Let The Songs Come To You: An Interview With Dar Williams | Omega

American singer-songwriter and folk musician Dar Williams shares her thoughts on songwriting and lessons she’s learned as a creative professional, including how the wheel is always turning. 

Omega: What is your idea of creative space? Where does that space exist for you?

Dar: I like to go to a place that stimulates my curiosity, usually a museum, and then go to wherever I can empty out all those thoughts. Usually all the space I can find is a café table, but sometimes I luck out with a long boardwalk. 

Omega: When you recognize something that is so good you feel compelled to turn it into a song, how do you maintain the essence of it through the writing and refining process?

Dar: One direction is to believe in fractals—that's the law of nature that says on an oak tree, this branch will always be in this proportion to the trunk, and the limb will be in this proportion to the branch. I'll take an initial melody line and build it out proportionally, and likewise with "the voice" of the song. Is it a loose, summer-porch, slow song or a very tight, modern, fast song?  

Sometimes the song surprises you. I had a slow, feminist musing about power dynamics with the line, “I will not be afraid of women,” but then the line, “As cool as I am,” came into my head. “As cool as I am, I will not be afraid of women.” Suddenly, the narrator wasn't defensive, she was defiant, and I realized the bolder narrator was the right one. So I ditched the slow melody.   

Omega: What is one thing you wish you knew or understood as a young artist?

Dar: I had the best managers, booking agents, and artists you can imagine. They were hardworking, kind, and honest. But nobody thought of fashion. I wore all my friends’ hand-me-downs, including their bras. I wish I'd gone ahead and splurged on a new bra, among other things. I left my shoes in Joan Baez's hotel room once (she had the band in there after a show). In the morning my shoes were outside the door with this note: "Darling, You need new shoes. Otherwise you're perfect."

Omega: What have you seen in the children you’ve worked with? What are they bringing with them as they begin to leave their mark on society?

Dar: I think kids these days are ready to think holistically and compassionately. They have a media literacy that extends to understanding the way humans work. But that’s what I see at summer camps, where kids are so open to things. 

On the flip side, I've seen kids who don't let me or just about anyone into their bubbles, very monosyllabic and screen-craving and all that worrying stuff, and then, voila, they're sitting at the dinner table at 16 or 17 and they have intellectual curiosity, kindness, and social graces! All of those books, talks, and, yes, retreats, have added up somewhere and they're fine. Suddenly I see all the good they're going to bring to the world as adults. I hope my observation helps a few parents exhale.

Omega: What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned as a creative professional?

Dar: The wheel is always turning. You have a bad show and you’ll have a good show. You have a block; you'll unblock. You feel worn out, and then you feel younger. And the loveliest thing: You meet a neurotic teen-aged fan, she disappears, you wonder what happened to your “fan base,” and she appears 15 years later with two kids, and apparently they've been singing your songs since they were three, and now they’re 10 and want to come to your concert with their mom. So that's the wheel turning, too.

Omega: Politics and folk music have always seemed to work well together. Today, we all live in a global community, with global politics. The issues seem bigger than ever. How does this impact your songwriting?

Dar: A song is a song. It will come to you like a single golden thread that you can gently pull. It might be about war, or it might be about a child running in a field. Or a bar! I've written about all three. I let the song come to me or I'd be staring at a giant spool of thread saying, “Oh no, where do I begin?”

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
This article was originally published on Omega's Huffington Post blog.

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