Every new album from Dar Williams represents her thoughts and feelings about both her own life and larger forces in the world. But her ninth studio record, Emerald, marks a particularly dramatic confluence between her experiences and broader contemporary culture—and what it means to be a songwriter at this moment in history.
In the past few years, Williams has been involved in a wide range of different efforts and projects: teaching a course titled “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy” at her alma mater, Wesleyan University; working with children at several summer camps; leading songwriting workshops; getting involved with the workings of her village; and writing a book about the ways she’s seen towns becoming more independent and prosperous over her twenty years of touring. In addition, in the face of dramatic transformations in the music industry, she is releasing Emerald on her own after choosing to part ways with Razor & Tie, her label for almost twenty years.
“It’s like the record business is a giant building that collapsed,” says Williams, “but when the building is destroyed, you get to see what remains. And this incredible structure of the music and the friendships that I have is all still there. Seeing that led to a decision to record songs with themes about relationships and connections—I wanted to write songs for my friends and about my friends.”
A scan of Emerald’s credits reveals the strength of her bonds in the music community. Recorded in Nashville; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Beacon, New York; and Weehawken, New Jersey, the album features a remarkable list of guest musicians and co-writers, including guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson, Jim Lauderdale, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters, and Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Even the song that set the album in motion was the result of a meeting of the minds. As Williams was preparing her Wesleyan course, she played a show at which she shared a bill with Jill Sobule. “I told her about the era I was covering,” says Williams, “and her incredible joy in talking about the ‘70s and the way that we loved music then was the beginning of the song ‘FM Radio.’ When I started to write it, I immediately asked if she wanted to do a co-write. It was a lot of great conversations on the phone, one really fun day in New York City, and one really fun day in the studio.”
Where her last album, 2011’s In the Time of Gods, was an ambitious and evocative series of songs that melded the imagery and narratives of classical mythology with modern issues and themes, most of the inspiration on Emerald was concrete and immediate. She began writing “Mad River” during the Occupy Wall Street actions, based on a real-life example of current economic dysfunction.
“I heard about this guy who had a job at a school, lost the job, and then got it back because it had been outsourced—he was stripped of benefits and getting half the pay for the same job, and he kind of went under,” she says. “It was a recognition that we’re not in balance right now. But I also wanted it to have a feeling of brotherhood around this protagonist, so that’s why I wanted Milk Carton Kids to play on it, because they bring that spirit, that brotherly sense of honor, into their music.”
A cover of Joe Strummer’s rousing “Johnny Appleseed” reflects Williams’ work planting gardens at summer camps, while “Girl of the World” was the result of a trip to Honduras, where a friend of hers is making a documentary about the lives of some local young women.
“I wrote a song for them that was very ballad-y, and that’s on the record, but these girls love Taylor Swift, and I thought, ‘I can’t just do acoustic folk for these teenage girls!,’ “ she says with a laugh. “One great thing about working on my own is that if I want to do my iteration of a Taylor Swift song, then there’s no rule that says I can’t. So I wrote and recorded something in Nashville with Angel Snow, and we all had to figure out where it lived—in folk, in country, in pop—and in the end, we just did what we wanted and it sounds like a Dar song.”
The final song she cut for the album is “New York Is a Harbor,” a reflection on the city that looms largest in America’s imagination. ”There is something special about the feeling of a neighborhood, the feeling of things that are built locally. I think we all understand that moment when the local thing is turned into a commercial version of itself,” she says. “New York is struggling; it’s just so precious that everybody wants it. I’m not blaming one person or another, it’s just too expensive—but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to the ideal of the neighborhoods and the people who created them.
“A lot of people have not given up on the positive diversity of incomes, mental wavelengths, and dreams in New York. Also, in light of the things going on in my town at the time, I wanted to reinvigorate the sense that people have power as storytellers and active citizens to keep that diversity alive.”
If friendship and human connection lie at the heart of Emerald, Williams had to put these ideas to a very real test when she decided to crowd-fund the making of the album through Pledge Music. While it was an adjustment getting used to sharing as much as possible from the album’s sessions with her fans and followers, she enjoyed the opportunities for interaction.
“Pledge for me is like swimming in a pool,” she says. “My fans are smarter than I am, I like being around them, so I said, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.’ When we started thinking about, ‘How do you want to fundraise for the album?,’ it was actually a very fun discussion. I heard that people want to know about the recording process. I had kind of forgotten the wonderful Alice in Wonderland feeling of first coming into the studio twenty years ago, and the Pledge campaign reminded me.”
It’s a cliché that the personal is the political, but for Dar Williams, there really is no separating her life from her worldview. And in the face of a shifting world, she is more aware than ever of the power this approach can create.
