Kim Ruehl: Let's start with the title of Promised Land. What's the story behind that? Where did that come from for you?
Dar Williams: It refers to a tension, basically. We're at a point, historically and atmospherically where we have a lot of opportunity and a lot of things we can do to fulfill the promise of this beautiful planet, and this beautiful country. I'm [someone] who's out there seeing people come up with really great ideas in education and environmental technology and gardening. I see the local [anti-]war movement blossoming. I see more people understanding how to do solar panels and geothermal and things like that. So there's just this real outpouring of action and ability and potential. It's funny because, when we think "promised land," I think a lot of people think of strife. But, there's a way to peaceably share our resources and be neighborly on many levels.
There's no end to potential and the sustainability of our lives. And yet, there seems to be a tipping point of entitlement that leads people to express their love of their land by fighting over it. People can trip you up and say, well, how else are we going to make it safe for the people who do sustainable work? But I just wanted to emphasize the stories of people trying to make creative, important world visions on the land, highlighting how difficult it is and also how important it is. There's a lot of answers in that one answer...it's like a hall of mirrors in terms of how it meant so many things to so many different people. To me it just meant—what a land of milk and honey we live in if we surrender to our sense of entitlement.
There are a lot of personal stories on this record. Do you feel like expressing those personal things is in itself a radical move? Rather than writing overtly political songs, clearly you're trying to get some sort of message out...
I would say that what we call political songs that people find really annoying are the ones that are pointing fingers. I would say that's the only difference. Because a person can feel really strongly about things and want to write a song about Dick Cheney...if you don't deal with it politically, it doesn’t rise to any universal level. It's just like [saying] "I'm upset." It's no more effective to say "I'm upset, you’ve done me wrong" about Dick Cheney than it is to say the same thing about your ex-boyfriend. The other shoe's got to drop in terms of one's perspective for it to be an interesting song in my opinion. I.e. a story.
I wrote a song called "Empire" [from My Better Self]that's sort of looking at aspects of empires, it's not pointing fingers. And I'm proud of it. it's definitely I guess what you call a political song. But [I was] trying to put my finger up to the wind to feel what the winds of empire feel like. Is that what we are? Is that who we are? and maybe that song's contention was "Not yet." I don't think we’re an empire yet. [laughs]
I think stories are great. Stories are really...this is a time when people need to feel more connected than to something that's just driven by commerce. We're not just dealing with this administration. We're dealing with our own seduction by our technologies and toys, and realizing that it's a time of iPods and community gardens. Go figure. It's the yin and yang. There's a harkening back to being together that's coming about right now. So the songs and stories reflect that, too, p.s.
You've been playing out for 15 years now, how has your creative process changed in that time?
Well, I'm a little more aware of what it requires. I mean, it requires the bravery to say I'm going to go wander in the mist for a while. I'm going to blow off these dishes not for an important business meeting, but for an existential fishing trip where I may or may not catch an idea, or experience ideas coming together in a way that might become a song. I'm much more aware and protective of getting out there and making mistakes instead of just sitting there and thinking, oh I'm such a failure, this song's not coming to me.
You have to go to the mountain and call out for assistance, and for me that means creating a lot of space, going to museums, looking at other people's visual art and drawing from that. So it's probably more the same than ever.
Do you find that you have songs that are throw-away songs, or do you stick with it until it's a keeper?
That's a really good question. I stick with it until it's done and then I decide if it's a keeper or not. A lot of times, I'll try it out on an audience before I decide if it's a keeper or not, because I just can't tell. That's another good thing about having done this for a while. I know there are going to be very negative voices ringing through my head [saying] that song's too long, it's too short, too derivative, it sounds like "Shatter" by the Stones. You have to block that out until you actually put it in front of an audience and see if it's received or not received. It's that litmus test, it's beyond you. There are a couple songs I've written along the way that nobody's ever heard because I kind of knew they just weren't working.