Thanks to the Greenwich Odeum, we’ve got a pair of tickets to give away to this show Saturday, October 1. Just e-mail Ken Abrams at firstname.lastname@example.org by 5PM Thursday, Sept. 29 to enter. Please put “Dar Williams” in the subject line. Read on for out interview with Dar…
Songwriters, this one is for you.
One of folk music’s great lyricists is bringing an audience-designed setlist along with her new book to the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich on Saturday, October 1. Dar Williams is currently on two tours, playing live concerts and also promoting her new book How to Write a Song that Matters. She’ll be conducting a workshop at the Passim School of Music in Cambridge, MA on September 30, on that very topic. (Williams released the new book earlier this month. Find it here on Amazon.)
I caught up with the revered singer-songwriter recently and learned more about the book and her current tour, where she is playing several all-request shows. “I saw the list (of songs) and it’s going to be great. The requests that have come in so far have been a mix of things that I’m very familiar with, and two or three that I have not pulled out of the trunk for over a decade. It’s been a fun surprise, it puts the emphasis on the song,” she explained. “I’m going to try to learn a cover song too.”
Williams has been leading songwriting retreats for several years. “For the book, I’m doing an afternoon workshop, I’ve done those before and they are a lot of fun,” she said.
Up to 25 people can attend the workshop where Williams deconstructs one of her songs. “Ideally, we will then hear a bunch of songs by other people and talk about them. There’s something about people who come together to write songs, it really brings out the best. I’ve always been part of environments where people are very supportive and sensitive to other people’s writing. It can really be a good motivator for those who have fallen out of practice or a good way to start,” explained Williams.
She’s met a variety of songwriters at her summer retreats. “There are a lot of people returning after 10 or 15 years, often due to busy jobs or parenthood, and then there are people that have dabbled, some of them have barely done any songwriting, are newly retired or have reached that place in their work life where they have flexibility. There’s a lot of energy there. And of course, we’ve got college students and people just out of college, who either want to create a career or are just interested in exploring the medium.”
Williams focuses on the idea of “voice” in her own songwriting. “I came to this word, that helps people focus and build their songs. And that word is the “voice” of the song,” says Williams. “My hope is to help people understand that as a song emerges, it will have a certain kind of voice, it will become the song that it wants to be.”
“Some people say don’t be schmaltzy, don’t be this, don’t be that. Well, every song wants to be something, it will come into our heads and we will follow it and take it on its own terms. Maybe it’s jazzy, maybe it’s uptight, maybe it’s angry. There are ways to listen to that voice and grow that voice to help the song become itself and help us finish the song. That’s the most valuable thing I’ve learned from leading retreats and in my own songwriting.”
“From the minute a new phrase comes into our head, we have what I call ‘clues and cues’ that we can develop and soon recognize. We look at the language, the music, the rhymes, and the details. We have a lot of different songs in us so we will have a lot of different voices, and paying attention and respecting the voice helps each song have its own life and inner logic,” she added.
A great example of “voice” coming through in a Williams song is “The Babysitter’s Here,” from The Honestly Room album released in 1993. “One day, I heard a phrase pop into my head, ‘she’s the best one that we’ve ever had,’ with a very lullaby melody and feel. I wondered who would say that, and realized of course, a child would say that. Children speak in superlatives, children are very serious about who’s the best.”
“So who is she?” continued Williams. “My first thought was the fantastic babysitter we had when I was five years old through when I was eight years old, when she only became more fantastic. The voice of the song was a child who takes the babysitter very seriously and absolutely refuses to see that the babysitter has her own struggles which clearly she does.”
Learn more about the songs at Williams’ upcoming dates below.