2016-06-30

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams's 1995 hit "The Christians and the Pagans"--possibly the world's first interfaith pop song--brought a new spiritual sensibility to the folk-music scene. Her tale of a pagan couple sitting down to their extended family's Christmas dinner caught perfectly the new intricacies of religion in American life, a theme that Williams recently experienced for herself. The 34-year-old former religion major who once turned up on the Internet's "Celebrity Atheists" list now openly declares her belief in God (though whose God, exactly, she doesn't say).

Her transformation preceded the release of her fourth album, last year's "The Green World," which includes songs about a failed 17th-century messianic cult, Williams's travels in Buddhist Bhutan and the efforts of Catholic priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan. Beliefnet spoke with Williams on the eve of the appearance of her latest, "Out There Live" (Razor & Tie), about growing up without religion, her newfound belief in God, and her spiritual heroes.

Were you raised in a particular religion?

Not at all. I was doing this really freelance--my parents didn't go to church. I was raised by parents who really admired the religious leaders of the left, as many 60s and 70s liberals did. My parents had a very aesthetic and intellectual connection with religious figures, whereas I was more interested in the next part of that--what that feeling is beyond the aesthetic.

But because I came to this freelance, at the age of 17 or so I started deconstructing all the messages that come with religion, the ways that Christianity plays on adolescent fears that are already there. The way we have become so ripe for fear of the 'other' by trying to foster such certainty. This God who is portrayed as very male, very blond, very blue-eyed. I was horribly afraid of the devil, horribly afraid of being possessed as a teenager. I would have anxiety attacks because I was afraid that I was a horrible, wretched sinner. So of course I became a religion major because that question was not done.

I've always had this duality of this incredible desire to have spiritual purity and then on the other hand realizing what a scam that desire for purity is. I've seen spirituality cross roads with eating disorder culture, capitalism, consumer culture, religious conservatism that refuses to grapple with earthy issues. That's been a very defining tension in my life.

That said, my cousin died a couple of years ago, and the day after he died, I believed in God. I was trying to swing all this stuff without actually believing, without any faith.

And now you would consider yourself a believer?

Yes. One of the reasons that I came to have this faith was I was in a part of my life where I was really lost. I was breaking a lot of my personal rules about what you're supposed to do on any given day of your life. I was in a car accident just before my cousin died that was my fault. If you aspire to take up very little space on the planet, then how can you deal with the fact that you can cause harm, that you can potentially be so destructive?

There is a little grain of angst that is missing from my life, now that I am a believer, that might have been the essential grain of sand for the pearl of some of these songs.

So here I was at my lowest--one of my favorite cousins has died, and I have been in a car accident. Somehow at this place where I was in a position to believe in God the least, to feel the most separated, I woke up and I just understood. So I feel incredibly lucky. I feel very calm now. Before, there was still that question--maybe I have to accept all of that bad if I ever want to be religious. I had so easily identified spirituality with a certain body type, with a certain cleanliness level, with a certain quality. Just believing in God was a real relief, because it removed those questions of regimen.

This belief has obviously meant a lot for your music. Your cousin died soon before "The Green World," which is by far your most spiritual album. Are you going to continue in that direction?

I'm a little scared. A year after my cousin died, I was asking for an opportunity to expand as a writer. I'm writing a book, and I'm writing songs for other people. I'm obsessed with a play that I want to write and a screenplay that I want to write. The one thing that is not coming to me is songs for my next album. And there is a little grain of angst that is missing from my life, now that I am a believer, that might have been the essential grain of sand for the pearl of some of these songs.

The year that my cousin died, though, I wrote "Playing to the Firmament" when he was dying, and I wrote "After All" after he had died. It's a song that sees my family in a very positive light, which is how he saw my family. I think because of him there was an extra layer of sadness, and I opened up a little bit more after he died. So I wouldn't be surprised if some of these songs had traces of that openness. But I think that even before he died, I was looking at issues of faith and how they're tested.

The other main theme in your songs besides spirituality is your concept of social justice, and sometimes how they overlap, as in the song "I Had No Right." What do you see as the connection between spirituality and social conscience?

The least political word for it would be interdependence--the sense that you don't want all the toys and the gadgets because that means other people will have less clean drinking water. To have those equations going in your head all the time, I think is a gift. For me it has been.

The spiritual person I have to be impressed with is me.

I'm no saint, but that interdependence plays out very strongly for me--mostly in the environmental arena. But social justice and the environment are very tied together in my head. I just can't look at waste. I have really strong fantasies of municipal recycling. I watch people throw aluminum cans in the trash, and I think of all the stories I've heard about the over-mining of aluminum, the erosion that happens, and the trees that fall down. I get this very strong hit that this is not the way, the Tao, the middle path, whatever expression--it does not convey interedependence.

Therefore it automatically takes on a spiritual dimension because we have to be living and walking with the sense of the world as our brethren. It sounds very Pollyanna-ish, and I'm sure that I've thrown out bottles. On a night when I'm not being careful I'll go through two or three plastic bottles of water at a gig. You have to have a sense of humor about it, in the face of the giant monolith of the military industrial complex. I think that's when you realize that your recycling and your concern about the environment have to have a spiritual element, otherwise it would just feel very empty, considering what we're up against.

What do you consider your most spiritual song?

I think "After All." Everything on "The Green World" represents facets of three years of coming to some sort of spiritual foundation. I went to Bhutan, close to Nepal, in 1997. It was a Buddhist constitutional monarchy at the time. That was a lot of walking around prayer wheels and talking with monks. And then my cousin died...

There were a lot of firsts in my life. I was grappling with celebrity culture. If you grapple with it as opposed to give in to it, it is a very spiritually resonant inner dialogue because you have to decide how to market yourself, how to portray yourself. It's a pretty big issue.

For someone like you, who has always been so open in your songs, about everything from spirituality to your struggle with depression, it must be especially hard.

I was grappling with my vanity. It's interesting--I wanted to do a paper about televangelism in college. I was amazed at the connection between religious leaders and father figures, and what it means to be a leader and what it means to be followed. What it means to try to objectify yourself so that you look like everybody else, so that your unique message can be heard. How do you toe the line, how much weight do you lose, how much do you dye your hair? It's a big deal.

I say that because I think it affects everybody. Everyone has to decide how they're going to appear in their lives, how they're going to put themselves out there to the world.

You have an old song, "All My Heroes Are Dead," but do you have any spiritual heroes or religious figures that you look up to?

When I wrote the song "I Had No Right" [a song about Daniel and Philip Berrigan, prominent anti-war activists during the Vietnam War], it put me in touch not only with many of the Berrigans, but with the people that they work with. The leadership that I have found is in the quality of humility. Daniel Berrigan has been a charismatic symbol and I think he has a real sense of humor about having fame, but the star of the day is the humility of all the people that he works with and their incredible tenacity. I don't intend to become a Catholic, so it's hard because there is a real urge to be in some sort of spiritual community with these people.

I'm a big fan of [Beliefnet columnist] Margot Adler.

I think that I gravitate towards people who think very hard about spiritual issues and political issues but who also have humility and a sense of humor. I've really been lucky to run into many people like that.

One of the things I learned as a religion major is that in all religions there is this idea of being a vessel for divine power, whereby through meditation, through work, through personal integrity, you have this inner electricity that could connect with divine electricity. That somehow you could be struck dead by it if it was too much for you to take. You had to be in a position to receive that voltage. I think if I met the Dalai Lama, I would only get the Dalai Lama as much as I was ready to get the Dalai Lama.

So really, the spiritual person I have to be impressed with is me.


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