Dar Williams Goes Greek in Her Ninth Release
Call it a gift from the Gods. On April 17, after four years of radio silence, singer/songwriter Dar Williams dropped a new album, "In The Time Of Gods." This 10-song LP explores today’s social issues told against the parables of Greek mythology, and includes some of the richest and most evocative writing of Williams’ career.
"I think that it came as a gift from my unconscious to hook into the whole Greek mythology theme," said Williams in a recent interview. "I was staring down an empty highway in Canada after an evening storm. The sky was silver, the fields were silver, the road was wet, and I thought, I wish I could write an epic riders song."
"So I imagined Hermes, messenger of the dead and the god of travelers, as a biker wearing a leather jacket with wings on the back," she continued. "I started to write a song about him bringing this woman down to Hades because she’d asked him to. Hermes thinks this is sexy and cool, so he seduces her instead of taking her to death."
The rest of "In the Time of the Gods," Williams’ ninth studio album, was inspired by the stories of the Greek gods. It was like a hair trigger, Williams recalled, as individual people and situations inspired connections one after the other.
Living with epic events
"There is a lot of ’hell in a hand basket’ talk right now, and in these songs, I am writing with a different lens about how yet again, we are living with epic events," said Williams.
Her new track, "Summer Child," was inspired by the tale of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter who was spirited away to the underworld by Hades. Williams said that although she had originally thought to write a bitter song from Demeter to Hades full of regret and conquest, she decided to take a different tack.
"I decided that that’s not the nature of spring and summer; they are very joyful celebrations," said Williams. "And that’s like me. Watching my kids get older, I could be wistful and anxious about the dangers, knowing that winter is coming and time passes, or just really notice them growing up. Watching a child run in summertime is the closest you get to watching eternity."
She began to see parallels between these epic tales and the issues of today. One song was inspired by Hephaestus, the god of forges and volcanoes, and looks at the sadness that can be found in a life of excess.
A limping god?
"Hephaestus was thrown to earth by his parents, so he limps, and a limping god is a weird paradox," said Williams. "I’ve met men and women with a lot of power who went to the best schools and built massive things, have great amounts of money, and are very talented engineers. They have the best in life of what money can buy, but really they just want to tinker in their basement. That was Hephaestus. He was gentle and lived to create beautiful things. He seemed lame and clumsy, but created delicate things and was married to the goddess of beauty, but she was repulsed by him. It’s so Silicon Valley!"
Williams’ doesn’t yet have a favorite track on this album, saying that one will likely emerge during her national tour, which begins this month. But early favorites include "I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything," written from the viewpoint of Hera, the goddess of marriage who hates children.
"The voice of the song says go ahead and overlook the tedious, detail-oriented, everyday activities of parenting because we’re so consumed with the necessity of war," said Williams. "But at some point, those children will grow up and start another war. The Taliban is the grown orphans of a war between Russia and Afghanistan. They are very much raised by ideology and anger, not by humans."
Williams said that at the same time she complains about having to read "Frog and Toad" to her children over and over, she realizes that she is passing on those messages of sharing and friendship. Reading them "Curious George" is a celebration of innocence, and lets them see they will be loved even if they eat a puzzle piece or set fire to the woodshed.
The song has been very well received on its own terms, and not just as an anti-war song, said Williams, which makes her very happy.
Williams was thrilled to have worked with musician Ron Hyman on the album, about whom she said, "He’s a prince!" She recalls working on "I’ll Free Myself" in an unbearably sad A minor chord, and Hyman suggesting a sunny, questioning D7 chord, which, "gave it this extra dimension of questioning, and in the moments of lightness made the song even more sad. The chords he threw in would actually help me flesh out the narrative," said Williams.
Working with friends
She also teamed up with musicians Shawn Colvin and Larry Campbell for different tracks, saying that she gave her friend, Colvin, a lot of latitude and "just wanted a friendly voice to join me." She tapped Campbell for "You Will Ride With Me Tonight," saying that this story of Hermes at a crossroads really had a mythic American road feel to it.
"I just hummed a couple of bars, and Larry took it from there," she recalled. "It was exactly what I wanted. Larry knows that spooky, American road sound very well."
On tour, South Carolinian Josh Kaylor will provide this Americana sound, as part of what she calls "a dream team for the stage."
Williams anticipates her upcoming tour, saying, "every city has its own thing going on that I’m looking forward to. You find your little home neighborhood and look forward to going back to all of them."
She took a sabbatical from her column on Huffington Post to finish the album, but will resume her writing while on the road. Williams promises a fun show, saying, "I will bust out the rock and roll, and try to keep my Greek mythology teacher chops to a dull roar."
Dar Williams will debut "In The Time Of Gods" with a CD release party on May 5 at New York City’s Skirball Center, 145 Sixth Ave. For info, visit http://skirballcenter.nyu.edu/calendar/darwilliams