The positive proximity of Dar Williams
Dar Williams is in her New York City hotel room, talking on the phone. She can see Ellis Island from her window. And the Statue of Liberty. Very American things.
Williams was there that day to play a benefit for another very American thing: a gun safety fundraiser.
As singer-songwriters go, we’d be hard-pressed to find one more involved in social issues than Williams, who has a 7 p.m. Saturday show at the Louis S. Wolk JCC of Greater Rochester Canalside Stage. Where does she stop? Williams cites the words of an acclaimed novelist: “As Toni Morrison says, ‘As you get older, you get more complicated.’”
Williams is only 55, so her tangle of concerns will likely continue to grow. And it will reach into many unexpected places. “Every story has different branches,” she says.
Sometimes the branches are personal. Here’s a new song Williams has just written, “Hummingbird Highway.” It’s about a child whose father travels for his job. And when he’s not traveling, when he’s home, he’s not making himself available.
“Sometimes you go away in a car,” Williams says. “Sometimes you go away with your door closed.”
“I’ve been the child and the parent.”
Williams has two children. And as a touring musician, she travels. “I used to bring stuff home to my kids,” she says. “I realized it made them feel they missed out on something cool.” So she started taking pictures to share her experiences instead of placating the kids with something she bought at an airport gift shop.
Williams raises her songs much as she raises her children. “You start with things that are interesting to you, and you grow it.”
She calls it “positive proximity.”
“I wrote about climate change in 1988, and everything that was predicted came to pass.”
Williams also sings about bigotry and racism and gender and the ills of commercialism, and her own depression as a young woman. She examines systems that do nothing but propagate societal illness.
“I think it’s really exciting that we’re entering into a deeper conversation about that,” she says.
These conversations are not new. If you were listening. “The #MeToo movement was alive and starting in the ’80s,” Williams says. “But it’s much more out in the open now.”
She has a metaphor for how to open these discussions: “It’s very important to find the key to the file drawer.” Open it and “find a way to live your life that will be helpful to the planet and fellow humans and creatures.”
So Williams is given to larger, cosmic thinking. She wrote her latest album, “I’ll Meet You Here,” in the midst of the pandemic. It is largely an optimistic collection in these difficult times. “How we encounter the moment, the present, without overburdening it,” she says. “How we encounter dissolution, reality, once we’ve taken the filter off.”
Yet there is a smaller place for Williams as well on this planet. “I’ve had a lot of adventures, a lot of exciting things happen, two great kids,” she says. “Who am I in all of that?”
There is also a place for Thoreau, “where we can get down to every beautiful flower and blade of grass around them.”
Hers is an awareness of matters both large and small. “I managed to find a hybrid,” Williams says.
It all starts from within. “I wrote a whole book about creating things,” she says.
In fact, Williams has written several books that explore her creative experiences. “The Tofu Tollbooth,” printed on recycled paper with vegetable-based ink, is a guide to healthy travel in America. “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” is a celebration of the small places she’s discovered over her years of touring.
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is one. A small town a little north of Philadelphia. The closing of the steel mills hit it hard. A positive becomes a negative. “They went from creating steel to guarding people in prisons made of steel,” Williams says.
But rather than dissolve into rust and dust, Phoenixville built something out of what it once was. Steve McQueen’s 1958 film “The Blob” was shot partially at the town’s movie theater. Rather than run from that classic piece of sci-fi cheese, years later Phoenixville created the “Blobfest,” with the highlight a re-enactment of the gooey blob monster surging through the theater.
Also as a part of this town renaissance, the old foundries were converted into shops and brewpubs.
“Now we have Phoenixville,” Williams says, “where everyone wants to live.”
The motivation to create a place where everyone wants to live can be elusive. A blob as a motivational tool is not always available. The songwriter has to find a way to draw the listener into the song.
“You care so much about a subject,” Williams says, “but if the handle to the file drawer doesn’t open it, or you can’t find the key, you can’t get in.
“But if a character suddenly appears …”
That silver key might be the child Williams saw the night before this conversation. A girl who was told to leave the subway because she was not wearing a mask. “I gave her money, an apple,” Williams says. “She said, ‘Nobody ever does this for me.’”