Singer-songwriter Dar Williams has made an art of imperfection, with a repertoire of songs that celebrate characters fretting over their own flaws, groping for connection, and struggling with the consequences.
Her newest recording, "Out There Live" (Razor & Tie) is a vibrant compilation of 16 songs, made during three New England concerts last November with the backing of a four-person band. "The best moments [of performing]," she says, "are when I have a paradoxical awareness that this is what I do - and yet I can't believe it's what I do."
It's a sense of composed astonishment that permeates Williams's shows, a self-awareness that lets her poke fun at herself and the world, but never descends to harsh irony or ridicule.
Though Williams keeps her witty, conversational interludes to a minimum on "Out There Live," you get a taste of their charm with a description of her college classmates' infatuation with the avant-garde - the opening to "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono," a romping tribute to Ono's uncompromising spunk.
Williams wrote her first song - a work she describes as "bizarre and very ponderous, with a lot of biblical imagery" - at age 11, while growing up in suburban Chappaqua, N.Y. Those early years loom large in her songs - with a tribute to her beloved hippie baby sitter, a lament to autumn and the wane of summer's burnished possibility, and a rollicking ode to teenagers' thirst for conspiracy theories floating into dark suburban bedrooms through the crackle of independent radio.
The suburbs - often defamed as complacent oases of smug privilege and xenophobia - emerge in Williams's songs as the spur and backdrop of self-discovery.
"You get to study how the human condition peaks up when every control is in place to keep it down," she says. "And the way [it] peaks up is absolutely the most redeeming thing about [my] town. That helped me see that our imperfection is the best thing about us."
Though Williams wrote a few songs as a teenager, she focused on playwriting. But while working at the Opera Company of Boston after college, she began to miss singing. She took voice lessons and performed at "open mics."
Though she eventually chose songwriting over playwriting, Williams keeps her literary fires burning. She spent last summer working on a novel about an 11-year-old girl who's convinced she's a bad kid; an allegorical play about the erosion of an island culture in the face of mining; and a screenplay in which an idealistic woman and her "evil hippie" boyfriend argue over her corporate career.
In her songs, Williams has kept the struggle for social change separate from her muse. "To write about your experience is its own pursuit," she says. "It doesn't have to have an agenda attached." She's active in environmental causes - especially the protection and appreciation of the Hudson River - as well as teenage feminism, media literacy, public and alternative radio, "and the way a well-meaning white woman can attach herself to the race issue."
But she strives to keep politics separate from her songs. "It's always been my prayer that my songs observe, and that in the rest of my life, I act. The race has been to continue pulling nuanced experiences from my life."
If Williams's goal is to tap the nerve of recognition, her songs shudder with success. Beyond poignant recollections of childhood and adolescence, she sings of events as monumental as the volcanic demise of Pompeii and concepts as abstract as the chill of February. Her lyrics offer intimate and universal metaphors for failed and furtive attempts at connection.
It's that struggle that promises redemption in Williams's songs."We speak in all this indirect language," she says. "And if you're lucky, you can transcend that coldness, and come out with something honest and real."