Dar Williams has been described by The New Yorker as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters,” but to thirteen-year-old Tamar she was, quite simply, a personal hero: a songwriter whose poetry, poignancy, and humor could capture at once the authentic voices of an inner child, a searching young adult, and a wizened sage. We met in person in 2013 at Dar’s songwriting retreat, and our friendship has been evolving ever since, exploring together the rigors of writing and storytelling through sound and song, and what it means to dip in and out of a creative space as a way of simply getting through the day.
Dar has recently published a book about songwriting that is chock full of philosophical wisdom and applicable nuggets, many of which borne from a decade of retreats. We sat down together to talk about songwriting, art museums, the art of writing songs about art, and specifically her evocative, ambivalent "Mark Rothko Song," which tackles it all head-on.
[2:05] Dar’s relationship with museums and creating a space for poetic thinking.
[8:40] Specific museums, exhibitions, paintings that have inspired Dar’s songs: Dia, “Made in America,” the Fogg.
[11:45] Writing Mark Rothko Song. Where did Dar go? Where did Dar really go?
[14:45] The difficulties inherent in writing about art. What prompted the writing of this song? Dar’s first encounter with Rothko’s “Untitled (Blue Green)” and the first verse.
[20:15] Diving into the prosody of the song, how the music and lyrics support the voice of the song: finger picking, major to minor, chord to chord, key to key, mood to mood.
[27:41] Return to the lyrics and narrative. The way that Rothko encourages people to make subjective associations…but then comes the foil of the second verse, creating the contrast between subjective and objective.
[33:52] The song’s dueling (or complementary?) aha moments in the bridge and final verse. People both love Rothko and struggle to connect to him. Following the narrator’s journey as she wrestles with seeing something versus knowing something.
[45:47] Appreciating an honest song about art viewing that doesn’t flatten the characters. Reflecting on the elements of the song that hold up as Dar has gotten older.
[51:19] The similarities between art museums and songwriting retreats: opening up, engaging poetic thinking.
[55:28] Also the hazards of living in a space of poetic thinking, especially as a parent. The necessary objectivity of the caretaking space.
[1:02:20] The “Five Things” Rule, and whether Mark Rothko might just be the exception that proves the rule. Tamar meets her Rothko and gives hope to kind pedestrians everywhere.
[1:09:14] Mark Rothko Song in full.
Dar Williams, “When I Was A Boy”; “Mark Rothko Song” (live); “The Beauty Of The Rain”; “Mark Rothko Song” (album version)
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