Dar Williams’ songs tend to start small. First, a cluster of words and/or musical notes bubbles up from some hidden corridor of her psyche. Then, like a paleontologist deducing what a creature from another time looked like from bits of bone and cartilage, she searches for clues to the nature of the full song.
This first happened to Williams when she was just 11. The line “I should be happy where I am” popped into her mind, paired with a snippet of melody. Recognizing those words as the title of an unwritten song, she took her first steps toward becoming the folk singer/guitarist/songwriter she is now.
“I said, ‘Oh! I’m writing a song!’” she recalls. “‘What rhymes with ‘am’ from ‘I should be happy where I am?’ What would that melody sound like, and if this song has this title, where do I think it might be going? What’s interesting to me right now? What’s true and honest to me?’”
Years after that first encounter with her muse, Williams began stockpiling song material while pursuing a double major in religion and theater at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Through those studies, she absorbed elements of storytelling, performance, and spirituality that would later inform her music and stage presentation.
Williams’ education in theology had a profound impact on her. “My joke was that every religion that I studied, I tried to convert to, and then the semester would end,” she says.
During her junior year of college, Williams took a deep dive into Buddhism. “It almost killed me, because there’s so much American baggage attached to it,” she reflects. “It can get very competitive: If only I didn’t have emotions; if only I was detached; if only I was spiritually aloof enough. No one would break my heart, and I would always get the job, and I would always appear to be breezy and easy, and I’d be thin, and I wouldn’t get in anybody’s way, and I wouldn’t take up any space. You can distill a lot of sexist misinformation from the language of transcendence.”
Adding to those challenges was the depression that Williams had been grappling with for a couple of years. Her feelings of hopelessness grew so severe that she nearly took her own life.
Ultimately, she found relief in therapy. “I’m so grateful I saw the right person and we talked about the right things,” she reflects. “It just cracked me open. That real life-or-death suicidal ideation was done in a very dramatic and not-turning-back way by age 22.”
There were no trumpets or confetti cannons heralding Williams’ emergence from the darkness though. In her song “After All,” she recounted this moment: “When I chose to live, there was no joy. It’s just a line I crossed. It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost.”
In 1999, the death of a cousin made for another turning point in Williams’ spiritual life. “Something reassured me that life isn’t just this monkey paw, where you don’t want people you love to die, and then they die anyway, and somebody is laughing at you,” she muses. “I got a very strong sense of a benevolent universe and a real sense of the divine behind that. I kept on waiting for it to disappear, because it almost felt more like an emotion than a belief, but it didn’t. So I still have that.”
Nowadays, Williams practices what she calls “over-the-counter Buddhism.” She explains, “It’s got a little monotheism in it, a little paganism, some modern psychology, some Tibetan, some Zen.”
Williams’ latest works are her fifth book, How to Write a Song That Matters, and her 12th full-length studio album, I’ll Meet You Here. The latter ends with a reimagined version of one of her best-loved songs, “You’re Aging Well.” Therein, the songwriter describes a “woman of voices” who “gave me the language that keeps me alive.” In many ways, this new recording is a gesture of gratitude to folk legend Joan Baez, who launched Williams’ career by recording some of her songs and taking her on tour in the mid-’90s.
“I hoped I’d grow up to become the older woman in that song,” says Williams, who is now roughly the same age that Baez was when they went on the road together. “So far, so good. I won’t say that I am, but signs are pointing in the right direction.”
One of the strongest of these confirmations was a letter Williams once received from someone who frequently turns up at her gigs. She was touched to learn that the daughter of the letter’s sender would often shut herself in her room and listen exclusively to the music of Indigo Girls and Dar Williams.
The singer says that at that point, she “realized it didn’t matter if the world was going to decide that I should be famous or not famous. I recognized this as the mark that I had made it, and that my music has been of value in the world.”