Dar Williams’ full album Mortal City will be played in its entirety… along with other favorites!
When The Honesty Room came out in 1994, I left my three part-time jobs for one touring life, writing songs on notepads and napkins as I went. I have clear memories of places where I wrote lyrics. My housemate Sarah Davis had said, “I think you should look at this story about an ice storm in Philadelphia. The whole city basically shut down, voluntarily, to help the hospitals keep running.”
So I wrote half of the song, “Mortal City,” in Lisa Wittner’s bathtub in Boulder.
I wrote a verse of “As Cool As I Am” looking out my friend Jay’s window in San Francisco. And then I tried it out on a group of cool women at the Kuumbwa Cafe in Santa Cruz.
I started “The Ocean” in an undisclosed Washington city, surrounded by aspiring heroin addicts, while “February” began on the drive home from a friendly coffeehouse in eastern Massachusetts.
I wrote “Iowa”… well, it’s pretty obvious where I wrote that.
Steve Miller, who had done such beautiful work at Windham Hill, produced the album. He had this crazy new thing called digital recording that you could do anywhere, and since I lived with one of my managers, Charlie Hunter, we tacked up blankets on the walls and turned a whole room into the sound booth.
The Nields sisters went in and harmonized with their sister shorthand:
“Maybe I’ll try—”
“Yes. And I’ll—”
Gideon Freudmann wandered into the blanket room and played the now familiar part in “February” as well as the trippy solo (as only Gideon could do), on the song about college potheads.
Steve brought players into New York City who were as generous of spirit as they were wildly talented. He introduced me to Steve Gaboury, Larry Campbell, Zev Katz, Billy Ward, Marc Schulman and his good friend, the late, great Jeff Golub. He also fired me on back-up vocals on “The Christians and the Pagans” and asked Lucy Kaplansky to sing them instead!
He got Eileen Ivers to play the tempestuous part at the end of “The Ocean” and helped me invite John Prine to sing on it. I remember the first time I was on Mountain Stage in West Virginia, John poked his head into my dressing room and said, “I’ll sing on your song.”
And then, when we released the album in 1996, Joan Baez let me come with her throughout the United States. I loved every minute of touring with Joan. She did everything she could to teach me the ropes while always noting how far I’d already come. One night she had the band in her room after a show and the next morning I found my boots outside my room with the note, “You need new shoes. Other than that, you’re perfect. -Joan”
A second album can be a daunting experience, but thanks to my managers Charlie and Carole, Razor and Tie, Steve Miller and Joan, it all felt like a magic carpet ride, and I can’t thank everyone enough (I might have been too tired to thank them at the time).
And, given the title of the record, I also want to mention what I’ve seen since I released Mortal City. In the nineties, most towns and cities were still reeling from the decline of manufacturing and the rise of shopping malls. I was working with coffeehouse volunteers, local radio stations, and promoters who were trying very hard, with limited resources, to bring music, poetry and life back into their downtowns. Thanks to people like them, not only have many places reclaimed their former glory, they’ve improved on their histories, embracing their brick-walled, tree-lined Main Streets as they’ve welcomed more worldliness and diversity in the present. In 1996 I said, “We are not lost in the mortal city” as a statement of faith, and now, twenty years later, I say it as a statement of fact.
Thank you for opening up your towns and cities to me over the last twenty years. We’re very excited to be presenting the full album on tour.