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. According to Williams: “In a fast-moving, split-second MTV world… (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 “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 acontract 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
For the Record…
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.
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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.”
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
"Williams, Dar." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-dar
"Williams, Dar." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-dar
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Born: Mount Kisco, New York, April 19, 1967
Best-selling album since 1990: The Green World (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "When I Was a Boy," "As Cool As I Am," "What Do You Hear in These Sounds"
Singer/songwriter Dar Williams is known for her honesty, social consciousness, and sense of humor, all of which permeate her folk-influenced songs. Williams has a gift for weaving complex tales over memorable melodies. Her preoccupations include the environment, relationships, and religion; sometimes these themes even dovetail within the same song. Throughout the 1990s Williams toured continuously, starting off in coffeehouses and folk festivals and finally landing in larger concert halls, often to standing-room-only crowds full of devoted fans, who affectionately refer to themselves as "Dar heads."
Williams was raised in the well-heeled town of Chap-paqua, New York, the daughter of medical writer and editor Gray Williams and Marian Ferry, a Planned Parenthood activist. She began learning the guitar around age nine, and wrote her first song by age eleven. Williams grew up in a progressive environment; her parents were educated at Yale and Vassar, and she attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut from which she graduated with a degree in theater and religion. In 1990 she moved to Boston to start her theater career; she also began voice lessons. Eventually, she abandoned acting and moved to the artsy town of Northampton, Massachusetts.
In 1993 Williams released her debut, The Honesty Room, on her own label, Burning Fields Music; it was then picked up by folk-friendly label Razor & Tie. Williams's imaginative, poignant style is evidenced on the album's standout song, "When I Was a Boy," in which Williams imagines how her life might be different if she were a boy, and she tempers her imaginings with humor and sensitivity. The album itself has sold over 100,000 copies, an admirable feat for an independent label. The ensuing Mortal City (1996) produced the typically quirky Dar Williams tunes "As Cool as I Am" and "The Christians and the Pagans." By the time End of the Summer (1997) came out, Williams had boosted her songwriting with a strong back-up band. This third album was responsible for bringing Williams to a broader audience, as it was well received by critics and loved by fans.
For her fourth album, The Green World (2000), Williams switched to a different producer, Rob Hyman, noted for his work with rock singer Joan Osborne. Some folk purists objected to its shimmery, rock-and-roll vibe. Its title is perfect for a collection of songs about personal growth ("After All") and civil disobedience ("I Had No Right"), and matches the levity of the humorous but assertive "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono."
The Beauty of the Rain, released in 2003, features guest appearances from John Medeski of the jazz-funk trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, and John Popper from the blues-rock band Blues Traveler. These appearances are a notable achievement for a singer/songwriter who spent a good portion of the early 1990s touring the coffee house circuit in relative obscurity.
The Honesty Room (self-released, 1993; reissued by Razor & Tie, 1995); Mortal City (Razor & Tie, 1996); End of the Summer (Razor & Tie, 1997); The Green World (Razor & Tie, 2000); Out There Live (Razor & Tie, 2001). With Cry Cry Cry: Cry Cry Cry (Razor & Tie, 1998).
"Williams, Dar." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/williams-dar
"Williams, Dar." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved February 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/williams-dar