Headed to town for a full performance of one of her most enduring albums Saturday, June 14 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, I spoke with singer-songwriter Dar Williams about the phenomenon of performing an album in its entirety, whether the meaning of personal lyrical fare can change over two decades and the enduring legacy of her seminal album The Honesty Room...
In today's music landscape, the impact of introspective and honest lyrics across a full album is often lost at the expense of the single or a viral video.
But in the early nineties, Dar Williams' The Honesty Room struck a chord and captured a moment in time: A rare time in music when the listener was as likely to hear Tori Amos on the radio as Nine Inch Nails and honesty/raw emotion was paramount. Lilith Fair sold as well as Ozzfest and strong songs were more important than image or anything else. Lyrics still came with an album and people connected on a very personal level with a variety of themes and experiences detailed painstakingly on albums like The Honesty Room and more.
Twenty years later, The Honesty Room endures, carrying with it an unparalleled legacy. But the idea that seemed to surface repeatedly during a long conversation about the album's roots, it's anniversary, the future and more was a sense of optimism.
Dar Williams performs The Honesty Room in full on Saturday June 14th at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Highlights of our conversation follow below...
Q. Let’s talk about The Honesty Room… You’re celebrating the twentieth anniversary of that album and you’re peforming it in its entirety on this tour. What’s that been like?
Dar Williams: You know, I wasn’t aware of that phenomenon. You would hear about people doing concerts where they would do an album beginning to end or something and that was never my intention.
I was having this meeting with my management and they said, “You know, The Honesty Room is twenty years old…” And I was like, “I totally know that. You knew that?” And they said, “Yeah. We’ve been thinking about it and you should put out a little announcement about it and how exciting it was.”
1994 was just the year that was for me. So I did sort of write a little story. And there was this overwhelming response! I have a certain amount of friends on my Facebook page. And many more friends than I actually have on my Facebook page read it! And then people started to write in little things about it. And then we have all these young people in the office who kind of kept it going. They were like, “What was first song that you heard? When did you buy it? Did you cover any songs?” And I was like, “You should leave them alone. They don’t really want to talk about it.”
But they did! And it was interesting, as a little intersection, to see how important music was and certain albums were to me, with people who were marking parts of their lives with The Honesty Room or other albums that came out during that time. [People were] sort of marking the era [with] road trips and coming of age things.
And so we all looked at each other like, “Should we do that thing that Pink Floyd does?” (Laughs) And then I said, “Do you have to do the whole thing? I mean, you can leave stuff out, right?” And they said, “No. If you’re gonna do the album, you’ve gotta do the album.” And so I was sort of dreading these songs I hadn’t heard in a long time, thinking, what if they’re awful? I don’t remember!
But it turned out to be kind of lovely. Just as my listeners were twenty years younger, I was twenty years younger when I wrote it. So I hear a younger person. It’s not that the songs are terrible, it’s just a different place on the path. So it turned into a really good experience to do this album thing that other people have done.
"There’s something really that was very powerful about that time..." - Dar Williams
Q. I think one of the reasons that people identify so strongly with your body of work is that raw honesty in the lyrics. On The Honesty Room in particular, there’s some really personal stuff there. Is it difficult at all to look back at that period of your life when you perform that album in full now?
DW: No. No, it’s not difficult going back – because everything turned out ok.
I came to realize that those songs were the songs I was preparing myself with to kind of get ready to take a little bit of a different path than I might’ve taken if this didn’t work out at just the time that I was starting to get some tread and people were starting to give me some buzz and good feedback.
Literally before one concert I was looking at these applications for MSA programs for playwriting and also for becoming a psychologist and all this stuff. And I called my parents. And my Dad is one of those people where he doesn’t give me a ton of feedback. But the stuff that he does say very quietly is very relevant. And he said, “I would recommend not getting an MSA. I think you should just write a bunch of bad plays and then just have them get better. (Laughs) And become a playwright. If that’s what you want to do, take that money, get a job, support yourself, write bad plays and then become an artist in residence somewhere. That might be more fun.”
And he [also] said, “But at the same time, if you stopped singing, that’d really be kind of heartbreaking.” And I had never known that my parents had any sense of investment about my music. Maybe they were just dreading that I was gonna write a lot of bad plays about them! So I kept going. That was really just a pivotal little moment.
And so a lot of the songs were really about saying, “I have to keep on this path… But it’s humiliating and I’m moving around a lot and it’s hard for me to be in a relationship. And it’s hard for me to speak up for myself and to take up this kind of space." Like, that’s not how I was really raised.
So that’s how I see the songs. I just see them as a young person who had to make some difficult decisions and needed a little bit of her own poetry as her fuel. And I appreciate that now.
Q. And again, there is such personal subject matter in these songs. As an artist looking back at your body of work, twenty years after the album that got everything started for you, do these songs take on a new meaning for you over the years or is it kind of more like a time capsule?
DW: Well, truth be told, it’s more like a time capsule. And it’s fun to go back.
I didn’t know what the ending was going to be: I didn’t know that the guy who dumped me was going to later on design my webpage and be one of my best friends and be such a good person in my life. And I didn’t know that by going out on the road in my tiny little Honda that I was going to see so much of the world physically and metaphorically. I didn’t know how great it was going to be.
So the time capsule takes me back to all of those assumptions that I made that things were going to work out… but when, I didn’t know. And there’s something really that was very powerful about that time.
"...The thing that you sit on your futon and write and you assume that maybe ten people will understand can be the thing that hits the deepest note" - Dar Williams
Q. Let’s walk through the timeline of the release of The Honesty Room album: You self-released it and it gained some momentum. From there it got picked up by the Chicago based independent folk label Waterbug Records. Ultimately, you re-recorded it and put it out with some bonus tracks via Razor & Tie. Did the album change at all over that time?
