Folk singer Dar Williams tuning in for her Park City gig
Throughout most of her life, singer and songwriter Dar Williams, who will perform on Feb. 24, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. was known for her folk songs that addressed religion, gender issues, anti-commercialism and relationships.
That changed in 2000 when Scholastic Book, the home of Harry Potter, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and other chidlren’s books, asked Williams to pen a young adult novel.
“The first thought was, ‘I can’t do that,’” Williams said. “Then a friend of mine said, ‘If Scholastic invites you out to lunch, you go out to lunch.’ So I ended up writing two books.”
The books were about a girl named Amalee, who takes a child’s-eye view of the adult world.
Williams’ writings, which also included “The Tofu Tollbooth,” a nutrition book co-written with Elizabeth Zipern, caught the attention of The Huffington Post.
“They invited me to do a Green Blog in 2010, and as one who knew the importance of extending oneself, I said yes,” Williams said. “When I began doing that, I learned how to interview people and communicate through nonfiction.”
Since then, Williams has divided her time between music and writing.
“I wrote a draft of a children’s musical and I wrote a screenplay that will never see the light of day,” she said with a laugh. “It was a thriller.”
When Williams plays at the Eccles Center this Saturday, the show will consist of songs, stories and observations of the world.
Some of the observations are documented in her new book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time.”
The book is about the rise and fall of small-town America.
“It wasn’t a book that I originally intended to write,” Williams said. “I thought it would be a good book for someone else to write.”
The book stems from the term, “positive proximity.”
“I came up with it during an interview, and about the constructive and mobilizing force for doing good things and having a local identity when people are living side by side,” Williams explained. “Negative proximity is when people just travel to stores they always shop at and then go home and lock their doors.”
Most towns, Williams has learned through years of touring, have found their way into positive proximity.
“I’ve seen people find each other and go on to do some cool stuff,” she said. “Having a good venue for music, theater and other art is a great way to get diverse people brought together for something big and interesting.”
Williams feels the book is important today, especially with the current political and social climate of the country.
“It’s very important to stop and see how far we’ve come,” she said. “I’ve seen the connection when people explore their downtowns with people from other communities and backgrounds. Once you see that, being a bigot in your armchair is not desirable, because there is so much to be proud of.”
Williams’ books are an extension of her songwriting.
“The songwriting influences the book writing because of the patience you need to find that perfect word,” she said. “You have to know it will come if you feel like it’s there, and that came from songwriting and from crossword puzzles.”
Still, Williams has found a big difference between songwriting and books.
“If you’re writing a book that is 288 pages, you have to cultivate a little impatience and risk sounding kind of dry and wonky,” she said. “I had to realize that not everything was going to be a sonnet, but I do my best to wait for that poetic sense to arrive. But then sometimes you have to just write what you have to say. So I tried to find the balance.”
Williams began her music writing when she was child.
“I heard little voices in my head and began stringing things together,” she said. “I wrote my first song when I was 11, but didn’t do it again until I was 16. Something swirled out of the mist and I pursued it.”
Williams’ parents were also big influences for her creativity.
“I am a child of the 1970s and there were a lot of people around me who told me to follow my ideas and not to squash them,” she said. “There were a lot of poets in my schools and my parents were involved in the school and used their clout to get the teachers they thought they were best for me. The sweet thing was no one wanted their kids to have these teachers because they the hippies, you know?”
Williams’ teachers taught haikus, made puppets and allowed for self-expression.
“So from an early age, if I wanted to write a song, poem or play, I had permission to,” she said.
As an adult, Williams found her way to Boston to pursue theater.
“The press there didn’t support the local theater, because they only liked productions out of New York,” she said. “But parallel to that there were song circles, open mics, tip-jar gigs, cafe gigs and a very supportive press and radio stations that supported every type of music — new classical, alternative rock, folk, blues, everything.”
Notable musical artists who hailed from that scene include Patty Griffin, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr.
“It was the place to be making music, and it was amazing for me to find the golden part of a golden era,” Williams said. “I went to a open mic to see a guy that I had a crush on and it went from there.”
Park City Institute will present singer, songwriter, author and activist Dar Williams at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Tickets range from $29 to $79. They can be purchased by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.
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