The initial idea came in a flash. Dar Williams was driving on an isolated highway, crossing from New York into Ontario, surrounded by frozen fields, silver trees, and empty sky, when inspiration struck.
"I thought, 'I want to write a biker song!,'" Williams says with a laugh. "And then my second thought was, 'I want to write an epic biker song.' The Greek messenger of the dead is named Hermes, and I want to write about him-the god of travelers and thieves.
"I had this picture of Hermes starting to take a silver-haired woman down to her death, as she's asked him to do, and instead he seduces her, saying 'I love people like you who are experienced and worldly.' And then I thought, why don't I really freak out my record company and make a whole album about Greek mythology? So I decided to look at each of the gods of the Parthenon and see if their stories sprang to life for me or not."
And from that moment came "You Will Ride With Me Tonight," the fifth song on In the Time of Gods, the ninth studio album by the beloved singer-songwriter. Produced by Kevin Killen (who has worked with such giants as U2, Elvis Costello, and Peter Gabriel), and featuring a remarkable set of musicians including Larry Campbell, Charley Drayton, Gerry Leonard, and Rob Hyman, the ten songs that resulted from exploring this theme became some of the richest music and most evocative writing of Williams's career.
The complex and mysterious world of mythology aligned with several other issues that Williams was grappling with. "I'm interested in power right now," she says. "I'm in my 40s, and I'm shocked that the café conversations I had in my 20s-'Somebody has to do something!'- are now my responsibility. I see people who are actually doing things that you always dreamed somebody would do, and I can help make that a reality. So the stakes are higher, in a good way, but you also see the shadow, the reckless behavior, where a person can lose it all in a weekend."
Of course, the ceaseless turmoil in the world today is of great concern to this seasoned artist who's also a wife, mother and "involved neighbor," as she puts it, active in her community. "A lot of what's going on is actually really gross," she says, "and to see it as epic, instead of doomed, is helpful for me. These stories and characters helped me make sense of it."
Williams, though, wanted to be sure that she was serving the songs themselves, and was prepared to abandon the mythology theme any time it didn't naturally fit; "I didn't want it to be a gimmick or a test," she says. But she was pleased to find how flexible and expansive these archetypes really are. "The Light and the Sea" began with the notion of the sea god Poseidon, but became a meditation on retaining a moral compass.
"As I get older, my big struggle isn't being virtuous and moral, it's more about what I do in chaos," says Williams. "When I'm stressed out, I say and do terrible things. There's a light to follow, and you can lose it in chaos."
Other songs brought ancient themes directly into the Hudson Valley home Williams shares with her husband, their son, and their young, Ethiopian-born daughter. She describes "Write This Number Down" as "an Athena-ish song" written for her younger child. "It's telling her not to lose faith, because even when the justice system isn't up to what you want it to be, there will be networks of people who will help you find justice."
Williams also wanted to write a song for her husband. "When I go on the road, there's an understanding that it is part of our relationship," she says. "In the Parthenon, there is one goddess-Vesta, goddess of the hearth-who sits in the middle of the hall stoking the fire. I never thought that I needed a hearth, but that's my home, and also my marriage, an anchor in my life that just gets better all the time. So 'I've Been Around the World' does correlate, but I would have written that story no matter what."
As documented on her last album, the 2010 two-disc retrospective Many Great Companions, Williams's growth as an individual over her almost two-decade-long career has gone hand-in-hand with her evolution as an artist. Raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., and educated at Wesleyan University, Williams spent 10 years living in the thriving artistic community of Northampton, Mass., where she began to make the rounds on the coffeehouse circuit. Joan Baez, an early fan of her music, took Williams out on the road and recorded several of her songs.
In 1995, two years after self-releasing The Honesty Room, she signed with Razor & Tie Entertainment, beginning a relationship now in its 16th year. Along with her studio albums, she's also released the onstage document Out There Live (2001) and the DVD Live at Bearsville Theater (2007).
The final song on In the Time of Gods manages to bring all of her concerns-social, creative, and personal-under one roof. "We have a mountain close to our house called Storm King," says Williams. "When a circle of clouds gathers around the top of it, that means the rain is coming. Pete Seeger lives across the river and can see the mountain, and I wrote a song saying that Pete is the storm king now. He looks down and watches over us, guides and warns us, like the mountain does.
"So my 'Storm King' is not a king of Greek mythology," Williams continues. "He's a father figure who influences me from two miles up the road, where he composts and chops his own wood, and reminds me of my responsibilities. 'Storm King' is my way of saying that we aren't living in 400 BC Greece, we are evolving in time. And that's what you're allowed to do with mythology-to let it evolve and show who your Parthenon is now."
That's the great achievement of Dar Williams's album. With ease and grace, it reminds us that wherever we are, whenever it may be, we are always living In the Time of the Gods.