Time marches on, even as music stands still… at least in its recorded form. Even so, a certain generation of artists is starting to mark their musical milestones with re-issues, re-imaginings, and more. For Dar Williams, Mortal City represents her breakthrough on the folk circuit. So, for the album’s 20th anniversary, she’s taking the show back on the road.
A number of artists are revisiting their milestone recordings. Natalie Merchant, for one, did a whole new version of Tigerlily. How did you decide your method of honoring Mortal City should be a tour?
More than any other of my albums, this was the one that people say they listened to as an album. I’m a social creature. I’m looking forward to seeing how this album has traveled and evolved, collectively, over the last 20 years. It will be like a reunion.
If you could remake the record, how might you reimagine it as the artist/person you are now?
I did go back and re-record some songs, just to see them in the light of the present. I think the songs are the same. I have such a clear memory of writing them. But who I know is much different, so the songs are differently populated, which reflects my favorite part of this whole career — the collegial part. Being on the road drew me out and challenged me every day.
When you look at the list of folks who played on Mortal City, who’s still out there fighting the good fight? Who have you continued to collaborate with?
Such a good question, because it’s great to see that so many of us have continued to play out, even in the changed environment. And when you play at some New England venue you’ve been playing at for 20 years, with an old friend coming up for a song, on a certain kind of cold October night, time stands still. Look at the liner notes: I think every person is still playing, with the exception of Jeff Golub, who passed away last year and who gave the album so much life.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned or changes you’ve undergone in the past 20 years?
The only constant is that there are people who tell you “The only constant is change,” and I don’t get that! There are things that don’t change and they get twisted up, in a good way, with things that do. Roots grow deep, plants blossom. This career has given me continuity, as well as change. Some dressing rooms have the same plaid couches they did when I first played there. And I sit on them at the end of the night with promoters who tell me the numbers and ask if I know how to get to the hotel. And now we have GPS, so the answer is always yes.
Flip that perspective: Where and who do you hope to be in another 20 years?
I was invited to teach a college course, and then a friend, seeing how much I loved it, told me I had to lead a songwriting retreat. Teaching has brought gravity to my life. I was like a busy bee flitting around from flower to flower, writing a line here and a line there, and now I get to land in one place from time to time and really appreciate how wonderful and important music itself is. I look forward to buzzing around for the rest of my life, but I hope to continue teaching for just as long.