Dar Williams has never taken the easy road to folk. When some contemporaries made music that was girlish and coy, Williams went for something mature, earthy, and richly detailed in its characterizations of lost souls and lousy times. Think Joni Mitchell meets Neal Cassady, and you get the sounds of Williams' homemade cassette debut (
I Have No History
) and her first album (
The Honesty Room
What do you suppose the artist - who made this year's Emerald, and who plays Sunday at World Cafe Live at the Queen - would tell the artist just starting out back then?
"I would tell the person who recorded those first cassettes and records to do exactly what she's doing, because I wouldn't be here today without her," Williams says.
"OK, one thing: I would tell her to travel with an extra shirt or a towel or something. I showed up at so many radio stations with coffee stains down my front of whatever I was wearing.
"I'd also say, 'Go ahead and spend more on shoes, and yes, wear all your friends' hand-me-down clothes, except their bras. Get a better bra.' Look back at my old pictures; you'll see what I'm talking about."
Born the daughter of medical writer/editor Gray Williams (a Yale graduate) and Planned Parenthood's Marian Ferry (Vassar), Williams was taught social consciousness and learned to find her own causes. She has, for example, been working to raise concerns and funds to prop up the disintegrating honeybee population.
How, if at all, is such commitment reflected in her music? Check out her cover of Joe Strummer's "Johnny Appleseed" on Emerald. "Strummer wrote, 'If you're after getting the honey, then you don't go killing all the bees' five years before anyone was talking about colony collapse disorder or any of that," Williams says.
As for her socially conscious writing on Emerald - accompanied by a raw yet silken musicality, and sung in a voice muted yet urgent - Williams is pretty frank. "I always wanted to make CDs that people really wanted to own, rather than seduce them into wasting plastic," she says. Then she quotes her own album: "Don't you let / Yourself forget."
"We have an invitation to get out there and chew everything up quickly, like time, things, information, each other," Williams says. "It can get cruel. The good news is somewhere inside us, we all remember where to draw the line and recommit to what we believe in."
Williams started writing tracks such as "Something to Get Through" and "Emerald" as far back as 2011, with the album's title track reflecting on the expanse of her career and seeing it as a unified and beautiful life, "despite all the zinging around and disasters and potato chips from rest stops."
Just like an emerald, the album feels clear, not cloudy, as if light can shine through no matter what muddiness she encounters. The song "Mad River" is her metaphor for economic recession, where "you could get smashed into the rocks at any minute, no matter how good a swimmer you were," and she explores personal solitude in "Empty Plane."
For all that solitude, Emerald is filled with guests such as Lucy Wainwright Roche (Williams' current tour partner), guitarist Jim Lauderdale, and Jill Sobule. "Working with people, face to face or voice to voice, is like getting to eat a peach instead of drinking a peach smoothie," says Williams. "You'll have a good thing no matter what, but you get a better sense of the real thing and the tree it came from."