Dar Williams has spilled coffee on her mobile phone. ("Just a second while I go set it in the sun," she says.) And the slot for her son's afternoon swim lesson is fast approaching, forcing her to reconsider the amount of time she has vouchsafed to get him into his trunks. You might think it's time to reconsider the scheduling of an interview to discuss her music. On the contrary—the preciousness of time keeps her and her scribe on point. And if you are familiar with Williams' music, you are aware that this is exactly the kind of moment she sings about: distilling art and something memorable from the chaos of everyday life.
Refreshingly, Williams speaks on the phone in the same voice she sings with—perfect diction in a broad musical range. On record and in concert there are shades of birdsong in her metrics. In conversation, she's just really easy on the ears. What's striking is that this voice, on the phone, is what you hear on recent recordings, like Promised Land, her latest. It's a fair remove from what you heard on The Honesty Room, her first record, 15 years and nine albums ago.
"I find it to be astoundingly different, and so strangely affected," says Williams of her voice on The Honesty Room, a record she says she now listens to as little as possible. "There is an affectation in my voice. Somebody said, ‘I was trying to figure out what your voice sounds like.' I'm like, ‘What do you mean?' I had no idea what they were talking about. He goes, ‘My wife says Irish. I said, no, Canadian.' And it's true. I was listening to a lot of both."
When one has idols and peers and famous friends in music who serve as inspiration and models, how does a person find his or her way to their own sound? Williams says she is aware of many paths.
"It can be anything from confidence to cigarettes to genetics to whiskey to voice lessons," she says. "Obviously one path leads to the longevity of your voice. The other leads to character without longevity. Or, in the case of alcohol, probably lack of character. The voice lessons is all I know about. I was opening for Joan Baez and there was this really beloved voice teacher in our town named Justina Golden. She had an MFA in voice. But the first day I went in she told me that the voice is a spiritual thing and sometimes if we hit a low enough place with your singing it will release terrible memories. Something awful can happen here because that's how deep the voice goes and that's what we're going to find.
"We didn't go drudging up anything awful, but she gave me lots of metaphors. She said, ‘Love the vowels. Settle for consonants but love the vowels.'"
Some songwriters, your Joe Henrys or Paul Westerbergs, say, can wave the white flag on syntax and choose words purely for their musical or rhythmic value. And the result can be delightful, like musical Rorschachs. Williams somehow manages to bend the language to the will of her music. Rhyming, no less, she can exposit words of uneven length and sounds to the tune of warbling scales and arpeggios. From "Troubled Times" on Promised Land: "And it takes a lot of nerve to ask how she is doing/Start with a weak foundation, you will end in ruins/The ways the days and hours pass you'll never understand/Falling like rain through your hands."
Williams will be christening the stunning stone terrace at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum with this visit. It's a sublime setting for her voice and music. For the rest of this tour, she'll be playing folk landmarks all over—Old Town in Chicago, the Ark in Ann Arbor, Mich. One wonders, once a genre and its audience embrace an artist, is there pressure to conform?
"It's a paradox," Williams says. "We all want change but we don't want to change. I think what I've discovered is that when people feel like I've changed or grown on my own terms, it's different than if I've changed to please a radio format. People just want to know that it comes from you, not coming from you trying to grab the brass ring and find an audience that's bigger than they are. That makes the audience say, ‘What's wrong with us? We love you.' The audience wants to know that you're writing from inspiration. Once they know that, you can do anything. In fact, the more variety the better. They like the idea that the people they like are growing and three-dimensional."