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Dar Williams bringing her debut album back to Englert on June 12

Folk songstress celebrates 'The Honesty Room' 20 years later

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By Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 6 June 2014 | 9:02 am   ::  

Dar Williams is bringing at least 13 old friends to the Englert Theatre on June 12.

Some she's kept in touch with over the years, the others she's getting to know all over again. She can't listen to their voices, but the poetic folk singer/songwriter has enjoyed reading their words on this reawakening journey.

All of them are facets of her 20-something self, revealed 20 years ago on her first album, "The Honesty Room."

We've heard "The Babysitter's Here," "When I was a Boy" and "This is Not the House that Pain Built" off and on in at least five Eastern Iowa concerts over the years - but not necessarily the others, like "Mark Rothko Song."

"Getting back to the songs was like a combination of dread and then relief," Williams, 47, says by phone from her home in Cold Spring, N.Y. It's in the Hudson highlands about an hour north of New York City. She lives in a little Queen Anne home in the picturesque 19th century village with her husband, who's a builder, their son, 10, and daughter, 5. The kids' babysitters are just as cool as the one Williams immortalized in "The Honesty Room" collection.

"I sort of dreaded looking at these old lyrics," she says of revisiting her debut album. "I was fresh enough out of college that I was avoiding throwaway lines and bad phrasing at the time, possibly more than now. The themes of them - I expected to dread the naive voice, and instead, these were the songs I took with me as I started a certain path in my life.

"It turned out that I was preparing myself to go down a road less taken. ... It's not that much different than other roads. I like the fact that it's not this completely heroic thing. It's not like I was a knight on a hero's quest, but it was just different enough from what everybody else was doing and just public enough that the humiliation would be greater if I failed, that it did take some words of comfort. I did have to create a little bit of the rhetoric and the poetry around taking that trip so that I could keep going.

"And then of course, everything turned out really well. The relationships that I sacrificed and some of the settledness that I sacrificed and the economic certainty - it all turned out for the best. That makes it all the sweeter, this very tiny quiver of arrows that I created for myself as I set out into the woods that way. That's how I experienced the album - not as naive but exactly where I was supposed to be at that age."

She'll play the album in its entirety at the Englert and other venues from San Francisco to Massachusetts, where she cut her teeth in coffeehouses and concerts in repurposed spaces, like an open mic night set up in a hallway.

"I was terrible," she says. "I was nervous for a year and just bad for another year. ... You'd face humiliation and people ignoring you and inappropriate feedback and jealousy and competition - and at the same time, it was incredible."

She found her song circle and a support network that gave her the courage to keep pushing her career forward.

"It was a magical world. It was painful, too, which is appropriate," she says with a laugh. "There were guys who said I should quit, there were guys who'd tell me I had a crappy guitar, there were people who told me not to sing in falsetto and that I had terrible diction, that my songs were stupid, and that's fine. I had to find my feet. I did have a crappy guitar and I did need to improve my diction. It was no worse than a grad school, I'm sure, and really pretty exciting."

She's enjoying this journey back to her beginnings, without going fully back.

"I can't listen to the first album - it's just too, too different from voice now, but I did look at the lyrics. What surprised me is that I was relieved to feel different from who I was but not contemptuous or embarrassed," she says. "I wasn't embarrassed by the person I was. That's who I had to be then."

Looking ahead, next she'll produce a new album next year, and in 2016, she'll revisit another 20-year-old friend, "Mortal City," her 1996 sophomore album even more popular than her first. It features her audience singalong favorite, "Iowa (Traveling III)." She penned it in the mid-'90s after getting lost on a quick trip from Iowa City to Beloit, Wis., for a last-minute gig with Ani DiFranco. The result is a set of sweetly sad lyrics undulating between a vocal exercise that stretches "Iowa" into about eight syllables.

"I headed out for the concert very early the next day, and of course, was driving in the wrong direction for 20 miles, but I was so early it didn't matter," she says. "I just saw this as an opportunity to see the same landscape twice.

"I was so impressed with the hilliness of Iowa. In the East, there are a lot of woods, so you can't see rolling hills, you see forest. But in Iowa, you can see these rolling hills and distant silos and to me, it was very breathtaking," she says.

"It was April, so it kinda smelled awful, but with windows rolled up, it seemed to have this biomorphic quality - like a human body - but it was very soft and golden. To me it was so evocative. It really looked like all these really beautiful curves, like human curves. So I imagined a very shy person, their desires being sort of pulled out of them; asking that constant question, 'What is the thing that we see or hear that allows us to dare to transcend that shyness and act on our desires?'

"I imagined this landscape being hypnotic and evocative, that Iowa itself - despite the warnings from your friends and despite your shyness and your anxiety - this evocative landscape forces you to act on your desires.

"It's funny how many people respond to that. My audiences are very educated and they're very polite, but they seem to respond to that song - and it's easy to play."

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

WHO: Dar Williams

WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City

WHEN: 8 p.m. June 12

COST: $25

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