Dar Williams - Biography
By J Poet
Dar Williams loves words and they seem to return her affection. When she opens her mouth in song, the audience is engulfed by a torrent of dancing, prancing syllables linked together in chains of images that can flow as sweetly as a mountain stream or roll through the air like mini-thunderheads, striking the mind with crackling bolts of insight that send jolts of recognition down your spine. Williams’ sweet soprano, wicked wit and poetically understated guitar playing have made her one of America’s tops female singer/songwriters. Her six original albums for the indie label Razor & Tie are packed with insightful songs full of warm humor, sharp insight and uncommonly catchy melodies that are as much pop as folk.
Williams was born in Mount Kisco, New York, but raised in Chappaqua, the youngest of three daughters born to writer/editor Gray Williams and Planned Parenthood activist Marian Ferry. The Williams home was full of music, art and intellectual conversation. Williams started guitar lessons at nine and wrote her first song at 11, but was more interested in sports and drama. She was writing plays in her senior year in high school and went on to study drama and religion at Wesleyan University. She moved to Boston after graduation, where she directed plays and acted, but eventually she found plays too constraining, She also had terrible stage fright, found the writing lonely, and had trouble dealing with the politics that inevitably went with theater, even at the grassroots level. She returned to songwriting and started performing in the Boston area, despite her debilitating stage fright, where she recorded two home demo tapes I Have No History (1990) and My Heroes Are Dead (1991) that were sold at her performances. They are extremely rare and none of the songs on them have yet been recorded on her “real” albums.
She moved to Northampton, MA in 1993, a college town with a thriving singer/songwriter scene. She built a strong following, started her own label and released The Honesty Room (1993 Burning Fields). The album built momentum and was reissued twice, first by Waterbug, a singer/songwriter label in Illinois and then by Razor & Tie (with two additional tracks). Razor & Tie got her national airplay and her career slowly built momentum. Fans like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger invited her to open their shows while Sarah McLachlan signed her up for two seasons of Lilith Fairs.
Mortal City (1996 Razor & Tie) helped expand her fan base and cracked Billboard’s pop charts. End of the Summer (1997 Razor & Tie) was her breakthrough effort. It also got on the Billboard charts and the video for her a song about psychotherapy “What Do You Hear In These Sounds” charted on MTV’s commercial free channel M2. Accumulated sales of Williams’ first three albums totaled more than 250,000 units and she was the most played indie artist on AAA radio in 1997.
In 1998 Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky toured as Cry Cry Cry, doing covers of material by their fellow singer/songwriters. The trio made one album, Cry Cry Cry (1998 Razor & Tie), before returning to their solo careers. The Green World (2000 Razor & Tie) was cut after Williams relocated to New York City, and is as much rock as pop/folk. She started touring with a full band and the energy of those shows is documented on Out There Live (2001 Razor &Tie) a “greatest hits” live collection.
The Beauty of The Rain (2003 Razor & Tie) was recorded just after Williams married Michael Robinson, an old college friend. It’s emotionally deeper, with solid pop arrangements and contributions from stellar guests like Bela Fleck, Stefan Lessard (Dave Matthews Band), John Medeski, Chris Botti and Michael Kang (String Cheese Incident). My Better Self (2005 Razor & Tie), cut after the birth of her first child, isn’t explicitly about becoming a mother, but motherhood has given her long-standing concerns about the environment and the way politics affect the lives of ordinary people an added urgency. It’s the best album she’s made so far, a winning blend of folk/pop and rock that should win her many new fans.
Williams also has been pursuing her literary muse and has published two young adult novels Amalee (2004 Scholastic) and Lights, Camera, Amalee (2006 Scholastic) and written a guide to vegetarian eating in America called The Tofu Tollbooth (1994 Ceres). Her first DVD, Live at the Bearsville Theater, was released in 2007 by Razor & Tie. She was reportedly working on a new album in early 2008.