As Dar Williams takes the phone and apologizes for being a few minutes tardy to the day’s phone interview, there’s a clamor in the background. Williams explains that it’s her six-year-old son admiring a recent upgrade to the family kitchen of their upstate New York home — newly installed LED lamps that consume a fraction of the electricity required by regular ones.
The longtime energy activist recently began blogging about sustainable technology and other environmental topics for Huffington Post.
“It’s like taking an awesome night class, and I’m trying not to let it too much dominate too much of my life,” she says, adding that her next post is about low-impact hydropower in the Rocky Mountains. “I’ve always been a cheerleader for what I consider to be the cutting edge of what’s democratic in our country, that moves toward democracy, and I think sustainability and democracy are very related.”
On Friday, Nov. 5, Williams appears solo at the South Church in Portsmouth. Earlier this month, Williams released the retrospective compilation Many Great Companions, which includes both a “best of” disc and a disc containing stripped-down remakes of a dozen songs spanning her 17-year career. The new recordings feature guest turns from Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sarah and Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), Patty Larkin and others.
“It was not forced,” says Williams of the collaborations. “I didn’t know that the album was going to be called ‘Many Great Companions,’ or I would have loaded it up with a certain number of friends to underscore the theme of the album, but the ones that I chose, I felt very happy.”
The Watkins siblings contributed to “The Christians and Pagans,” a song Williams approached with a bit of trepidation. “The problem with stripping it down is that if you add any instruments, it has what I call the ‘Muppet Jug Band’ sound,” she says. “There was a lot to avoid, and so what’s nice about Nickel Creek and Sara and Sean is that they are very twist-y and turn-y. They are very good at doing conventional bluegrass but they also keep an ear out for what is too precious and too much, so they were a great fit.”
Some of the new arrangements shed new light on the material. Others, like “The One Who Knows” and “If I Wrote You,” hew close to the originals. “I don’t really know why I wanted to go back and do that,” says Williams of the latter song. “I guess I just felt [like] the more worn my voice, my psyche and my experience are, the better … it’s like a John Prine song where things aren’t so great and they’re not going to get better.”
The record’s song order occasionally seems to tell a story. For example, the emotional detachment of “As Cool I Am” is updated by the committed love in “You Rise and Meet the Day,” written for her husband of eight years. Says Williams, “you’re right, they look at each other. The ‘As Cool As I Am’ person is clearing the decks for the partner who didn’t play a bunch of head games [while the other] looks back and says thank you — if I hadn’t gone through that crap, I might not have known what a good thing I had. It’s true these narrators could … know and see that they are related in time.”
Despite that, Williams insists the album’s sequencing was unintentional. “I started in theater. If you drop a ribbon on the stage, you have to pick it up. It’s what they call a hyper-associated space. Recording is also a hyper-associated space — it tends to make associations,” she says. “We did put a lot of intention into the project but it was not a narrative. I did end with ‘When I Was a Boy’ because I wanted it to end where it all began. I wanted to start with ‘Calling the Moon’ because it’s like an invitation, a calling for a blessing of the muse of poetry or the muse of things that are beyond our worldly days — so it’s a nice way to start a concert.”
Left off the CD but included as an iTunes exclusive is “Play the Greed,” a song about that originally appeared on the 1998 Hempilations 2 benefit disc for NORML that neatly sums up Williams’ green capitalist activism. “I’m a radical but I also live my life in the suburbs,” she says. “I’m not giving up all my possessions, that’s including my touring life and living.”
Of her new role as Huffington Post blogger, she says, “I’ve been sitting in a chair waiting for the phone to ring for years for that, because it’s been such a hobby of mine. In 1987 I learned about this thing called global warming. They predicted a lot of things that would happen — anti-global warming propaganda, weather shifts and climate refugees. But I don’t approach [blogging] with a sense of scarcity, panic, self-righteousness and alarmism. I get to be excited about our potential. That’s what I try to do.”