‘A revolutionary posture’: Singer Dar Williams takes a stand for optimism

Courtesy of Ebru Yildiz
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams' 10th album, "I'll Meet You Here," released Oct. 1, suggests that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues.

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Folk singer Dar Williams’ literary lyrics – lauded by the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins – often explore how contrasting individuals meet heart-to-heart. Her characters find common ground across religion and gender. 

Her latest album, “I’ll Meet You Here,” which debuts Oct. 1, posits that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues such as climate change. 

Why We Wrote This

What’s the best way to stay buoyant in the face of challenges like climate change or declining towns? For musician and author Dar Williams, the key is a social contract she calls “positive proximity.”

“If you have what I call ‘positive proximity,’ which is the most basic contract of social trust, you recognize that living side by side with other people is beneficial,” says Ms. Williams in a phone interview. “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to understand them all the time. But somehow you can find your dovetailing interests.”

The new album’s lead single, “Today and Every Day,” features a stop-motion animation music video in which individuals unite to tackle climate change. Ms. Williams says the message is a counterpoint to the doomy tenor of many environmental stories in the news. 

“[That] puts us in the place of not doing anything, because it feels so futile,” says the songwriter. “Optimism is a revolutionary posture right now.”

On the cover of her new album, Dar Williams stands on a floating platform in a lake. A breeze ripples the water so that it’s as wrinkled as elephant skin. As Ms. Williams gazes toward an unseen horizon, her scarlet shawl flutters behind her like a vapor trail. 

The atomistic image is metaphorical. Ms. Williams says the photo, taken by a drone, makes her look like a red dot destination marker on a map. The album, debuting Oct. 1, is titled “I’ll Meet You Here.”   

“Somehow we have to figure out how to continue to meet the moment and meet one another,” even when we seem to be stranded, explains the folk singer in a phone call.

Why We Wrote This

What’s the best way to stay buoyant in the face of challenges like climate change or declining towns? For musician and author Dar Williams, the key is a social contract she calls “positive proximity.”

Ms. Williams’ songs often illustrate how human connections can be a bridge across troubled waters. In 2017, the songwriter wrote a book about solving social problems by finding common ground. “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” examines local communities that have been revitalized by disparate citizens who’ve banded together in collective pursuits. Ms. Williams’ 10th album goes one step further. It posits that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues such as climate change. 

“The things I love about her songwriting are all on this album,” says songwriter Maia Sharp, who shares a similar literate, lyrical sensibility on her latest album, “Mercy Rising.” “I just thoroughly enjoyed it, from a thinker’s perspective, from an emotional perspective. She hits on familiar heartfelt subjects and themes, but operates in a completely unique way. ... It’s very layered, and I always get a little more from it every time I hear it.”

Courtesy of Ebru Yildiz
In addition to a long career in music, Dar Williams also wrote a book in 2017. "What I Found in a Thousand Towns” examines local communities that have been revitalized by disparate citizens who’ve banded together in collective pursuits.

Ms. Williams’ literary lyrics – also lauded by the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins – often explore how contrasting individuals meet heart-to-heart. For instance, her 1993 debut, “The Honesty Room,” includes a fan favorite titled “When I Was a Boy.” The song’s female narrator reflects on a childhood in which she was a misunderstood tomboy who could “climb a tree in 10 seconds flat.” Her male partner then confesses that he exhibited feminine qualities as a child, picking flowers everywhere he walked. “And you were just like me, and I was just like you,” he concludes. 

A song called “Christians and Pagans” on Ms. Williams’ second album probes how we can find the humanity in those unlike us. It’s a sitcom-like story about a lesbian who brings her Wiccan partner to a Christmas dinner hosted by her religious uncle. The two sides of the festive table ultimately find communion: “Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and / Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.”

“If you have what I call ‘positive proximity,’ which is the most basic contract of social trust, you recognize that living side by side with other people is beneficial,” says Ms. Williams. “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to understand them all the time. But somehow you can find your dovetailing interests.”

Indeed, Ms. Williams’ book chronicles how small towns from Florida to Pennsylvania to Utah have been revitalized through positive proximity. The author researched how neighbors can set aside partisan differences by focusing on community projects, sharing communal indoor and outdoor spaces, and finding value in the varied personalities and skill sets of fellow citizens.

“I’ll Meet You Here” includes a song, “Magical Thinking,” about a desolate locale where roofs have caved in and trees have overgrown the railway of a run-down station. The narrator’s vision of the town’s revival comes true despite the naysaying of skeptics who’d accused her of impossible dreaming. 

A positive outlook also informs the album’s centerpiece, “Little Town.” It’s about a bigoted man who resists the growing racial diversity in the town his family has lived in for generations. But his longtime friend, the mayor, invites him to participate in planning the annual July 4 parade. Over the arc of the narrative, the protagonist eventually comes to embrace his diverse neighbors. The song was inspired by a notable figure in Beacon, New York – a town near where Ms. Williams lives that she profiles in her book – who was able to bridge divides within the community. 

“In Beacon, the mayor knew the old guard and welcomed the new guard,” she says. “He had a sign that a campaign had made against him. On one side, it said, ‘I love Randy.’ And on the other side it says, ‘But I don’t want him to be my mayor.’ He just laughed and he said, ‘These are all my friends now. You know, these are the people I work with closely.’”

The new album’s lead single, “Today and Every Day,” features a stop-motion animation music video in which individuals unite to tackle climate change. It concludes with a scene in which someone leafs through a book with images of wildlife, from polar bears to bees. The final page says “The End.” The character picks up a pencil, crosses out the inscription, and instead writes, “New Beginnings.” Ms. Williams says the message is a counterpoint to the doomy tenor of many environmental stories in the news. 

“It puts us in the place of not doing anything, because it feels so futile,” says the songwriter. “Optimism is a revolutionary posture right now.”

The video, intricately handcrafted by fellow musician Antje Duvekot, also depicts a woman sending a letter with a picture of a heart to a solitary stranger. The recipient seems to be as isolated as Ms. Williams is on the cover of her album.

“People think that saving the planet is a matter of political will. But the thing that has to precede political will is social will,” she says. “Antje and I want to underscore the importance of the connections that we have that involve trust and responsibility to other people. And that comes when your heart feels connected to somebody far away.” 

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