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Dar Williams: A songwriter’s wisdom—in book form

Early in pandemic times, Dar Williams faced the uncomfortable truth that her career as a world-touring musician had stalled. While locked down—along with the rest of us—the singer-songwriter opened up virtual photo albums to recall trips to domestic cities and foreign lands to which she brought her unique music-set poetry.

Dar Williams at her writing table / Photo by Ebr Yildiz
Dar Williams / Photo by Ebr Yildiz

“I was going through my photos online and I got this case of FOMO—envy for this person who has traveled all over the world,” Williams said recently, “and I was like ‘oh, my god, it’s me!’
Now I’m telling myself [to] take the day to appreciate whatever city you’re in.

“I’ve always done that, but now that’s my job: to be excited and enlightened by wherever I am from this point—every town from Maine to Southern California.”

One such town shall be Alexandria, Virginia, where, on Dec. 4, Williams will take its vaunted stage for her “All Request Show!” tour. Anything goes from her catalog, she said, even if audience choices tend to be not especially surprising.

“People actually request the songs that I usually play,” Williams said. “I thought it was going to
be a total deep-track, B-side kind of tour. And some people are requesting the new songs,
which is great too.”

Dar Williams "I'll Meet You Here" Album Art
Dar Williams "I'll Meet You Here" Album Art

Her latest album is called “I’ll Meet You Here,” which includes more of what makes Williams so great: deeply personal narratives related through her passionately relatable voice. “Give It All Away” is uptempo despite being a reminder to take nothing for granted. “Little Town” is an elegiac tome about one of those places in America where everyone knows everyone—as well as the benefits
and inevitable drawbacks as times invariably change. And then there’s “Let the Wind Blow,”
which would make Joni Mitchell—unsurprisingly, an influence on Williams—proud indeed.

“There have been requests for some Joni Mitchell songs,” Williams says of the audience-petitioning shows she’s performing on this tour. Other covers she has assayed in the request shows include songs by such recently departed friends as John Prine and Nanci Griffith.

Of her own back catalog, Williams says the bequests have included tunes from her 1998 disc
“Cry Cry Cry.”

“It’s great to see that people want them, and it’s great to bring them back,” she said of her oldies
but goodies. “I’m able to keep some of the framework of what people might expect from a
concert, but then inevitably there are two or three I haven’t done in a while.”

However, some of her past work is typically off the table.

“There have been a lot of requests for the song ‘Mortal City,’ which is about eight minutes long,”
Williams shared. “That comes out very, very rarely.”

Given Williams’s penchant with her musical pen, it’s unsurprising to learn that, for the past
decade, she has been leading songwriter retreats for adults and teens alike. Over those 10
years she made ample notes about her own songs to share with her mentees, most of which
she maintained in a personal archive. That treasure trove of advice is now open for all to
behold thanks to her latest book, “How to Write a Song That Matters.”

“I think what was interesting was realizing how much I remember exactly how and even where I
constructed every line,” Williams said. “I remembered writing a line in one song in a parking lot in Fairbanks, Alaska. And I remember writing a line for a song called ‘Slippery Slope’ up in
Cape Cod. It was a really interesting way to remember my life, my past.”

“When those revelations would come, even the little ones, it really felt like a big deal to [have
created] something out of nothing.”

Daw Williams - "How to Write a Song That Matters" Book Cover
Daw Williams - "How to Write a Song That Matters" Book Cover

Williams admits she didn’t write as many songs during covid lockdowns as she might have
otherwise—an issue she says is common among several of her colleagues, who now look back
on those days of lost touring with regret for having not composed more. However, being forced
to stay in place granted Williams the push to press on with the book project.

Rather than being a deep dive into theory, each chapter is a short vignette, offering reflections
on her creative process as well as a roadmap for up-and-coming musicians. Accordingly, the
author feels readers can jump in at any point rather than taking the more traditional, front-to-
back approach. She advises the songwriting bookworm to “let it find you wherever you are.”

“Somebody wrote a lovely [message] about how her son reads it very slowly: He reads a
passage and then he picks up his guitar,” Williams relates of just one acolyte of “How to Write a
Song That Matters”. “Even when I leave retreats, I like to keep space after I deconstruct a song
for people just to let things sink in. That’s how I learn.”

Williams has written several books before, including fiction as well as other memoirs of her life
on the road. In “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to
Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a
Time,” she talks about how many of our nation’s “forgotten” places can experience new life in
the incredibly interconnected digital age. In fact, on the day of this interview, Williams spoke
from Ponca City, Oklahoma, where she was not only performing but also “talking to some
Oklahoma Main Street planners.”

“What’s funny is that when I’m writing books, I think writing songs is so much easier than this,”
Williams said, adding “and when I’m writing a song, I think writing books is so much easier than
this. It’s just different. And I don’t tend to mix the two.”

Dar Williams / Photo by Ebr Yildiz

However, the current tour is meant to push not just show tickets but books. Her Birchmere stop won’t include a book signing, but definitely keep your eyes on the merch table for a copy.

Indeed, some of her book-signing events have been held at colleges such as Vanderbilt in Nashville, where she is able to speak about how much the music industry has changed—and offering such advice as taking your sound to a city with a known “scene” such as New York,
Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, or even Denver.

“When I talk to college students, I tell them that there are a lot of really toxic numbers: your social media numbers, your audience numbers, your billboard numbers, your age, your height, your weight,” Williams said. “But there’s one number that is actually healthy to think about, which is money. Because a starving artist is just starving.

“If you know you could really live well on a certain amount of money, I think that creates a sense of security,” she added. “If they can’t make that kind of money by making [or] performing music, they can decide what they need to do to make that music supplement that money.”

She is also quick to toss water on the myth that doing what you love will inevitably lead to bread in the bank. There will be incredibly lean times, especially early on, when seemingly no one will want to buy the music you have to sell, no matter its quality.

“The secret is how do you get a job that still allows you to have enough energy to keep making the music that you want to make, as opposed to kicking yourself and saying, ‘I’ve lost the game,’” Williams said. “Go to where the music scene is. You can play in a bar, you can play at open mics, you can play a tip-jar gig—where they have concerts, where you can open for people and be in song circles and musical communities.

“It’s a very slow, step-by-step process to create a following, and the places where there’s a scene, there’s more competition, more people doing it—but there’s also more of a community of listeners in those places.”

Washington, D.C., of course, has long been known for its thriving music scene, with the DMV producing everyone from Duke Ellington to Henry Rollins. Perhaps the next great singer-songwriter can take some in-person inspiration when Williams performs at the Birchmere Dec. 4.

“The Birchmere always feels like home, so it’ll be nice to come back,” Williams said. “The Birchmere audiences are pretty amazing, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Tickets to the Birchmere show are available at Ticketmaster.com. “How to Write a Song That Matters” is now available from book retailers.

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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