In the short time since her first album was released in 1995, Dar Williams has established herself as one of the most promising young songwriters of the modern folk era. Her intimate, introspective songs, lyrical wit and wisdom, three-octave vocal range and consistent artistic growth have charmed critics and attracted a growing base of fans. "She has the craft heart to make the folky basics ring true again," the New York Times wrote. "(H)er songs reach beyond modest ambitions; they glow with compassion and intelligence." Billboard put Williams on its cover to illustrate an article on the modern folk resurgence, and Stereo Review labeled her the Great Folk Hope. "Williams' songs--spare, pleasing melodies in which she transcends the vocal range from smoky lows to falsetto highs--exert a subtle undertow," Lyndon Stambler wrote in People. "They typically have word images within images. Each time you listen ... you hear something different in her shades and patterns." Williams, for her part, had this to say about all the attention and adoration: "I'm probably getting a little more hype than I'm worth."
Williams is routinely compared with female folkies such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Emmylous Harris and Suzanne Vega and she acknowledges that her musical influences include artists like The Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan. "What's in my blood is the folk music of the '60s," she told Amy Stephens of The Cincinnati Post. "Songs where you can still hear the human voice." Williams is perfectly comfortable being associated with the decidedly unhip folk music genre. "In a fast-moving, split-second MTV world," Williams says, "(folk-music audiences) pay attention and sit still." That is not to say, however, that her music is mired in the past. Far from it. Williams' songs--like those of her folk-influenced peers Shawn Colvin, Patty Larkin and Ani Difranco-- build a thoroughly contemporary musical structure upon a traditional foundation.
Williams devotees--dubbed the Dar-heads--have taken their obsession to the Internet's music chat rooms in unexpected numbers and with unusual fervor. Spreading the word about Williams via cyberspace, they "discuss and dissect all things Dar, from her guitar tunings and humor to her lyrics and live shows," J. Freedom du Lac wrote in The Sacramento Bee. In the process, the Dar-heads have wedded the rusticity of folk with the electron-speed and cutting-edge wonder of the Internet.
In college, Williams studied religion and theater; she performed in the Boston folk scene in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, she also suffered from clinical depression during her college years. In late 1992, she settled in western Massachusetts. In her early years as a performer, she self-released albums called I Have No Story, All My Heroes are Dead, and, in 1993, The Honesty Room, which was recorded in a tiny basement studio in Belchertown, Massachusetts. That same year, she compiled The Tofu Tollbooth, "a sort of traveler's guide to the country's natural foods outlets," John Jesitus wrote in Backbeat. Williams created the book, Jesitus said, at a time when "she felt fairly certain that her music would never support her full-time."
The Honesty Room, however, created a buzz in the folk music world and brought Williams a management deal, a booking agent, a showcase spot at the 1994 Newport Folk Festival, and a contract with indie record label Razor & Tie. The sparsely arranged record was re- released natioanlly in 1995 and garnered radio play on many adult/alternative album stations for the single "When I Was a Boy." Promoting the record kept Williams on the tour circuit for more than 200 nights in 1995. Her audiences grew--with help from rave reviews, her photo on the cover of Billboard, and the nurturing hand of Joan Baez. The folk icon recorded one of Williams' compositions on her album Ring Them Bells and took the fledgling songstress with her on tour in the United States and Europe. Although Williams had been told that opening acts are often mistreated on tours, she claimed that her collaboration with Baez was a very positive experience.
Williams recorded her second album, 1996's Mortal City, in her bedroom. The album contains a theme of displacement; it speaks of wanting to find a home and describes the journeys people take to find a place where they feel they can belong. Mortal City also showed the evolution of Williams' musical vision, expanding on the acoustic guitar-and-voice delivery that dominated The Honesty Room. On the second record, the arrangements were more complex and the sound was fleshed out with cello, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and electric guitar. In addition, Williams added other voices to the mix, singing with John Prine, Cliff Eberhardt, The Nields, and Lucy Kaplansky, who used to work with Shawn Colvin. The song "Cool as I Am"--built around the repeated, haunting refrain "I will not be afraid of women"--received solid radio play. Billboard called Mortal City a "palatable album of introspective, often witty tunes (that) present an intimate portrait of a maturing artist."
Williams' popularity and musical experimentation both continued to grow with the release of 1997's End of the Summer, which features a full band, backup singers, and a more of an electric sound. Some critics suggested that the release was a calculated bid to break into the pop music mainstream--but most raved. "Folkies may fight it, but as Dar Williams goes more and more electric, her music is getting increasingly intriguing," music critic Kevin O'Hare wrote. "Firmly established as one of the leading ligths on the new folk movement, (Williams) offers plenty of poetic wonder while revealing considerable musical growth on her exceptional third album.... She lets her musical inhibitions fly frequently here, on tracks like the fiesta-flavored 'Party Generation,' hot-rocking 'Teenager, Kick Our Butts,' and a marvelous cover of the Kinks' 'Better Things.' In an interview with Billboard, Williams acknowledged that she had pushed in new directions on End of the Summer. "I know this was more of a pop/rock album," she said. "I could have done the same thing (as on the first two albums) and I'm nervous people will think I've sold out. But I'm trying to be true to my muse."
by Dave Wilkins
Dar Williams's Career
Started performing in the Boston/Cambridge folk scene, early 1990s; moved to western Massachusetts, 1992; released Honesty Room and signed with Razor & Tie Records, 1993; performed at the Newport Folk Festival, 1994; Razor & Tie rereleased Honesty Room, 1995; released Mortal City, 1996, and End of the Summer, 1997; toured with music legend Joan Baez, and played several dates on the heralded Lilith Tour, 1997.
- Selective Works
- The Honesty Room, Razor & Tie, 1995.
- Mortal City, Razor & Tie, 1996.
- End of the Summer, Razor & Tie, 1997.
- Billboard, January 13, 1995; July 5, 1997 Boston Globe, September 19, 1997.
- Boston Herald, July 5, 1996; August 1, 1997.
- Cincinnati Post, October 12, 1995; February 22, 1996; October 24, 1996.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 20, 1996; October 3, 1997.
- Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), February 2, 1996; February 16, 1996.
- People, March 25, 1996; August 25, 1997.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, July 18, 1997.
- Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1996.
- Stereo Review, April 1996.
- Union-News (Springfield, MA), July 13, 1997.
- Additional information was provided by Razor & Tie press materials