Like just about everyone else, singer-songwriter Dar Williams had to put a number of projects — most notably a new album — on hold last year.
She and longtime producer Stewart Lerman tracked most of I'll Meet You Here in November of 2019. In late February of 2020, she cut the title tune in Woodstock with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and Larry Campbell, who produced the track and played guitars, pedal steel and baritone guitar. Then, the delays kicked in. They had to postpone a mid-March mixing date because Campbell wasn't feeling well. Turns out, he'd contracted a serious case of COVID-19. By the time he recovered, the album’s release was delayed on account of a full-blown pandemic.
Listening to the self-reflective songs on the album; however, it’s almost as if Williams wrote the tunes in response to the pandemic.
“The title is the apex of coincidences,” says Williams via phone from her Hudson Valley home. Dar Williams performs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Kent Stage. “That’s great. It just shows that I was probably in the right place to make the best of whatever was happening in the pandemic. It’s interesting to see how many people adjusted so quickly. I remember saying, ‘Well, it’s not like I have to wear a face mask every time I enter the building.’ And yet, here we are and it seems so normal to me. I was going to a place where I wasn’t assuming that every bad thing wasn’t some sort of indictment or judgment, and that’s very much in that song. If you didn’t take the pandemic personally, that helped.”
“Today and Everyday,” a song driven by jangling guitars and a touch of organ, has a great energy to it and recalls the folk-pop of In My Tribe-era 10,000 Maniacs.
“There was this Beatles-que line that popped into my head in a dream that said, ‘If I’m ever going to make it, I have to say….,” she says of the tune. “At first, I thought it was about a person trying to reconcile a bad break-up. Then, I thought that what’s interesting to me is recycling and the zero waste moment. If I want to make it personal to me, I have to believe that I’m helping the planet, so I gave it the song this towering meaning that I could save the world every day, and that’s what’s it all about. I proceeded with that optimism. It’s really what I have in my heart, so it doesn’t bother me when people say my vision is simplified or even harmful because I’m so focused on the little stuff. The song is that kind of manifesto of optimism.”
For “Sullivan Lane,” a retro-poppy tune about finding kindred vulnerable spirits, Williams recruited one of her neighbors, Joziah Longo of the folk-rock band Slambovian Circus of Dreams, to play on the poppy number.
“I love this song,” she says of the track. “The Slambovians are a really big band here and also in England. They’re not a local band, but they happen to live down the street from me. Joziah’s daughter used to babysit my son and daughter. There’s a personal connection. There is this very cool word ‘neuro diversity,’ which is respecting all these different wavelengths. Joziah loves that stuff. I always loved the song and said someday I would record it. It modulates all over the place and is so difficult to sing, but I was so glad to sing it.
The album’s closing tune, “You’re Aging Well,” initially appeared on Williams’s first album. Folk icon Joan Baez liked the song so much that she recorded it with Williams and invited her to tour Europe and the States. By anointing Williams as a folk artist worthy of attention, Baez essentially launched Williams' career.
“It’s 25 years later, so there’s that anniversary to celebrate,” Williams says. “I am the same age now that Joan Baez was when she brought me on. That changed everything because she did everything she could to introduce me to the world and give me her stamp of approval. It was a tour for the ages, going on the road with her in 1996. It was pretty heavy to go back and mark the times. It’s a beautiful thing to think that I’m now the age she was and to think how I could be there for some artists and for the world. I will never be a Joan Baez, but I can be a Dar Williams and help the world.”
For Williams, who wrote her first song when she was only 11, having parents who encouraged her musical pursuits has been key to her ability to develop as an artist.
“I think there’s just a moment when a kid picks up an instrument and starts to play it without any encouragement or starts to solve a math problem without anybody telling him to do it,” she says. “I was a child of the ’70s. I recommend we try to find our way back to that time. You could just spend a day writing a song and finding rhymes. There was an artistic live and let live feeling in the ’70s. My parents let me catch that wave. They let a very weird kid do all the things she did. They signed me up for creative writing classes and whatever that workshop was that was coming through the library would sign me up. They met me where I was. The '70s were great. ‘Do you want to run through the woods naked? Do you want to paint a painting? Do you want to write song?’ They were like, ‘Go for it!’”
Williams also spent 2019 and 2020 working on a new book about her songwriting retreat, Writing a Song That Matters. While it now won't come out until 2022, Williams says she's made progress on it. In addition, Williams says she’s particularly excited to hit the road again, one of the main motivations for sustaining her career after all these years.
“I have fallen in love with every region of the country,” she says. “I can’t go back to these places without writing songs. I can’t just coast on everything I’ve done either. That’s another cattle prod. I just love the prairies and the mountains and the bayous and the Pacific Coast too much to leave it alone at this point.”
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