“I’m now experiencing the fruits of the alternative culture I was part of in the ‘90s,” she says. “I think I’ve made choices about how I lived my life, outside of the world that was going to fit me among the mainstream norms, and I chose to stay with my friends, to stay with my culture.
“That turns out to have been the sturdiest structure I could have built for myself. And that’s in my songs, it’s in my teaching. I’m a believer in what can happen when we make music together.”
A few years back, if someone had started giving him some lip in the middle of a gig, Joe Purdy might have left the stage and beat a little sense into the guy. Nowadays, he’s more likely to calm everybody down, assure the loudmouth that he was a welcome and important part of his audience and through words and warmth talk him into sitting back down and join everyone else in enjoying Purdy’s extraordinary music.
What has happened to Joe Purdy? Some might call it growth, although he’s already grown a lot in wandering from his Arkansas home state to Los Angeles, and from there toward and beyond further horizons. Along the way he’s recorded a baker’s dozen worth of albums. His songs have turned up on numerous TV shows and film soundtracks. He even received a special request from Pete Townshend to join him onstage. Purdy said yes.
Even so, in recent years the singer, songwriter and self-described “hillbilly” has come to see the world and his role in it somewhat differently. His new views chart the direction on his latest album, Who Will Be Next? which plants its feet deep in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and others while addressing immediate transgressions.
Purdy’s determination to honor the giants of American folk while applying his unique skills as writer and passionate vocalist reveal just how much he has achieved and evolved as an observer and participant in our times.
Wesley Stace was born in Hastings, Sussex, in 1965, and educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, and Jesus College, Cambridge. He released 17 albums under the name John Wesley Harding. His most recent album, Self-Titled, for which he returned to his given name, was released by Yep Roc, in 2013. He has also published four novels.
Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, his variety show based at City Winery in NYC, continues to sell out. Since the Cabinet’s inception in 2009, the show has become a virtual who’s who of contemporary performers, writers, and comedians. It’s “one of the finest nights of entertainment this city has to offer” (New Yorker), “a brilliant evening of laid-back fun” (Village Voice), and “one of the most whip-smart variety shows on the market” (Portland Tribune). The show is ongoing and currently booking for 2016.
Stace has been joined onstage by Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash, Iggy Pop, John Prine, and Bruce Springsteen (with whom he recorded a duet on his album Awake), among many others. He appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. His songs have featured in films (including High Fidelity), TV (Transparent) and been covered by many other artists.
His first novel, the international bestseller Misfortune, was published to great acclaim in 2004. It was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, listed as one of the books of the year in the Washington Post and the Boston Phoenix, and was one of Amazon’s Top Ten Novels of the Year. His second, By George, (2007) was one of the New York Public Library’s Books To Remember of 2007, and Booklist Editor’s Choice for books of the year. His third, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, (2010) was called “the most confident musical fiction I have read in years” (New Statesman), and an “Inventive black comedy unfolding with Nabokovian precision” (Financial Times): Isaac Mizrahi has recently bought the film rights. His fourth novel, Wonderkid, is being optioned by NBC/Universal to be developed as a sitcom.
Stace currently teaches a course at Swarthmore College called “Novel Beginnings/Beginnings Novel.” He has twice taught a songwriting course (“How To Write A Song”) at Princeton University with poet Paul Muldoon. He has also taught creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Stace’s work has itself the subject of a university course “The Allusive John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace” taught at Central Connecticut State University. He has reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He has lived in America since 1991, and resides in Philadelphia with his wife Abbey, daughter Tilda, and son Wyn.
As one of Sweden's biggest pop stars over the past decade, Nina Persson, known internationally as the iconic lead vocalist of the seminal indie pop-rock band The Cardigans, took over the world in the late nineties with the smash hit 'Lovefool' (which reached the coveted No. 1 spot in both the UK and US going on to sell an excess of 2.5 million copies worldwide). She has forever been an artist who dared to push the creative envelope, successfully scaling new heights in the process.
In 2001 following several years of touring with The Cardigans and the release of the group’s fourth studio album, Gran Turismo, Persson formed - A Camp, a project that birthed two critically acclaimed albums (A Camp in 2001 and Colonia in 2009).
It has been almost five years since A Camp’s most recent album, and The Cardigans have not made new music since 2005. During that time however, Persson has kept very busy collaborating with a wide variety of renowned artists including Manic Street Preachers, Sparklehorse, Danger Mouse, The Cake Sale Collective (a community of artists that includes Australian musician Nick Seymour of Crowded House), performed with a cabaret act in New York – The Citizens Band, and made her big screen debut as a Finnish tango singer in the 2006 film, God Willing by Amir Chamdin.
