Dar Williams’ music serves as the voice of the times

Dar Williams
Dar Williams

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, but that has not been Dar Williams’ experience. Through the years the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter has collaborated with some of the music industry’s most respected names in writing and performing her work, from Joan Baez to Suzzy Roche to The Hooters.

And while she has certainly found success through the more intimate process of writing on her own, Williams said working with others provides numerous advantages in crafting music.

“I think working with friends keeps your nose to the grindstone, and that’s good because it keeps you in the room with an idea and usually brings out your best work,” Williams told the News-Record in a Dec. 4 phone interview. “I’ve got to become better friends with (the people I’ve worked with) because writing is personal. And when you’re 20 years into your career, all of these friendships create this beautiful network. It’s like living in a creative rainforest, and I really love that.”

Residents will be able to see the product of that collaborative creativity when Williams appears at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Dec. 17, where she will play selections from her latest album “Emerald.” As with much of her records, the new release features songs written and performed with fellow musician friends including Lucy Wainwright Roche and Bryn Roberts, who will both be joining Williams on stage at SOPAC.

Like most of her previous albums, the songs on “Emerald” run the gamut of topics because, as Williams put it, “You never know when the muse will come.”

One song already gaining traction has been “FM Radio,” an upbeat examination of the way music impacted the 1970s. Williams said that track was particularly fun for her and co-writer Jill Sobule to craft, with the two spending hours reminiscing on how the music of the era intersected their own lives.

Though she pointed out that the industry at the time was far from perfect, with record labels holding all the power, Williams said the music itself had a unique ability of bringing together people of all generations. Plus, she said the artists of the day really spoke about the issues affecting society, whether it was racism or politics, through their music.

“These people became these touchstones of civilization in the United States,” Williams said. “Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and all these people not only recognized the culture of what’s going on, but also created an archive so we can know that in the ’70s people were asking these big questions.

“In the ’70s, I think there was a more permeated social consciousness that came with that music,” she continued. “Even disco was getting people out of their houses and interacting with each other, dancing with each other — black, white and brown. And I
think that’s happening now a little bit more. It would be nice to see more disco in the world.”

Williams also has a particular interest in “New York is a Harbor,” another song from the album. She said she has been happy to see in the past 20 years of touring that more and more small towns are prospering as a result of developing their own community identities and rejecting the intrusion of major commercial operations. She is even writing a book about the phenomenon.

New York City, as Williams details in her song, seems to be moving in reverse. What started out as a haven for dreamers has now become a hotbed for the ultra-wealthy, she said, with places like Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library serving as the only monuments to the fact that the city was founded on hard work and the desire to share beautiful things with everyone. She only hopes now that more New Yorkers will realize their city’s strength was always its inclusiveness.

“I think that New York benefits from remembering that that’s its greatest legacy,” Williams said. “The more we find our way to each other and the more networks we build together, the more we are ‘We the people.’”

Two communities that Williams has no complaints about are South Orange and Maplewood. In fact, she said she never turns down an opportunity to perform in Northern New Jersey, where she sees a real sense of community. But she said SOMA is particularly impressive to her for its diversity and appreciation of the arts. And she is especially excited to return to SOPAC, having had such an excellent experience the first time she performed there.

“You walk into a place and you nod your head and you say ‘Oh, they know how to do this,’” Williams said, recalling her first impressions of the venue. “They knew where to put the money. They knew they needed a good sound system. They knew they needed comfortable seats. And you nod your head and say ‘This is how things should be run.’”

To purchase tickets, call 973-313-2787 or visit http://www.sopacnow.org/dar-williams/ .