(Soundbite of song "Troubled Times")
Ms. DAR WILLIAMS: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh. When you think you've found something worth holding on to. We reach in for attention, hoping she would notice you.
HANSEN: In the 10 years since singer-songwriter Dar Williams appeared on our program, she has released several albums, toured with Liz Phair, graced the covers of magazines, and become a mother. On her latest release, Williams is taking chances. For the new CD, "Promised Land," she worked with rock producer Brad Wood because she wanted her sound to be more assertive. But when we spoke in our New York studio recently, Williams said the new approach was still within her comfort zone.
Ms. DAR WILLIAMS (Singer/Songwriter): I mean, I new that I was trying a new producer and that I was letting him choose the musicians. He came in with Travis McNabb from Better than Ezra, and Travis hit hard. I found I could sing really well with his drumming. He's from New Orleans, so there's all this give and swing and, you know, spring in his playing. And so I was responding to the rhythm and also the give.
(Soundbite of song "It's All Right")
Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) I know change is a bad thing, It breaks me down into a sorry sad thing, Not some iridescent grateful butterfly. I resist with defiance, Not the power of a mystic silence. I will fight the dizzy spiral of goodbye. And it's all right, it's all right, it's all right. It's all right, it's all right, it's all right.
HANSEN: In terms of the recording, though, what is it that you wanted to do differently?
Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, I'm busy now. I used to roll out of bed and say, uh-oh, I have a day off from my busy touring life. What I'm I going to do with it? And I lived in North Hampton, Massachusetts, so I would go get a long lunch someplace and feel like I'd wasted the day, and you could argue - oh, you could argue either way. But now I'm keeping a household together, and I call myself a stay-at-homesteader when I'm home because, you know, I'm really looking at keeping our whole footprint kind of sustainable. Do we have a garden, and there's a lot of composting and recycling.
And then there's a child as well, Stephen. And so I knew that I needed to clear out all this space to write these songs. And I went to Dia:Beacon, which is close to where I live, a beautiful installation, contemporary-art installation museum, and did a lot of walking around, specifically Richard Serra's "Torque Ellipses" which are very meditative and modern.
And then I wanted a production that would help bring these very separate little songs that had come out of the space that I'd given them - you know, I wanted that kind of production to be parallel. And Brad produced the first two Liz Phair albums. He produced Ben Lee and Pete Yorn. And he's a beautiful pop producer. He's a beautiful rock producer. And there's plenty of that in this material that I really want to do this.
HANSEN: Talk to us about the song "Buzzer," because you did work in a mental hospital where it was - was it songs with Dar...
Ms. WILLIAMS: Sing along with Dar.
HANSEN: Sing along with Dar.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yup.
HANSEN: And there's history behind this song for you.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Actually, this goes back to college times, but it was - I was really turned around by the Stanley Milgram "Obedience to Authority" experiments of the early '60s. The point of the experiment was to see if people would inflict pain on other people if somebody ordered them to. So one person administered shocks to another person, who was, quote, unquote "learning something." And if the person got the answers wrong, then you had to increase the voltage. The person to whom the shocks were administered was actually an actor, so no one was actually hurt.
But there was a, quote, unquote "control person" who was supposed to administer the shock, and of course that was the person being tested to see how far they would go following the orders of this person literally sitting above them saying, you must administer the shock. The results of the experiments said an overwhelming proportion of people administered shocks to the maximum amount.
(Soundbite of song "Buzzer")
Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'm feeling sorry for this guy that I press to shock. He gets the answers wrong, I have to up the watts. And he begged me to stop, but they told me to go. I pressed the buzzer. I pressed the buzzer. So get out of my head, just give me my line. I pressed the buzzer. I pressed the buzzer.
Ms. WILLIAMS: I think about that experiment all the time. And then also, I rear ended somebody on the highway once. And I'm so embarrassed to say that, but it's relevant. She was from New Haven, which is where the experiments happened. The insurance people told me she was a single mother of four. And I can imagine her going to Yale for this experiment, which is where this took place, thinking that she's being responsible by doing what they ask her to do, so she can just be taking care of herself and her children and her life, that that's her virtue.
And when I switched from, uh-oh, would I do this, am I a fascist? It became more why would a person conform to this experiment? And then I kind of fell in love with that character as I wrote about her making these tight, moral navigations.
(Soundbite of song "Buzzer")
Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game. I pressed the buzzer. I pressed the buzzer. Here's your seventy bucks, now everything's changed. I pressed the buzzer. I pressed the buzzer. But tell me where are your stocks? Would you do this again? I pressed the buzzer.
Ms. WILLIAMS: A lot of people came back and said, I did it. And now I know this about myself, and you've transformed me, because I won't do that anymore.
HANSEN: In addition to original songs, you do some covers. And one of them is "Midnight Radio." And that's from the soundtrack to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." And Brad Wood, your producer, produced the soundtrack. But that's not the reason that you did the song is it?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Nope. That was a coincidence. And my friend Stephen Trask showed up my freshman year. And I remember him sitting in the hall of my dorm waiting to see my friend Laurel, and just not knowing that he was about to change my life. What I loved was he would sit us down to listen to, you know, Yoko Ono and to Meredith Monk and all sorts of, you know, really complex, interesting artists. Then he would sit us down to listen to Tammy Wynette and, you know, folks like that. He just loved what he loved, and he wanted us to feel the reverence for all the music he loved.
And then he went out and wrote this song that has to do with that molten landscape of people who don't quite fit into many molds and who listen to this music, you know, really take the medicine. And then, he - you know, he turns around and says, you are the transmission for a "Midnight Radio." You are the medicine. You are the saving grace.
(Soundbite of song "Midnight Radio")
Ms. WILLIANS: (Singing) Know in your soul, Like your blood knows the way, From your heart to your brain, Know that you're whole. And you're shining, like the brightest star, A transmission from a midnight radio.
Ms. WILLIAMS: It made me love Stephen more, and I felt this - like he had informed my sensibility, that I totally agreed with him, that I could have written that song in terms of my sentiments towards both that music and the importance of all of those people with those fragments of grace in them, that they can give it right back to the world.
HANSEN: There's not a theme running through this CD at all. All of the songs are meant to be separate individuals, separate plays, I guess.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Right. The only thing that unifies my record systematically is whatever chapter of my life I'm going through, but I'm the last one to name it.
HANSEN: I remember when you did the interview with Joan Baez, and you had written a song that she ended up singing, "You're Aging Well." It's almost - I mean, not quite in the same league, but it could apply to you.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, at this point? Oh, yeah, actually I saw Joan for the first time in five years last week during an interview we were doing together. And she actually drew a picture of me once where she was - she and I were sitting next to each other in this sort of cartoon with her thinking, what does she know about aging? Well, I was thinking, you know, she doesn't have a - one single itty bitty wrinkle. And I did write the song when I was 25. And I thought, well, things have changed. She's going to see that I have a few wrinkles now.
(Soundbite of song "The Tide Falls Away")
Ms. WILLLIAMS: (Singing) I walked the spiraling village one night, Drawn by the word of a bell or a light, Out on the flat side it rolls to a spire.
HANSEN: This a song that's called "The Tide Falls Away," that's about getting some perspective with age, is it not?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes, I was really - that song, it came to me and sort of surprised me. And I thought, oh, I'm so glad that I'm writing this song, because people tell me about all the sort of dramas that they get themselves into with, you know, in college and love triangles and things. And I say, oh, great. And they say, it's terrible. And I say, well, it's just a very hormonal, exploratory, experimental time. And it's very dramatic. And you get so angry. And you get so passionate. So make the mess now, because the tide will fall back, and you'll have this amazing perspective, and you'll have a lot of material to sort through.
You know, people will die, and you'll understand that maybe you should've let a few things go by the wayside during your life, because you really want to hold onto the love that you had. And so, yes, perspective will happen, and it will really be a reward for all of this mess that you're slogging through right now.
(Soundbite of song "The Tide Falls Away")
Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) All those cathedrals were merely by men, It all becomes clear as the tide falls away. It all becomes clear as the tide falls away. All falls away...
HANSEN: Given the new CD, taking care of a son, the causes that you're in, do you still have time to write songs?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, you know, what's great is that I say to my husband and to the people around me, like, sorry, I can't do this right now because I have to go wander in a field. It's really what I do for a living. So people take that seriously, and I guess I finally can say it with enough authority that I'm also, you know, giving off the air that this is really important to me. And actually having a child is good, because it does organize me. I know that I need to take the time and to structure my life to create the empty spaces so that every story really has its do.
HANSEN: Dar Williams' new CD is called "Promised Land," and she's touring around in support of it. And she joined me in the New York bureau. Thanks so much. Nice to meet you at last.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Nice to see you, Liane.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: You can hear a full concert by Dar Williams and songs from her new album on our Web site, nprmusic.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.