DW: No. No, the album was the album. And the only time that the album sort of changed was actually before I recorded it.
I had just written this song, “When I was a Boy.” And I remember playing it for a friend of mine who was like a radical feminist – as many of my friends were in North Hampton, Massachusetts. And it ends kind of with the reflections of a man about when he was a girl. And my friend heard that song and she said “Oh. Well, I don’t like that song. I don’t like that it ends with a guy. Why couldn’t it just be about women?” And I thought, “Well, you know…” And again, this is who I was. I was like, “This is the truth for me.” I didn’t really want it to be a breast feeding, feminist song. I mean, I could do that! And I love those songs. But this wasn’t this song. It was a song about childhood and what we lose along the way by having to assign ourselves to various genders more specifically than we want.
So she didn’t like it. But then a few weeks later she and I were onstage at some round-robin thing and people were putting little suggestions into a basket and you would have to read the slip of paper and whoever identified with what they wrote the most would sing a song. And somebody wrote something like, “I want to go to my treehouse.” And my friend turned to me and she goes, “Oh, that’s like that song you wrote. Why don’t you just sing that song?” And she was kind of making a face like, “Not that I like it…” (Laughs)
And so I sang it and there was kind of like this quietness… The audience applauded but they didn’t cheer. But they applauded for a bit, for a while. And it was just a really weird thing. And then afterwards, people came up to me and said, “That really is just speaking to me right now.” A lot of people were in their early twenties and stuff in the audience. That’s when I realized that, the thing that you sit on your futon and write and you assume that maybe ten people will understand can be the thing that hits the deepest note.
And similarly, when I wrote about my babysitter – who was a very specific hippie in my life – there were people who related to one aspect of that song or another. So it seemed like, “Ok. Now I get it.” The more I just sort of follow the passion of what I want to write about – whether it’s like college activist potheads or “When I was a Boy,” or my babysitter or a bar that burned down – the more I just sort of follow what I want to follow, the better it turns out. And that was very much affirmed when I started to go out on the road. And I hope that for everybody in every job that they have. I just got to see it very up close because people would applaud after these songs.
So that was a huge transition for me to feel accepted for being myself.
Q. Now that you’re reliving these songs again on a nightly basis as you perform the album in its entirety on this tour, looking back at 1994, what do you feel like the legacy of The Honesty Room is in 2014 twenty years later?
DW: I think it was a gender decade. And I think people [ask], was I a Lilith artist? Was I a women’s music artist? And… Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure that that could be said. But I think I was a gender artist.
You had Jill Sobule writing, “I Kissed a Girl.” But mine wasn’t really about bi-sexuality. It was about bi-genderality. (Laughs) And about how much happier I was to have all the freedom that I had. And whether to say, “When I was a Boy,” or to say, “I’m gonna write a song about a bar.” Or, “I’m gonna write a song about how in this world where everything is about me and you and you and me, I am actually going to strike out alone.” Which is another gender choice. You’re not going towards all of the sort of romantic expectations of being in one kind of relationship or another romantically. Sometimes it’s just about being alone in the woods.
So I think that the legacy was that this was a great decade of gender exploration and I totally lucked out. And it fit in, especially to that sort of highly idiosyncratic subculture world of gender exploration. And if I was a part of anybody’s… If I was a good soundtrack for that decade, I’m glad. Because I think that the next century has absolutely benefited from people saying, “I can cross back and forth however I see fit because that’s what I’m just gonna call ‘me.’”
"There’s a whole bunch of really fun musical things I could do and never write another song. Except I want to write a song. So I have to write what I want to write." - Dar Williams
Q. Your last studio project In the Time of Gods is a little over two years old. Are you working on new material?
DW: Yes. Yes, I am. And actually before this, I was going to record in the spring and put something out in the fall but there are a few things sort of on the burner as well as The Honesty Room touring and stuff. So I’m going to record in the fall and just put another album out early next year. And I’m very excited about that.
Q. We've discussed the fact that The Honesty Room features very personal material and over the last twenty years that trend has continued in your music. In the Time of Gods featured a call to action as well as more politically leaning fare and it just always seems like you've got something to say lyrically in an honest fashion. Is there anything going on in the world that's inspired you during this writing process?
DW: I was very inspired by the Occupy movement. I really thought it was too late to have an Occupy. So I found myself working on something a couple years ago that I’ve picked back up again. It has to do with lamenting the lack of access to a sense of fairness and justice. And I used to just not bother writing the lament because you can’t do anything about it. It’s just bad. But now I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like a progressive future is still ahead of us.
Q. It seems like it's become more difficult for artists to speak out. There can certainly be career consequences for those who choose to which seems like a much different climate than what artists experienced forty-five or fifty years ago. Does that make it harder?
DW: I think what the difference is between forty-five years ago and now is that I think there was more of an expectation in the sixties/early seventies that there would be this two-way street all the time between your internal state and what was going on in the world. And a lot of songs were going to be about that relationship between the socio-political sphere and your psyche and what was going on inside.
So I think the sixties and seventies were always about like, “What’s the relationship between what’s going on for me inside my tempestuous brain and what’s happening in the system?”
And I wish there were more of that. Because I think that it shows a more confident person: a person who feels like they have the right to figure out where they fit in that larger picture. I think a lot of people just feel like they don’t belong there – That that’s just them. And I think that’s the reason we’re not seeing as much political stuff, not that we’ve been silenced in any way.
There’s a whole bunch of really fun musical things I could do and never write another song. Except I want to write a song. So I have to write what I want to write.
- Jim Ryan
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Saturday, June 14, 2014
7PM & 10PM
*** Full performance of The Honesty Room album ***
Click HERE to purchase tickets