First of all, if you haven’t seen Antje Duvekot’s stop-motion animation music video for “Today and Every Day,” from Dar Williams’ amazing new album I’ll Meet You Here (Renew Records/BMG), what are you waiting for? It’s the kind of perfect pairing of audio and visual that will remind viewers of the magic of that craft, and make you nostalgic for the heyday of MTV. Of course, “Today and Everyday” is merely one of the 10 incredible songs on what is best described as Williams’ best and most consistently enjoyable album since My Better Self. From the brilliant opener “Time Be My Friend,” featuring guest artist Gail Ann Dorsey, through the brassy “You Give It All Away” to the powerful statement of “Little Town” and the revisit of “You’re Aging Well,” Williams remains one of the best singer/songwriters around. Dar was kind enough to make time for an interview before the release of the album.
Gregg Shapiro: Pandemic delay aside, your marvelous new album I’ll Meet You Here is arriving about six years after its predecessor Emerald, which, from my calculations, is the longest time between albums for you.
Dar Williams: Right after I toured with Emerald (Dar’s 2015 album), I signed a contract for the book I wrote called What I Found in a Thousand Towns. It was a really exciting, all new experience for me. Collecting the interviews, digging down into seven, eight cities and really thinking about them. Writing the book, touring with the book, and doing town talks, where I go and speak with towns about what they’re doing to create more social trust and social capital. That was a deep project and deserved to be. So, I’m cool about the whole thing. I think  I’ve benefited as a human and as a writer from that sidestep. Also, of course, the album (I’ll Meet You Here) was in the can last year [laughs]. Theoretically, it’s only five years.
GS: True! “Time, Be My Friend,” the wonderful song that opens I’ll Meet You Here, and from which the album gets its title, features queer musician Gail Ann Dorsey on vocals. Was the song originally written for two voices or did that change when you were working with Gail Ann?
DW: Neither. My manager recommended having it be two people. She’s got great instincts, and the first person I thought of was Gail Ann Dorsey, who I’ve known for a long time. On the one hand, I wanted her on the song. On the other hand, I just wanted to hang out with her [big laugh]. It all worked out.
GS: I love the sound of the brass on “You Give It All Away.” It’s not the first time you’ve incorporated a horn section – for example, Chris Botti plays on “The Beauty of the Rain,” for example. How do you know when brass is right for a song?
DW: What I love about the mysterious songwriting process is that sometimes an arrangement pops into your head as you are writing it, and you can’t shake it. In this case, I heard exactly what I wanted to hear on the trumpets, with the brass. In fact, I think they tried to do it with saxes [big laugh] and, nope, it was brass. I love it!
GS: “Little Town,” the centerpiece of I’ll Meet You, is a persona song, written in the voice of someone uncomfortable with change, whose kids “hoped that I would come around.” Is this character one you’ve encountered or more of a composite?
DW: It’s more of a composite than a character I’ve encountered, but I’ve encountered many people who have made a transition that we didn’t think they were capable of making. Forget the way we stereotype other people; people stereotype themselves, and they double down, and they do so at their peril because sometimes they’ll choose their ideology over their children and over their health. Over their own best judgment, really.
GS: We’ve definitely seen that recently.
DW: Yes. Just like we love that moment when we can see a moment of creativity in a person or a moment of revelation in a child, I think there’s this really exciting moment when a person puts aside all of that doubling down and opens their eyes to accessible change. What really made me emotional as I wrote it was this idea that they would actually put it out there. That not only had they changed, they felt bad about how they behaved before and that they were in a loving community that accepted them and didn’t make them apologize. Because I think people are so afraid that if they change they’ll be mocked and ridiculed. I think the biggest change I’ve seen is there are parents who embrace their kids’ gender orientation and sexual orientation. To pass the house of a family who’s always held their politics close to their chest and has been kind of very quiet conservative and see a sign that says “Black Trans Lives Matter” is what I’m seeing a lot of now.
GS: I just got goosebumps.
DW: It’s very real. I see a lot of people showing up with their queer kids and trans kids at shows. There’s a lot of unspoken narratives there of the kids who I think not only had parents who came around to their orientation but came around to listening to Dar Williams [laughs]. Which was not tougher, but you could see that these adults had softened to allow their children’s perspectives to influence them, and that is tremendous.
GS: Would it be fair to say the sociopolitical nature of “Little Town” and “Berkely,” are the result of having lived through the difficult years of President Biden’s predecessor?