So who is Nina Persson today, and who is the artist we meet on her first solo album, “Animal Heart”?
Persson has written everything on her album with husband Nathan Larson (A Camp, Shudder To Think also a noted film composer), and Eric D. Johnson (The Shins, Fruit Bats – Joan Wasser collaborated on “Food For The Beast”), but with a new approach. They "hung around" at their home in Harlem and played the songs with just a drum machine, a guitar and piano before going into the studio.
“The most difficult, yet perhaps the most positive aspect of going solo are all the decisions you have to make alone,” says Persson. “Somewhere inside, I have a very clear clock, a gut feeling, that says what I think. I have forced myself to just keep going and follow my instincts with this album. I have simply no time to dwell on things anymore which I did a lot before.”
Nina and Eric became friends when the ex-Shins member worked on film music along with Nathan at the Persson/Larson residence. Meanwhile, Nina was at home with a new baby and the three clicked immediately. Then came the idea to do a solo album with both of them contributing as songwriters.
“Eric lives in Portland, but has been in New York working with us for several stretches. This time I decided to experiment a bit with disco and soul. It has been both new and somewhat liberating for me,” says Persson.
In many ways, it is a new Nina we meet. At the same time, she takes a couple of clear steps forward in her development with tracks that land somewhere between the melancholy of A Camp and blue-eyed soul. Several tracks also contain soundscapes reminiscent of one of her first musical roots – 80’s pop!
What is the album about then?
Songs like "Animal Heart" (the album’s lead single) and "Burning Bridges For Fuel" address the ever-present theme of moving forward and not getting trapped in the past. "My animal heart is telling me to flee...," sings Persson.
“Both with The Cardigans and A Camp, I have done everything with very driven, career-oriented musicians, but now I wanted to put my own instrument first. Honor the singer. I have also in my work understood that pop music is lodged deeper in me than I previously wanted to admit.”
For Persson, it is important to have a musical setting and concept before she can write. Her music needs a context and a frame. “What I write is still a lot about relationships and alienation. The perennial topics that I always return to,” says Persson.
In recent years, Nina also thought a lot about rooms, which is one of the archetypes in the Jungian dream interpretation. Her recurring dreams involve rooms and houses. Every now and then, Nina finds a door she has never opened.
“I love set design and a theater stage, and think rooms are super interesting both figuratively and physically. This time I wanted to try to get this fascination into music. Rooms in the forest or underwater. Although all songs still, more or less, are about alienation and relationships, I wanted to put new imagery into my old themes. I've become very enamored with animals and the forest, even though I am a typical city person. Water, trees, and greenery; I have been almost obsessed with finding it in my own city, even it is a bit difficult in Manhattan,” says Persson.
Other tracks like "Catch Me Crying" and “The Grand Destruction Game” are about past love relationships. But Persson does not always know herself if it is sexual relationships she sings of, or friendships.
“But it deals with sentimentality and how to respond to it,” she says.
The topic came up very powerfully last summer when Persson, after a several-year break, played with The Cardigans again. Together they toured and performed their old songs.
“It was really wonderful. We did not go through that long and anxious process of making a new album. We just started playing together again. We realized that we've missed each other, so it 's about what you do with that feeling – that friendships or a relationship can so easily go up in smoke. One's sense of togetherness remains, even through times without actual contact.”
Now Persson is eager to share her first solo album with the world. Supported by a national tour this year, she looks forward to delighting new fans and old with her charismatic voice and thought provoking lyrics on 'Animal Heart' due February 11th via The End Records.
Born in New York, Burger began playing piano at an early age, starting his formal training at age 6 with renowned pianist Jeffrey Marcus. He played in local and school bands during his youth, and then went on to study classical performance at the University of Massachusetts with pianist Nigel Cox, as well as African American Studies and improvisation under the direction of Yusef Lateef. In 1994, he was recruited as accordionist, to the Bill Frisell Band, and moved to San Francisco in 1995 to form the Tin Hat Trio. With them, he co-wrote and co-produced four critically acclaimed recordings for various major labels. In 2001, Burger moved back to New York where he worked closely with composer John Zorn, contributing as a featured soloist to many of his scores and recordings. He has released two full-length solo recordings on the Tzadik label, entitled Lost Photograph (2002) and City of Strangers (2009). During this time, Rob continued to utilize his multi-instrumental skills, gracing the stage and recordings of some of music’s most acclaimed artists including Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Sting, Rufus Wainwright, Antony & the Johnsons, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman, Iron & Wine, Beth Orton, and Laurie Anderson.
