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Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog: Dar Williams is concerned with bees, sings about myth and power and likes towns with ‘positive proximity’

As time moves on, 20 years doesn’t seem that long ago. When people say to me “I did this and that 20 years ago,” I’m fazed less and less in terms of mental trauma. Instead of thinking: “Oh my god, if you did that 20 years ago ... how old does that make me?” I’ve learned to just accept it and move on.

And then I plug another 8-track into the player, and I’m fine.

What can cause me some mental trauma, though, is to learn that an artist today can have a 20-year history of music and that someone, namely me, has successfully not heard one note of it.

A few weeks ago one of those musical gaps for me closed when I listened to Dar Williams’ latest album, “In the Time of Gods.” Williams is bringing a folk-rock show to Hood River on Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Columbia Center for the Arts. Her friend, singer Anne Weiss, is also on the bill.

Williams lives in Boston, and came up through the East Coast music scene by playing years of open mic nights and house concerts. She gathered enough material to release an acclaimed album called “The Honesty Room” in 1994, and has been “working in music full-time ever since.”

If you’ve been following the music scene this summer, you’re probably realizing that our town is becoming a destination of sorts for bands from all over the country. Our proximity to Portland and potential recreational options are probably good reasons.

But when I starting gathering information about Williams, it became easy to understand why she would want to stop by Hood River. Besides the music aspect of her life, Williams involves herself in community, environmental and educational aspects of what she refers to as “helping to build a civilization.” Musically, she hopes some of her songs will make people want to “wake up and see what I can do to help our world, to better our civilization today.” While that global view sounds complicated, it doesn’t have to be.

Williams told me she travels a lot. In fact, when I spoke to her, she was heading up the New Jersey Turnpike back home to Boston. She said her travel experience has given her an innate ability to visit a town and get a feeling for what makes it tick. A vibe, if you will. And through the connections of performing music, she’s gotten in touch with kids, camp counselors and beekeepers. Her connections have even led to being a published author with the Scholastic Corporation.

It was also nice to learn that Williams’ musical career could be traced back to parental approval. At an early age, Williams knew it was okay to want to become a musician for a living, because in her family, national performers with socially important things to say were looked upon as valuable.

I bet they had a few 8-tracks lying around, too.

Interview with Dar Williams

Thanks for putting Hood River on your schedule. How did you find the Columbia Center for the Arts?

My friend Anne Weiss lives in Portland, and she’s really interested in helping the venue grow, and it’s a great new venue for touring people like me and Anne. I feel it’s up to society to help a venue become established. And it was a great chance for Anne and I to play together, so we signed ourselves up.

Tell me about your involvement in the “Give Bees a Camp” program.

I make time to go to summer camps for teens. A lot of the camp counselors know my music and they thought it would be a great surprise if I came to their camp. Along with that decision I thought it would be fun to just hang out with the campers, but not necessarily be making music, but just being able to talk with them.

One time I spoke to a beekeeper from the Portland Xerces Society, who said of all the things that we could be creating in environments where bees are disappearing is to be planting flowers. This is always a good idea; it’s not a cosmetic or token solution, it’s truly something that bees need; they really need more flowers right now. He called it “forage.”

So I plant bee-friendly gardens with kids at these camps. These camps themselves are pretty clean areas, with large amounts of wildflowers and no pesticides, so it’s like we are planting an oasis within an oasis, within a buffer zone. The Xerces Society came onboard and offered me feedback and help. They’re a great group and they’re really worth checking out.

Camps are a really fun way to meet 11-20-year-olds, but it’s also been a really great way to transform the conversation about bees from “annoying things that sting you” to hardworking vital, fascinating little creatures that are not unlike campers, because kids are also fast moving, hard working and all of those things as well.

It always amazes me the different things that music can lead people to, and it’s interesting to go in that environmental direction with music.

I love music, I love making music and performing music. But as a writer, I’m interested in connections, what they look like and how they work. It’s really fun to make a connection that works.

When I started my Bees Camp project, a lot of people at the outset said don’t use the word “bees,” don’t talk about bees, don’t talk about how excited you are about bees. And I thought, well, people do that all the time, they come in with the glassed-in honeycomb and they show kids. I wanted to show kids how to be excited about attracting bees. Bees don’t sting unless you step on one!

I was happy to find a connection that wasn’t really taken seriously, and for it to work; that’s as much fun for me as it is finding a good phrase, or something that rhymes really well, or having a breakthrough in a song.

Go ahead and talk about your new album “In the Time of Gods.”

It’s been out for about a year now, so I have some perspective on it, and I think it has a lot to do with power, good and bad. The power that can destroy and the power that can save us. A lot of the songs kind of have hints of specific Greek myths in them, there’s a little code language in there, because a lot of the mythic stories deal with power and chaos, and what we do with chaos.

There’s a song called “The Light and the Sea,” that kind of is the umbrella for the whole album, and what I mean is that in the chaos of the sea I have the power. As we get older, we have the power, to find prosperity and find the light to steer us. A lot of folks are saying that there are tidal waves and earthquakes, but we still have civilization. We still have to find a way to build our schools and ports, and we still have to believe in civilization.

And I think that’s a wonderful message. As opposed to “who’s running things and what’s wrong,” it’s how are you going to wake up in the morning and build civilization and believe in civilization. That’s what I choose to be thinking about, instead of the recession and the hurricanes and all those things.

When you record, you’ve got tons of help in the studio with your band. When you tour by yourself, how do you get your point across without the help of a band?

Well, I write the songs solo, so it’s easy for me to envision performing them solo. Sometimes, when I write things in a band situation, it’s harder to translate. But I start alone, and then perform alone. It’s really fun to record stuff with a band, but I’ll be solo in Hood River. Hopefully I’ll get Anne to jump in on some harmonies.

I read online that you had to go through a process to overcome stage fright — does that still affect you?

(Laughs) That was a long time ago, that was 20 years ago. The only time that makes me nervous now is when I have to do a performance on TV, with a song that I haven’t written. That will always freak me out. Or, if I’m doing a one-off fundraiser event where I have to learn one song by John Lennon, or REM or something. But I really don’t have that issue now. There are people who really have that thing, and they’ve had to go through a lot of different kinds of treatments to deal with it.

I found out early that performing wasn’t about perfecting something, it was about being myself. As soon as I figured that out, the stage was really a different place for me. And I feel really lucky about that. I couldn’t imagine having a job that stresses you out as much I’ve heard it stresses out other people.

Who influenced you to start playing music?

I had a lot of music growing up, just like a lot of people did in the ’60s and ’70s. In my childhood my parents loved music and musicians, and we considered them to be very valuable people for how they affected society, not just as entertainers. So I think that my parents really raised me to believe that if you want to be a musician, then that’s a really big responsibility and you can do that.

Originally, I wanted to be a playwright. I moved to Boston, but it turns out the Boston theater scene was having a rough time. And in the meantime, I would go out and play at open mics every night, there were song circles, there were tip jar gigs, there was opening for lots of other artists and there was folk radio.

I really learned a lot, and dealt with a lot of jealousy and envy and anxiety, and went through trying to get better and thinking I wasn’t good enough.

And then, finally, I analyzed every aspect of my performance and writing, and I was starting to get little gigs here and there. And then I wrote “The Honesty Room,” which is my first album. From the day I released it in 1994, I’ve been working full time as a musician.

I see on the album that you’ve got folks like Shawn Colvin helping you out. How did that go?

It was great. She recorded it in Austin and sent it back to me. All of my friends who are making music with me right now interact with humor, understanding and kindness — and she was very supportive of the album and the song. When you’re making an album, that’s really a lovely thing to hear. I was glad to hear from her. And I loved her part on “The Light and the Sea.”

Can you talk about your idea of how places have Positive Proximity?

I’m starting to write an article about this, but what it is is using the proximity to one another as a lever for towns and cities to become more unique, reliant and prosperous. A town with Positive Proximity (PP) will have a conversation where one thing leads to another and things start to happen. I’m trying to write about all the ingredients that helps start the process of PP and then to also be a witness to the things that have come out of PP.

I actually think that the Hood River arts center is an excellent example of that because there is a moment where there is this tipping point, where you go from “why” to “why not” and you realize you have this ability to do something with the interconnected strength of the people around you. And then you do these exciting things, and then that gives you a lot of energy to do more things.

So for me, as a traveler, I get to see this continuously unfolding, a positive process of a conversation-driven town that accomplishes interesting things.

In the process of doing those things, people come up with other things that they want to act on, like clearing a waterway or a riverfront, and having a concert series there, or getting more arts in their schools, or organizing to agitate the local government to a fix a sidewalk, or a park.

It goes in the direction of organizing two things side by side, two things together, or getting together and focusing the village and town governments to improve the ongoing life quality of the town.

I’m really interested in that because I’ve seen so many towns go from being kind of interesting and have an ambitious but small startup venue, to becoming a full-fledged, exciting, fun adventurous little city or town. Lowell, Mass., is like that, and I’m sure that there are some towns in the Pacific Northwest that have that kind of thing going on.

I hope you get to spend more that a few hours in Hood River because I think that I lot of things that you’re talking about are happening here in the Gorge.

I would say Portland has a very high positive proximity. In Sisters, once you get off the main drag of souvenir shops, everyone is hanging out in the coffee shops and there are art shows going on. Ashland has it, Jacksonville has it, I love it when I see it. Hopefully, I can continue to refine what that “it” is. But I think Hood River is the one I’ve heard that has it (laughs)!

You are a published children’s book author. How did you find that niche and how does it relate to your music?

I was asked to write something for Scholastic, they said “Would you like to write a book for us and see if it works out?” so I did. And then they said ‘Would you like to do a sequel?’ and I did, and it was just a wonderful, completely different experience. It was not like anything I had done; it was unlike songwriting. With songs, you create this 2-3-minute story and you get to have maybe two characters in a song.

But with the book, you get to have 10 characters in a story and you get to have all of these twists and turns, and I think there was part of me that was chomping at the bit to do that anyway. I really loved every minute of it, and I was thrilled they took a chance on me.

You guys have young children in the family?

We have two kids, a 9-year-old and 4-year-old.

How do you see music influencing them at this time?

They get a lot of music, but it’s more because of their dad. I don’t really pick up the guitar and play for the kids at home, but they sing a lot with their dad, and that’s a nice relationship that they have, because they love music and we’re always changing lyrics to songs and singing them while we make breakfast and things like that. I’m so lucky because my husband really did that for them, so it’s a very musical household, it’s a lot of fun.

When your kids grow up and start listening to your music, what do you think the impression will be for them?

I think when the parent is a performing musician, it’s more of an education in having a public personality and a private personality. I think it’s been a real education to watch them watch me take down my hair and put on all that makeup and step out on stage and have all the applause, and sign autographs for people, and then come home and do all the weeding and the cooking.

I have to go from being on stage to the other end of being able to go back down to what is really familiar and quiet. I’m happy to have them see that. My son used to say, “Wow, my mom’s such a star,” and I think yes, to some people, but to a lot of people, no.

Isn’t that an interesting thing that when people love music, it’s the music that you love. You can love the people who make it, but the celebrity is very ephemeral. It’s the music that really counts, the other stuff is just an interesting set of smoke and mirrors.

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