AS COOL AS SHE IS Dar Williams uses ancient archetypes to explore today's mysteries.
Like the spinners of ancient myth, singer-songwriter Dar Williams has long used storytelling as a way to interpret the world around her. Her latest release, In the Time of Gods, which came out in April, looks at our society through the lens of Greek and Roman mythology, and finds that many ancient themes are still resonant today.
Williams, 44, spoke to the Phoenix from her hometown of Cold Spring, New York, on the Hudson River. The musician, who says she has a special affection for Portland (especially WCLZ and the Buy Local philosophy), will play two shows in town on Saturday night.
YOUR NEW ALBUM WEAVES TOGETHER THE STORIES OF OUR MODERN LIVES WITH ANCIENT MYTHOLOGY. CAN YOU TELL US MORE? They all have some link, but they kind of take a twist on it because it's an album, not a term paper. That's to say I wasn't feeling like I had to retell all the exact stories. So "The Storm King" doesn't resemble the Greek storm king [Zeus] at all. In modern times the equivalent of Zeus would be the yelling soccer dad, or the bully who actually has a following. Bullies have power. The storm king that I acknowledge on this record is [environmental activist and folk singer] Pete Seeger. Even if we find ourselves inadvertently following bullies, I think our hearts go with someone like Pete. I think he's more of the father figure that we gravitate toward.
But "Crystal Creek" is an almost literal retelling of a Greek myth in which Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, turns a man into a stag who is killed by his own hunting party. It's not magical in the song — a man is just wrapped up in a deer skin and then he's killed. In the ancient Greek myth the man saw Artemis bathing and she felt preyed upon and she killed him. There's a kind of cruelty in the myth and a cruelty in the song. But there's also cruelty in colony collapse disorder and climate change and acid rain. Cruel things happen when we knock the balance.
IN THE TIME OF GODS IS YOUR NINTH STUDIO ALBUM. WHAT, IF ANYTHING, WAS UNIQUE ABOUT THIS SONGWRITING EXPERIENCE? It was a real joy — like walking into a museum that's filled with paintings that inspire you. Songwriters are always looking for inspiration. You want to put yourself in an environment where something grabs you. And these stories that I grew up with grabbed me and they didn't let go. I kept on saying, This won't spring open — and then it would spring open. Like, "This Earth" has to do with Hephaestus, who is the goddess of forges and volcanoes, which is completely obscure. But it turned out that actually, forges and volcanoes can be . . . analogous to basement inventors and Discovery Channel addicts and a whole subterranean world of creators and makers and tinkerers. It was so easy to write that song, having a sense that I'd met that person a number of times.