On one level, the sizable body of work accumulated by celebrated writer/artist Dar Williams is a continuing narrative of her life — what she’s experienced and what she’s observed during her years of intensive touring. On another, it forms a detailed look at the course of modern‐day existence in the decade and a half between 1993, when Williams released her debut album, The Honesty Room, and 2008, her seventh and most recent studio album, Promised Land. Throughout her career, Williams has employed a reporter’s keen eye and a fiction writer’s feel for nuance in the act of confronting what she’s described as “the big picture of how people approach life,” by examining and illuminating the minute details.
These juxtaposed thematic arcs, laden with intriguing narrative twists and vivid imagery, are cast in sharp relief on Many Great Companions, a two‐CD set that generously and comprehensively pairs a career overview with the artist’s latest recording project. The first disc contains luminous, newly recorded acoustic performances of a dozen of Williams’ most sharply drawn and resonant songs; the second cherry‐picks 19 of her classics, along with her uplifting take on Ray Davies’ Kinks gem “Better Things,” which fits in seamlessly with the originals. On the new tracks, Williams is joined by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, who doubles as producer, sometimes in tandem with the artist. Also making memorable appearances are Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame, fellow singer/songwriters Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Larkin, and the trio Motherlode.
As a whole, the collection charts Williams’ course from an upstart neo‐folkie to a seasoned artist who’s also a community‐involved wife, mother and “involved neighbor,” as she puts it. Williams and her husband Michael, who live in the Hudson River Valley 90 minutes from New York City, have a six‐year‐old son, Stephen, and an adopted daughter, Ethiopia‐born Taya, who’s one and a half.
In her work, she says, “There’s the true line of curiosity about living in this world, and I put an importance on observing things right now, which engages me. But my subject matter has changed over the years. Early on, I did a lot of quick sketches juxtaposing the different environments I found myself in. Whereas, now, as I get older, there’s more of a theme of what it means to root yourself and belong to something.”
The idea of working with Louris was a natural one. The two artists enjoyed the experience of co‐writing the song “The Tide Falls Away” for Promised Land. “Poetically,” says Williams, “Gary knows how to let a song live, to leave space for the listener’s mind to enter, as you can tell from the Jayhawks records. He also respects lyrics, and he lets the production benefit from the structure of the songwriting, and vice versa.”
Both of them are addicted to the New York Times crossword puzzle, and Williams fondly recalls the two of them sitting side by side in the studio between takes working their way through each daily challenge, peeking at each other’s progress — in a perfect metaphor for collaboration.
Through the act of compiling, and in some cases reinhabiting, material from early in her career, Williams gained some perspective about how her work has evolved in parallel with the arc of her life. “If I really listen to my early albums,” she says, “I get used to how young I was, and I remember how young I was in every way. But I’ve experienced these songs differently through the act of playing them so much, interacting with people about them and hearing their stories about how they’ve lived with them on highways and through relationships, and all of that translates into how I perform them. So the reality of this collection of material is the songs themselves plus the miles they’ve gone. And I think the songs do better for having that kind of weight to them.”
It wasn’t difficult for Williams to choose the 26 songs (six of which appear in both the original and newly recorded acoustic versions); her loyal audiences have let her know exactly what they react to most enthusiastically during the course of several thousand shows over the years. In order to fully engage with the dozen songs she tackled for a second time in the studio, Williams says, “I emptied myself out.” The results of this zen¬like approach are subtly devastating.
Comparing the contrasting original and newly recorded take on “If I Wrote You,” from 1997’s End of the Summer, Williams says, “I’m very aware of the world it had in its original version, and the floaty arrangement is true to how I heard it in my head as I played it then, but that one has a kind of a roughness that suits my voice now, which is why I chose it.”
Williams’ greatest gift as a writer is her ability to get inside the heads of her characters, no matter how removed their mindsets and values are from her own, doing so with consistent and sometimes surprising compassion, exemplified by the dysfunctional extended family of “The Christians and the Pagans” (from her second album, 1996’s Mortal City, and newly recorded during the acoustic sessions) and the true believer of “Teen for God” (from her sixth LP, 2005’s My Better Self ).
“You do this because you love the characters,” she points out. “Whether it’s a junkie or a party boy who can’t grow up, there’s an initial interest — there’s something complicated there to start with. If you feel dismissive about a person, you’re not going to write a song about them. What I like about ‘Teen for God’ is there are religious people who think it’s anti‐religious, and anti‐religious people who think it’s religious. That tells me I did something right. It’s my talent to continue to be interested in a lot of different kinds of people, and it’s my job to stay interested in what’s going on — which is synonymous with not thinking I have all the answers.”
At the same time, she’s piercingly honest when looking at her own life, as when she dug deep into her childhood memories on “The Babysitter’s Here” (another audience favorite appearing in both its original 1993 version and a new recording) Throughout her career, she’s remained fully capable of laughing at herself, as she expresses her observations and emotions in a consistently relatable way.
Asked about what insights she gained from the experience of working on the project, Williams says her love of the three Js — Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Judy Collins — came through loud and clear. “I really did sound a lot more than Joni Mitchell than I realized,” she says with a wry smile.
Another of her insights was more substantive, and more gratifying as well. “When I pull out a song that I haven’t done in a long time,” Williams says. “I cringe a little at what I might find there, afraid that I’m gonna hear a twinge of self‐righteousness or a lack of sensitivity to the characters I wrote about. And I’m pleased that my songwriting self was committed to putting aside judgment and respecting the people in the songs. I’m grateful to my younger self for not taking any cheap shots. Even the narrator of ‘As Cool as I Am’ [another satirical yet poignant Mortal City song that appears here in then‐and‐now juxtaposition] has some compassion for the person that she’s singing to—and in my experience writing it, a lot of compassion, because the person she’s singing to is stuck in a loop. So I’m glad, because in my personal life I was responding to every button that was pushed, but in the songs I was able to put that aside so that I could look toward being a person with perspective and respect. And that has allowed me to keep performing them.”
Williams’ growth as a person over her 15‐year career has gone hand‐in‐hand with her evolution as an artist. Raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., and educated at Wesleyan University, Williams spent 10 years living in the thriving artistic community of Northampton, Massachussetts., where she began to make the rounds on the coffeehouse circuit. Joan Baez, an early fan of her music, took Williams out on the road and recorded several of her songs.
All seven of her studio albums — including The Green World (2000) and The Beauty of the Rain (2003), are amply represented on the balanced Many Great Companions — she’s also released the onstage document Out There Live (2001) and the DVD Live at Bearsville Theater (2007).
At the core of Williams’ work is a belief in the innate ability of people to make a better world, the product of countless observations in her travels and conversations with her fans. If anything, her optimism has intensified as she’s crisscrossed America during the tough times of recent years. “My big secret,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye, “is that we are gonna make it — but we’ll be the last to know.”
11 October 2010