Jam With Dar Williams in NYC This Weekend:

Guitar Mash Returns To City Winery This December 11th

Interview by Corinne Casella
Photo Courtesy of Guitar Mash

Guitar Mash, the ultimate urban campfire jam, returns to City Winery for their fifth consecutive year this Sunday, December 11. An interactive, participatory event created for music lovers of all ages, Guitar Mash hosts a myriad of talents in a guided play-a-long meant to invoke the magic of collaboration. Dar Williams will add her soulful songwriting to this year’s roster. Known for her insightful commentary, Williams is a perfect fit for Guitar Mash’s connection-based mission. We had a chance to speak with Williams about her history with music and the power of conscious participation.

At what age/how did you become interested in making music?

DW: You know, there’s this thing that happened in the seventies, I think, when all families were making music. That was kind of what you did. Then, as I got older, it was expected that I would figure out what I wanted to do, what instrument I would want to play, how I would want to do that—so I was surrounded by that. Then, when the time came, I was actually interested in becoming a playwright, but I was surrounded by people in the Boston music scene. To this day, I really just say to people, “If you want to do something, go where other people are doing the thing that you love.” Boston was not really a theater town at the time—it was a local theater town. It was a music town. Everybody was making music. It would be such a sad waste not to. I realized I could tell stories in music and be surrounded by people who were incredibly inspiring. I knew that that’s where I belonged to begin with. It might just be a very, very happy accident.

What musicians were you looking up to at that time?

DW: What was nice is that there was a really homegrown scene of artists playing, like John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, and Craig Brown, and there were radio stations playing them. Maura O’Connell was part of that. There were open mics where that local scene was really elevated for us—maybe if you keep working hard, you can do what these guys did. Because it’s not Paul Simon and Jack Brown. These are the people who came out of this region who believed in making the music that they make. They were nodding to what happened in the late sixties where the folk revival turned into this folk-based pop music, that everybody still wants to listen to. It was great. We had our heroes who were writing songs in the late sixties and seventies, and then we had our local heroes who were making a living in music.

How has learning to create music inspired and changed you?

DW: It’s interesting, because generally, I think there’s kind of a way of being in the world that is very much influenced by making music on a regular basis like I have. I feel like I have this evidence based on . . . it’s influenced by writing and performing songs. Writing songs shows me how hard it is to keep a creative spirit in the world, but that it’s worth it. Performing has shown me this feeling that happens in a room when somebody is playing music and people are listening or participating—a really deep thing that I also believe in. There’s this kind of faith I have in the way the world works under the surface that I think gives me a profound appreciation of things that we’re optimistic about in this world.

Tapping into that, is that why you got involved with Guitar Mash?

DW: Yes. There’s a sensibility that goes with what Guitar Mash is doing that is basically everything I’ve learned about . . . the music that I was making was not as participatory as the super-quiet listening-room kind of music. That is a big deal. When you really get to the collective moment of hearing a pin drop and lyrics are delivered, there’s that collective way of listening and focusing. Then there’s also the importance of participating and just feeling all of that between yourself and learning how to do that. It’s like a skill set. I think that it’s really socially important, and I would even say socio-politically important, because when people have kept the arts in their movements—in their social movements—they’ve made a lot more progress. Whether it’s the visual arts, or civil rights movement with music, or the consciousness movement. If you listen to music from the late sixties, a lot of people are writing songs that others can cover, play together, sing harmony on, and play on their acoustic guitars. There was this incredible amount of access. Within that social group, there were lots of people saying, “We’re also interested in peace, yoga, organic farming, and much more inclusive social views.” A lot of social evolution happened with the soundtrack that everybody was making together. I’m really into that.

During your Return to Mortal City Tour, you said you were inspired by the progress of the communities you revisited. Do you feel like this type of event helped that progression along?

DW: Yes. Everything about Guitar Mash is what I see succeeding in communities. It’s that people get the idea to do it, that there’s someone in the community that lets them do it, that it involves all age groups, that it encourages participation, that it’s a little bit eccentric and you want it to be that way—and that tries to cut across a bunch of social groups in terms of who’s playing. What happens when communities do that is they see themselves in the mirror in a really good way. It tends to get people excited about what else they can do, because they’ve seen that you pull off group effort like that. I think it gets people excited about other things that we can do in common once they’ve had that good experience.

Touching on the same idea, in view of our current political climate where a lot of people are a little less inspired, a little less hopeful, do you think events like this can help get us back on the right track in some way?

DW: I tend to see things as an ongoing race between what we buy and what we do, in terms of how we proceed socially. No matter who’s president, you’re always trying to figure out how the planet can be sustainable, how we can build more bridges between the haves and have nots, the young and the old, and [people] of diverse interests. That’s just such a constant. This event is the kind of thing that reminds us how much power we still have all around us to share. Whether we are trying to find something or whether we have something to extend. It think that’s great. In terms of the foreign policy that starts and ends wars, and the overall philosophy that money is more important than the environment or labor, there’s a resistance point where we can build that spirit now, but there will be things that will be out of our control. Perhaps there’s also the power of consolation in music as well.

Beautifully said. Even though your shows are pretty interactive, do you need to mentally prepare yourself for this kind of event in a different way?

DW: No. I think the opposite. I’ve got to prepare myself to not know what’s going to happen.

Check out Dar Williams at Guitar Mash on December 11. Click here for tickets.


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