In the past few years, Dar Williams has taken to visiting summer camps, teaching the kids how to plant “pollinator-friendly” flowers and to quell their fear of bees. They really don’t want to hurt you, she insists — it’s a suicide mission, after all. And when it comes to stinging, that’s really Williams’ territory as a songwriter, in her tracks that have been taking an aggressive, honest stance on everything from gender norms to aging for over the past two decades. Now she’s back with Emerald, her ninth studio record (out May 12th), which deals as bluntly as ever with the shadowy, subtle corners of humanity on songs like “Slippery Slope,” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country.
Williams recruited Nashville mainstay Jim Lauderdale for a duet that’s a tribute to marriage without the gloss, where firm nods hold as much meaning as fertile conversation and “till death do us part” is for those who don’t live life fearing the relationship reaper. There’s joy in the mundane, and it can be an uphill battle.
“Jim Lauderdale and I have been writing songs for a long time,” Williams tells Rolling Stone Country. “We both found our paths with a ‘steady wins the race’ formula of playing with a lot of different friends and writing as we went. I wanted to write a love song that wasn’t overstepping, just honest and taking it one step at a time, like Jim. It was a joy to make music with him. He is a charmer.”
For Emerald, which is being funded through a PledgeMusic campaign, Williams also collaborated with Jill Sobule, Richard Thompson, Americana duo the Milk Carton Kids, Angel Snow and others, as well as the mother-daughter pair of Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche. She recorded all across the country, including stops in New York and Nashville, catching these special guests wherever their schedules happen to sync up. There’s mellow, acoustic moments where lyrics are at the forefront, like on “Slippery Slope” or the title track, featuring Thompson. But then there’s also the poppy rapid-fire of “FM Radio” with Sobule, that says even occasional Wesleyan professors don’t have to be so serious — “remember, Bruce Springsteen divorced a model and married a musician” is a sample shouted lyric.
Williams’ released her last LP, 2012’s In the Time of Gods, on longtime label Razor & Tie, but Emerald will be completely independent and self-produced by her crowd-funding campaign. Want to know more about those bees? She’ll plant you a garden herself for the thousand-dollar donation level — as long as it works with her tour schedule, which has her on the road through May. You bring the dirt; she’ll bring the shovel.