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Between Rock and A Folk Place

Folk Pop queen Dar Williams flirts with Rock on new album

By Alan Sculley · September 25th, 2008 · Music
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It is a busy morning at the Dar Williams household when she picks up the phone to do an interview. As Williams fields questions about her fall tour and her new CD, Promised Land, she deals with the needs of her 4-year-old son, Stephen, and a shifting schedule that has seen several phone interviews moved to this morning and scheduled in rapid back-to-back succession.

“Sorry, I’m multi-tasking,” Williams says, trying to answer an interview question, tend to her son (who wanted to show his mother a pepper he had found) and deal with an incoming call for another interview.

But if life as a mother/wife/musician means juggling the demands of home and family with the demands of promoting a tour and new CD comes with an understandable element of chaos, it seems clear that when it comes to the music itself, Williams continues to have things under control.

Promised Land, Williams’ seventh studio album, is yet another in an unbroken string of solid efforts that showcases her immediately appealing Folk Pop sound and sharply drawn lyrics. But while the music on Promised Land fits neatly alongside the rest of Williams’ album catalog, her approach to making the album had a few notable differences.

WILLIAMS plays Covington’s Carnegie Performing Arts Center this with local guests Ellery.

After working with producer Stewart Lerman on her previous two albums, The Beauty Of The Rain and My Better Self, she chose to work with Brad Wood, a producer with a Rock – not Folk – background and a notably different group of musicians.

Wood, in fact, has praised Williams for her willingness to step outside of her comfort zone in recording Promised Land. It’s a compliment Williams happily accepts, but not without downplaying any artistic courage she showed in doing the album.



“I chose him because he fit my comfort zone. I’m pleased that he thought I was being so brave,” Williams says. “And it’s good for people to believe that I’m being brave. So by all means, present me as a brave person.”

In reality, Williams says, Wood (whose credits include Pete Yorn, Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins) did bring a Rock aesthetic to certain aspects of the album. In particular, Wood brought in a drummer, Travis McNabb of Better Than Ezra, with a purely Rock background. But Williams says Wood also understood the importance of keeping her voice at the center of the songs.

“He’s not afraid to really push a Rock thing,” Williams says. “But at the end of the day, everyone is hitting hard, but my lyrics and my voice and the nuance in my voice — because women’s voices just get more interesting as they get older (because) there’s more history in them — he was there to catch that. So if I was having a good day vocally, that really showed up in the final product. That’s what I wanted. So that for me was true comfort.”

After making her 2000 album, The Green World, Williams realized that she had been too controlling in the studio and was doing too much to orchestrate and guide the recording process.

On 2003’s The Beauty Of The Rain, she stepped back somewhat, giving her co-producers more of a voice in the proceedings and also encouraging the musicians on that album to bring more of their personalities and styles to their playing.

Williams continued to practice that approach on the 2005 CD, My Better Self, but feels that she was even more open-minded in making Promised Land. “This was a fulfillment of that understanding that I got from working with all of these great musicians, that actually I need to step back,” she says. “Unless you really want to go in there with a dot-to-dot blueprint where there’s no freedom and there’s just execution, it’s actually much better for an album spiritually to let people kind of go into how they feel the music as well as how they execute it. So yeah, I absolutely let them (Wood and the musicians) in on songs and I absolutely applied that this time, even when it was feeling a little counter-intuitive.”

After starting her career in a decidedly Folk setting on the 1994 album The Honesty Room and 1996’s Mortal City, Williams began to shift toward a broader sonic palette on The Green World that emphasized fuller arrangements and more of a Pop dimension.

Promised Land fits comfortably alongside her most recent albums. A few songs have a stronger Rock edge, including the brisk album-opening “It’s Alright” and “Go to the Woods.” And while the rhythm tracks are a bit more assertive on other songs like “The Easy Way” and “Buzzer,” these tunes still strike an appealing balance between Pop and Folk as Williams showcases her familiar ability to craft graceful melodies. There are also quieter songs, such as “You Are Everyone” and “Holly Tree” that connect this album directly back to Williams’ folkier roots.

What will sound different is Williams’ live sound on her first run of dates to promote Promised Land. Having toured in recent years with a full band and in a solo acoustic format, Williams this fall is performing in a trio with keyboardist Bryn Roberts and percussionist Everett Bradley. The format, she said, lends itself to a wide variety of sonic settings.

“I’ve been hearing my friends playing with these incredible trios,” Williams says. “It’s a little more theatrical than a band because it’s a little bit more unusual.

There’s a lot of power.” �

WASSUP
DAR WILLIAMS plays Covington’s Carnegie
Visual Performing Arts Center this
Thursday with local guests Ellery.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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