Dar Williams is active in the Snowden Environmental Trust, which helps preserve wildlife habitats around the world, but that's not why she chose The Green World as the title of her upcoming release, due next week.
The name came from an idea the songwriter recalled from studying Shakespeare. "The court life in all its set patterns was the closed world, the orderly part of life," Williams said.
"The green world was different it was unpredictable. It was the wilderness, the place where you learn things you don't necessarily want to know about yourself. You bring the lessons you learned back to the closed world, spurring the process of change."
If that sounds a bit academic, well, Williams did get a degree in theater and religion before wading into the New England coffeehouse circuit. That move eventually would see her share stages with Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco and Richard Thompson as well as spend time with Sarah McLachlan's acclaimed Lilith Fair.
"I set out to be a playwright," she said, "but there was just no support for that this was Boston, and there was plenty of academic theater, but not much else. In music, at least you could get up in front of audiences and play. It was a difficult path, but at least there was a path.
"And," she added, "I love characters, I love stories, that's the kind of music I do, so the theater and religion background does relate!"
Courting The Muse
Growing up, Williams listened to her parents' record collection, composed mostly of '60s folk-rock. "I listened to classical music, too, and a lot of bad pop on the radio," she said.
She recorded her first album, The Honesty Room, in 1994, and released it herself. Songs about growing up, such as "You're Aging Well" (RealAudio excerpt) and "When I Was a Boy" (RealAudio excerpt) marked Williams as a writer to watch.
Deepening her subject matter and challenging herself with more complex melodies and instrumentation, Williams followed with Mortal City (Razor & Tie, 1996) and End of the Summer (Razor & Tie, 1997), and collaborated with Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell for 1998's critically acclaimed Cry Cry Cry (RaZOR & Tie).
"I think I've learned that I just can't sit down to write a song. What I basically do is court the muse to come inspire me with songwriting ideas," Williams said. "I'm always really surprised by what inspires me and I just try to follow it. ... Sometimes it leads me to write about pot-head activists, and sometimes it's a song about the expanding universe."
On The Green World, "We Learn the Sea" renews Williams' interest in the challenges of growing up.
"I was just really struck by the relationship between siblings, especially the way that older siblings take on the role of coloring the world for their younger brothers and sisters," she said of the song, which appears to be about a sea captain, who turns out to be 8 years old.
"I had a friend, for example, who kept reassuring her little sister that her parents wouldn't get divorced, when she kept hearing them fighting and was terrified herself that they would. She took on the responsibility of mediating reality, in a way that's unusual for kids but you do see it."
"What Do You Love More Than Love?" the first single from The Green World, also came from a confluence of ideas.
"I was struck by the passion some people have for things for an idea, for rocks, for bugs that has nothing to do with whether or not they will get love in return," Williams said.
"Also, I wrote the song at a time when I was traveling in a country called Bhutan, which is near Nepal. Over there the crushing sort of passion, the caffeinated life one finds in this country seemed to be sort of evened out people were just kind to each other. I think something from that made its way into the song too."
Williams is planning an intense tour schedule in support of The Green World, "but I've just moved into a new house, and I want to paint my stairs!" she said. "I did quite a bit of traveling while I was moving, and it made me think that I may want to center more, to have time to explore other kinds of writing."
Will she return to writing plays?
"Maybe. I guess it's up to me to explore that. But then again I may just stick with being a songwriter forever. I really enjoy this!"