DW: No. It has deeper roots than that. Two things happened to me simultaneously and it’s such an incredible coincidence. One is that I was writing a song that has to do with how towns were having garlic festivals and apple festivals and concert series that allowed people to dovetail their skill sets and discover themselves. The narrative was always, “We’re so divided. Why can’t we love each other?” My observation was, “Why don’t we have a garlic festival, and the outcome will be loving each other [laughs]?” Why don’t we do certain activities and incorporate things about our identities as towns and cities that will help us build a sense of place and understanding? All of my research was about finding places that had lost that hard shell and made the most of public spaces. At the same time, Roger Ailes was living in my town. People see him as a Republican and he was not a Republican. He was different. He was a circus master who loved to create, foment, and allow others to profit from chaos and division. Paradoxically, his big line was that we are all so divided, but that in and of itself was a strategy for dividing people. If you tell someone she’s crazy, after a while she’ll probably believe you and she’ll act accordingly. There was Roger Ailes doing this in our small town, so it was like having a shark in a pond. Instead of having a fish in a small pond, we had a shark. I really got to see how his strategies worked. He was consummate at saying, “People don’t change. People are rigid. People won’t change. People shouldn’t change.” “Little Town” came out of seeing our next-door town managing the changes that were coming. Managing them and acknowledging, more people, more immigrants, more challenges, and gracefully managing them. “Little Town” came from what was going on in our town, what I was writing about, and watching Beacon, New York dancing, sometimes clumsily, with its changes, but moving. “Berkeley” is great because Berkeley is really wealthy and really fancy. Berkeley has Sur La Table, a fancy kitchenware store, and lots of fancy houses. But you can go into a place and people are still talking about the revolution. People are still creating ordinances that are more and more inclusive. I went into Peet’s, the flagship store of which is in  Berkeley, and there was a guy sitting there with a really substantial wheelchair, with stuff hanging off of it, taking up a lot of space, playing chess as clearly he does on a regular basis, and the whole feel of this corporate coffee shop was, this guy has a right to take up as much space as he can and how great that we have spaces that allow people to thrive with all of their abilities. That’s Berkeley to me. Even though it’s pretty fancy pants, it still holds onto this belief that we must go to the roots, we must be radical in how we dream of an inclusive future. What’s interesting is that I began, and actually ended, coincidentally, a relationship there in my life that had sort of that umbrella of freethinking and dreaming. The relationship was doomed, but Berkeley got into that dreaming psyche [laughs]. It’s called “loose versus tight” in sociology. Those are actual terms. [Laughs] and it can make you looser in a lot of ways. But I love that; when geography influences us. That’s honest. Places influence us and we go with that. That was “Berkeley.”
GS: At least one cover tune has appeared on almost every album of yours, including “Sullivan Lane” on I’ll Meet You Here. What makes a cover song a good fit for you?
DW: If it makes me cry, it’s a good fit. I don’t know what that is. It’s sometimes a real X factor. The song “Family” by Pierce Pettis; I cried so hard I could barely record it the first time. People have recommended songs to cover. But, no, it’s all me [laughs]. “Sullivan Lane” is like a mental health anthem. It’s about how we find one another. There’s a word now, which is neurodiversity, that’s out there. But Joziah wrote the song before we had that term. He has this very loving way of looking out at the periphery and he, as a person, doesn’t really assess people the way one “normally” does. Because of that, he’s been able to see a much more interesting and inclusive neurodiverse landscape. Being a person who had somewhere between one and five years of severe clinical depression and as someone who was saved by other people and would not have survived on my own, I really respond to that idea of a community of people who recognize their own differences and empathize and reach in and find you and come through for you.
GS: You even cover yourself, recording a new version of “You’re Aging Well,” from your first album 1993’s The Honesty Room, which was recorded when you were in your 20s. Now that you’re in your 50s, did that have anything to do with your decision to revisit the song?
DW: Yeah, I was kind of doing that Joni Mitchell rip-off where you write something from your future, wiser self, and then become the future wiser self and sing it from the perspective that you only guessed at when you were younger. I am the same age that Joan Baez was when she took me on the road with her and we sang this as a duet. I am both really aware of the space of time between then and now, and also that I will forever have so much love in my heart for Joan as a person and as a colleague. She took me in, and she’s great! She defied age. I had lots of friends my age who were much dodgier than all of the people that I was traveling with who were in their 40s and 50s and 60s. It was kind of my first introduction to the free spirits of traveling musicians, which was great!
GS: Books written by musicians are more popular than ever, with recent titles by Mary Gauthier, Brandi Carlile and Rickie Lee Jones, as examples. As the author of a few books yourself, in what ways does that form of creative expression differ from the fulfillment you get from writing a song or recording an album?
DW: It’s been amazing to mix it all up. I remember overhearing Joan in an interview talking about what it is to get involved with causes as well as writing. She just said, “Singing isn’t enough.” Singing is so intangible and fragile, in a way. When you travel and sing, you can get a little caught up. You can get a little internalized. Writing books keeps you outward-facing and connected in lots of different ways beyond your personal wind instrument of your voice. I remember overhearing that and thinking, “I’m so glad that I’m involved with various causes.” Then when I was writing books, I thought, “This has anchored me, to get outside of writing songs and write other things.” Especially my latest book, because it’s such a passion of mine that cannot fit into songs. Which is watching how people assemble themselves to move into the future. It was kind of like coming out of the closet, but not [laughs]. It was kind of coming home to a whole part of my identity that had been like a hobby, and then suddenly was part of something that I felt like I could contribute to the world and to really claim as part of who I am.

Author Profile

Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).

He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.