Burger has scored and contributed as a soloist to a number of feature and documentary films including Everything is Illuminated, Diminished Capacity, 360, The Treatment, The Good Girl, Bully, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, Chelsea on the Rocks, and Nebraska.
A versatile composer and player of multiple instruments, Rob has served as a "do-it-all, one-stop shop" producing music and sound design for clients such as Toyota, Safeway, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Scholastic, and Mercedes-Benz.
Ben Lovett is a composer, songwriter, producer, and performer whose work seems to cross every genre while remaining distinctly modern and untraditional. Lovett has been the recipient of multiple awards and worldwide recognition for numerous collaborative musical and visual projects.
As a composer, Ben has written and performed original music for a wide range of feature films including Synchronicity (Magnolia Pictures), which earned him a recent nomination for “ Discovery Of The Year” at the 2016 World Soundtrack Awards. Ben originally burst onto the scene at Sundance in 2007 with his score for The Signal (Magnolia Pictures) — an Independent Spirit Award nominee and enduring cult favorite, following up his film debut Last Goodbye, an indie drama starring Faye Dunaway and David Carradine. He has since composed and performed original scores for a diverse range of feature films including the Duplass brothers-produced thriller Black Rock (Lion’s Gate) starring Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell; critic favorite and Gotham -Award nominee Sun Don’t Shine (Factory 25) from acclaimed director Amy Seimetz; in addition to scoring multiple television programs for MTV, Disney, Verizon, and Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim.
Ever the collaborator, Lovett recently debuted the songwriting project, Lovers & Friends, featuring a collection of songs written through a series of blind dates with different songwriters, each the product of a spontaneous moment between unique strangers. The accompanying web series, Lovers & Friends: Season One, showcases one-on-one conversations between Lovett and each collaborating songwriter about the elusive magic of the creative process and the unpredictable dynamics which emerge between two artists with no shared experience beyond the present moment. The featured musicians include songwriters for Rogue Wave, Panic At The Disco!, Lana Del Rey, Fitz & The Tantrums and many others, each bringing their own unique voice to the conversation.
Lovett’s debut album of orignal songs, “Highway Collection” was recorded on a yearlong trip around the United States and features different musicians on every tune. But the songs aren't the whole story to the album project, as Lovett’s visual contributions are noless artistic and compelling. Collaborating with a cadre of independent filmmakers, Lovett set out to create a visual counterpart for each song on Highway Collection, conceiving, coordinating, starring and contributing to them at every level. The result has catapulted the artist into worldwide viral recognition with each successive release, beginning with the visually stunning hybrid animation short, Eye Of The Storm, which exploded across the web and instantly solidified itself into the pop culture mainstream, firing past its first million views and gathering universal praise and an honorary Webby award within weeks of its release.
More followed, including an award-winning collaboration with director David Bruckner (V/H/S, Southbound) for The Fear, an inspired, single-shot microcosm of society featuring over 400 volunteer extras; Ghost of Old Highways, a wildly ambitious period film based on the song of the same name, which was re-scored with new music based around the original song, on it’s way to 9 international film awards and screenings in 5 different countries; and Lovett’s video for All The Time, where he brought the talents of over 35 different directors under one roof to create.
Born in rural Georgia, Ben stumbled into a music career in Athens while attending the University of Georgia, spending his college tuition on recording equipment and frequently cutting classes to produce and engineer with bands all over town. It was a short and serendipitous leap from producing other people’s songs to scoring feature films, and when a friend asked Lovett for soundtrack help on his first movie, he jumped right in. Since then Lovett’s music has been called “supremely invigorating.” His videos are written about astours de force. His film scores are praised for their unique character and impact. But Lovett’s music might have been best characterized by renowned producer Danger Mouse, who described Ben’s work as a, “beautifully haunting aural experience... it sounds like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie looks.” His music has been on the radio, on television, at film festivals, and in movie theaters. But, like most innovators, Ben Lovett is an artist who appears less concerned with where he’s been before and more focused on everywhere he’s headed next.
Wesley Stace's Cabinet of Wonders
A one of a kind variety show with celebrated musicians, writers and comedians.You'll laugh, think and sing along. Sometimes all at once. A little bit vaudeville, a little bit literary and a lot of rock n' roll - you can never predict what's inside the Cabinet of Wonders.
Since its inception in 2009, Cabinet of Wonders has established itself in New York and on tour in the USA and Europe, as an exciting stage for both prominent and emerging voices in music, literature and comedy. State originally conceived Cabinet of Wonders as a way to bring together his creative friends; he handpicks the performers and facilitates unusual onstage collaborations for each show, managing to weave the diverse lineup into an unforgettable night. An acclaimed artist in his own right, Stace has released 16 albums under the name John Wesley Harding, one under his birth name, and published four novels.