Arts: Bewitched by a magical singer

She looks like Elizabeth Montgomery and sounds like Joni Mitchell. But the diminutive Dar Williams is her own woman

Folk-rock singer Dar Williams and her best friend and road manager, the fantastically named Bellamy Pailthrop, are a patient pair. Not only are the two women negotiating their way, together with a guitar, across a great swathe of Europe so that Williams can play her acoustic show each and every night, but they are putting up with me for part of the journey.

When I joined them last Monday in Belgium, they had just shuttled down from Frankfurt, and were looking tired, though not as tired as they are going to be after Holland, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich, Dublin and several shows in the UK.

Both live in Massachusetts, Pailthrop a good-looking amazon and Williams, a tiny, frail and unassuming 30-year-old woman in flat boots and glasses. She is lethally bright and optimistically witty but, after a long drive and three local interviews - "I should just about be able to do this show before I collapse," she says - you wonder how she will muster the energy for the job at Brussels' Ancienne Belgique.

It is not a problem. On stage alone in the darkened club, she has unleashed her blonde hair, ditched the specs - but Miss Williams! you're beautiful - and looks rather like Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched. She says her guitar playing is "elementary", but it does not seem that way; her three-octave voice is sweet, full and best compared to Joni Mitchell's.

As for the songs - well, they can make you catch your breath. They deal with everything from friends to love to the evil influence of the Wal- Mart chain on the stateside community. As she begins a number, you can hear her whisper to herself: "Here I go". But that is not vulnerability; she is a droll raconteur and, by the end of the evening, the audience is roaring for more of her music, self-deprecating quips and Gilda Radner- style gurning.

That was Monday. On Tuesday we were in Pailthrop's silver hatchback heading toward Amsterdam, which should be a simple 200km skip.

Williams and I are on map-reading duty, but deep in conversation about Gary Oldman, who appears on billboards everywhere advertising clothes, when we miss a vital turn.

"Oh maan, girls!" roars Pailthrop, incensed. Back on track, we aim for Antwerp, which we should skirt on the ring road. We are following the last hotel's instructions, using a map bought from them; so why has the motorway they suggested disappeared? The map turns out to be 20 years old, and before we know it we are lost amid bakeries, bicycles and viciously hooting cars.

"Let's relax," says Williams, the soul of calm. "This gives us a chance to see if we'd ever like to come back to Antwerp." Someone bellows as we crunch across a tramline. "And I think the answer's no."

We emerge bound inexorably for Rotterdam, a serious detour when the sound check is at 4pm. Williams, however, keeps us entertained with highlights from her role as a singing potato in a student film, and we cruise down the E106 all joining in the chorus: "Hey! Mr French Fry, waddya know."

Unbelievably, we make Amsterdam's Paradiso Club with time to spare, and this is where Williams and I sit down to talk at length. It is also where it becomes clear that her equanimity has been a hard-won thing. Born in the New York suburb of Chappaqua, Williams was the youngest of three competitive sisters in a bookish household.

Left with the things the other two were not that great at, she took a religion and theatre course at college and, almost predictably, developed clinical depression.

It had to be her sister who noticed. "I asked her: `Um, does everyone think a lot about killing themselves?' And she said: `Oh God, we've got a basket case'."

Williams found herself in therapy; and it worked.

"Depression gives you the idea that your own agenda is not important, and it's amazing how badly you'll take care of yourself," she says.

"Not only do you feel inferior, you feel so unentitled to a normal life, you don't allow yourself the benefit of your usual coping mechanisms."

A grin. "So if I burn my breakfast now, I realise I have to do a lot of self-maintenance around not turning it into a grand trauma, part of the string of failures that has been my whole life."

These days, she is happy to send up her weaker moments and not worry if some people think she is nuts, because it might help others realise that they are not.

Resurfacing, Williams turned from theatre to her childhood friend, the guitar.

She sang in Boston's coffee shops, toured relentlessly and in 1995 brought out a CD, The Honesty Room, full of stories about punk angels, Mark Rothko paintings and one particularly tender track, "You're Aging Well", about a girl who repaints knuckle-rapping street signs on the road to old age with the message: "It always starts here...."

Mortal City, which appeared the following year, is deeper and more passionate. It features the standout track "As Cool As I Am", a crowd-pleaser which, when played live, has men applauding on their feet.

This is odd, because the track is about a girl whose boyfriend cannot stop mentioning the beauty of other women, including her friends - so she leaves him because he is making her hate them.

"That happened to me, but I wrote it for a friend," she says.

"Her man would say, hey, I'm just the kinda guy who likes breasts like this, or hips like this, and it's too bad you have that body, honey. At one point, he said: `well, you're not conventionally attractive', and that was bizarre, because she really was sickeningly beautiful.

"Then I met someone, and the same symptoms began. I told him a woman, a performer, was quite threatening for me and he said: `Yeah, and she is so sexy'. He said: `I wish you could find out the thing that she does, because she's really so alluring on stage'."

She laughs. "Oh Gaahd. It's like, why don't you find a way of being human? Then he said: `You know, I think it would be great if you were a little more aware of your clothes'.

"At first I thought, maybe this is the kind of tough love that's gonna help me, but my stomach was in knots. "Eventually I said: `I think we're gonna break up'. He told me: `I could not agree more, you're much too sensitive'."

She stops chuckling, sobers up. "But this guy, I broke his heart. See, how do you make a good-looking woman stay? You tell her she's ugly, so she'll think she can't get a better prospect. And it works the other way. Women do it, too."

There is a new CD, just out, called The End of Summer - a fuller-sounding outing, with a band, a rockier feel, and Williams's developing voice heading for Emmylou Harris territory. The honesty is still around; there is even a deft song about therapy - "Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself."

At this point, the door is thrown open, and Pailthrop marches in to say we have to move the van, and there is no hot water in the shower, and the mobile will not recharge. Williams puts on her glasses and says: "Fine, here's what we do...."

`The End of the Summer' is out now on Razor & Tie Records. Dar Williams appears at Bristol Fiddler's (0117-929 9008) on 30 Sept; Dublin Whelan's on 2 Oct; London Queen Elizabeth Hall (0171-960 4201/4242) on 3 Oct; Edinburgh La Belle Angele (0141-287 5511) on 5 Oct; Chester, Telford Warehouse (01244- 390090) on 6 Oct

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory