Dar Williams calls Vancouver a “fall-in-love city.” Meaning that, she explains, “if I fell in love with somebody who lived in Vancouver, I could move there.”
She’s a big fan of Veda Hille, for one, and our sushi. And whenever she’s in town, she tries to make it to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.
“I’m embarrassed to say, I completely raid the gift store whenever I go. I got my son a bentwood box, where they make the wood wet and then they bend it? I’m a huge fan of the museum. If I can get there, I’m happy.”
Williams is walking with her cellphone as she talks with the Straight. She’s somewhere in California, on the Canadian Thanksgiving. She’ll be making her way up to Vancouver for an appearance at St. James Community Hall, courtesy of the Rogue Folk club, on Saturday (October 24).
Appropriately, at least one song on her new album, Emerald—in fact the title track—is informed by the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.
“I was on my way somewhere to play a gig with Loudon Wainwright, and it was very beautiful,” she says. “And I was very aware that I had spent so much time on American highways not even noticing the scenery because I was so self-involved. But y’know, at certain points, the scenery was so beautiful that I would transcend. And even beyond that, I also came to find myself looking back, and realizing that the scenery has been more a part of my life, that the backdrop of my life had actually been my life in some ways.”
The song might seem at first blush to be a bit stream-of-consciousness, compared to Williams’ more straightforward pieces of storytelling like “The Christians and the Pagans”—one of the easiest songs to fall in love with in her repertoire, being a queer-friendly tale of reconciliation taking place around Christmas/Solstice.
But asked if she has a preference between modes—the abstract/poetic and the narrative—she laughs.
“Y’know what, it all feels narrative to me. It doesn’t feel stream-of-consciousness at all, and it’s something that my friends make fun of me for all the time. 'How did you just make this association?' Some people have this, some people don’t. It’s like, I say ‘A-B-C,’ but I tend to leave ‘B’ out. I forget that I didn’t make the connection. And with a song it’s okay, because if you hear it, over time, you create your own association that connects everything.”
Williams ended up inviting Richard Thompson to play on “Emerald”. (“I kept on hearing a part like the kinds of parts he plays, and I came down to LA and we sat down at his house and he did it. He’s a stellar guy.”) He’s one of several guests on the album, which also features appearances from Jim Lauderdale, the Milk Carton Kids, Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche, and members of the Hooters.
There are also two covers, of Kat Goldman’s “The Weight of the World” and Joe Strummer’s strikingly prescient “Johnny Appleseed”, which seems to predict Colony Collapse Disorder by a few years. (“Isn’t that amazing?” she gushes. “And he got it on the head.” Because the thing killing the bees, in the song as in life, is “our own shortsightedness.”)
But the standout tracks are probably “Mad River”, a Williams original that gently one-ups Bruce Springsteen as a sincere song of working class travails involving river imagery, and an uncharacteristically poppy anthem called “FM Radio”, which celebrates the music culture of the '70s, with girls singing into their hairbrushes and wondering if Queen needs a clarinet player.
That song is a collaboration with Jill Sobule, the genesis of which dates back to a show the two played together in Vermont. Williams was telling Sobule about a course she teaches in New York, “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy”, which follows the history of socially conscious songwriting from the Beats and the Woodstock generation through to the Riot Grrrls of the '90s.
“She got out her computer and started pulling up video after video and talking about them, the pants and the hair and the production style and the language and the marketing, and I could see that she didn’t just love the music, she loved the culture that went around it. And so when I started to write ‘FM Radio’, I was just, like, ‘I gotta track down Jill, we’ll do this one together’. I was very lucky that I ran into her while I was teaching the course. She got it. Y’know, you do something in your life, and people either get it or they don’t, and she got it, and you don’t shake that moment of recognition and do nothing with it. You turn up the volume!”
The song definitely does that, relative to the quieter folk music on the album. It also combines generational influences, for instance, in the lyric where DJ Alison Steele, aka the Nightbird, sends a “positive vibration” to Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who robbed her first bank with the Symbionese Liberation Army in April of 1974, when Williams was a few days shy of turning seven.
“That’s my joke on stage,” Williams says, laughing. Including Hearst in the song was a “deal breaker” for Sobule, who is six years Williams’ senior. “She just said, 'You know, that beret, I mean, come on…!' Every kid wished they could be should be so impassioned, even though there was the weird twist that she was… y’know?” (Dar trails off, but depending on your interpretation of the Hearst story, “kidnapped and brainwashed” could be appropriate. Or maybe “radicalized non-consensually”?)
Williams is an articulate, impassioned conversationalist, but when we turn back to the topic of her experiences in Vancouver, she offers a story which is charmingly dime-a-dozen for people who live here. “I was staying at this hotel right next to Stanley Park with my friend, and we looked up and there was a raccoon, and we couldn’t resist. We laid out four little amaretto cookies, and watched him eat our cookies, one by one, daintily. It must have lasted fifteen minutes, it was riveting!”
Williams' home and family may be in New York, but experiences like that make the city very tempting, she reiterates. “For other people, the geography is a deal-breaker, but Vancouver… I could be seduced.”
Written with thanks to Erika Lax
Dar Williams plays at St. James Community Hall, on Saturday (October 24)