figure because she was doing heroin. Oh, that’s really mature. You just feel this exclusion. I often felt that with Cat Stevens’ music. A sense that he was looking for some sort of doe-eyed diaphanous woman that I would not be a compatriot of. Whereas Randy Newman, I feel like we’re all in it together. So my hat’s off to him. He’s got deeper things at work than just trying to find some tail. He’s singing more than love songs, too, so that helps.

Are there topics you’ve purposely stayed away from?

It’s actually kind of difficult to write about my children. I think they’re going to sneak into your system over time. I’m always being caught by surprise by what I’m choosing to write about. My big joke is if I could write “Against All Odds,” or “Endless Love” or any of those songs. If I could write a power love ballad, nothing would make me happier. I love those songs and I would love the money that went with them. The harder I try to write love songs, the more likely I am to write about a nuclear plant.

I find myself not writing about a lot of environmental things I’m involved with. If you’re going to write a song about recycling, then I think the genre of that song will be a children’s song. But if that is what the muse brought to me, I would try it. I get a little melody in my head and I kind of follow it before I judge. But I think somehow the muse has known not to try to write songs about separating your plastics.

Do you begin with a melody, words, or is it a mixture?

It’s a mixture. A little spiral of melody, like a curly-q of melody will go into my head and it will have some sort of syllables or words attached to it. It sounds good, so I go towards what those sounds are and find words, that essential concept. And sometimes I end up throwing out the concept itself. It’s just a way to start.

I was trying to hum a melody that I was hearing for [producer/musician] Rob Hyman who I’ve been writing songs with. The picture I had in my head – “The summer child is running, the summer child is running” – we eventually wrote this entire song called “Summer Child.” And sure enough, it’s everything I wanted to write about, everything that’s important to me, everything that’s going on in my life right now. But for all I knew, I was just propelling melody and trying to find something to sing to Rob. I think the unconscious takes these opportunities to introduce a tiny little lightning flash of something in my head and I have to capture it and assume there is a reason as to why it got there.

Your songs have appeared on TV shows and in movies. When you first see your words and melody matched against a visual element are you shocked or do you feel that the filmmakers get you?

Here’s the truth. It always works. I don’t know if it’s because I know I’m going to get a royalty check or if it’s like seeing yourself on TV. I don’t know if it’s something sort of crass, but it always works and I’m always thrilled. There was a scene where the music quietly came up behind this kid apologizing to a guy for getting him fired after outing him to his school. And they’re playing this song “After All,” which didn’t make any sense. And I was thrilled.

There was this thing called “Dinner And A Movie” where she [director Lisa Kors] wanted me to do a couple of songs but I didn’t know what she wanted them for. She put “After All” in the sex scene, which was great because it’s this completely existential, walking-my-way-out-of-clinical-depression-into-sanity. And I just thought, “I am so foxy that I wrote an existential song” and even that is sexy.

It’s not like somebody films you and you look at your face and go, “Ugh, I look like crap.” You’ve already created this thing and they’re juxtapositioning it.

There was a thing in “Alias” where they used “The Beauty Of The Rain.” This guy is about to get caught doing something and he doesn’t know it’s going to happen, and it’s raining. That’s the only thing that related to the song and I loved it. It’s a complete thrill to see your stuff and they make it sound beautiful and it’s really exciting.

Let’s switch it around. When watching a film or television program, do you suddenly find inspiration in a scene or a visual image?

I can’t think of anything offhand. I did start to write a pop song about therapy. And I thought, “I can’t write a song about therapy, everybody has their limits.” I did a thing that actually jogs my songwriting process sometimes. I snuck into a matinee of “Batman Returns” where Nicole Kidman plays a shrink. And I thought, “See, it is in the mainstream. I can do this.” Sometimes the pop culture confirms that some strange angle from which I’m seeing life will fit somewhere.

Actually paintings are what inspire me a lot. I go to a lot of museums to get that imagery going. I wrote a lot of Promised Land at one museum.

There have been times when loose-knit songwriting communities seem to spring up. Los Angeles in the late 1960s / early ‘70s for example, or the New York Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s. If you could step into a time machine, is there a particular era you’d love to visit just for the songwriting?

One of my favorite bands of all times is The Byrds. The music they were making and how they were doing it was a big influence on me. There was something in the fact that they were doing songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and it was still a great thing to be singing songs by Pete Seeger [that] only makes me love them more. Their harmony and hippiness – I just love that.

Photo: Rudolf van Dommele
“A little spiral of melody, like a curly-q of melody will go into my head and it will have some sort of syllables or words attached to it.”

Dar Williams and Joan Osborne begin their tour in Eugene, Ore., at the McDonald Theatre Sept. 14. Other stops include San Francisco (Sept. 17); Los Angeles (Sept. 19); Flagstaff, Ariz. (Sept. 21); Chicago (Sept. 29) and Bloomington, Ind. (Sept. 30). For more information, please visit DarWilliams.com and JoanOsborne.com.