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
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions