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Scaring Up a Folk Career

Pop music: Fear is part of her creative process, but Dar Williams also sees healing power in songwriting. She plays in O.C. this week.

April 14, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dar Williams' new album, "End of the Summer," withstood a barrage of critical nit-picking before the professional critical nit-pickers even got a chance to hear it.

The rising folk-pop singer from Massachusetts says she isn't quite sure why she appears on the album's cover up to her forearms in muck, but she speculates that it might symbolize her tendency to heap mud on her work before it is hatched.

"You can't go through any process of creation without getting your hands dirty," she said last week from a hotel room in Wisconsin, a stop on a tour that includes her Orange County debut Wednesday at the Coach House.

Williams, a bright, enthusiastic sort, then gave a cheerful song-by-song rundown of the put-downs her persistent inner critic leveled at "End of the Summer."

" 'It's too long . . . it's too boring . . . it's too corny . . . too schlocky . . . too political. . . . Isn't that like a song I already wrote? . . . Who in your audience is going to relate to that?' "

Williams, who turns 31 Sunday, has learned not to listen to all that self-generated naysaying.

"Often the song I feel the most afraid to write is the one most thoroughly embraced by an audience," she said. "When we're on the brink of a change or a revelation, it's just scary. I think it's normal."

Williams thinks a shared willingness to slog through the creative mud of self-revelation is what ties her to Ani DiFranco, with whom she recently toured in Australia. The two are very different artists: DiFranco's music is driven by assertive rhythms and an edgy, almost punk-ish sensibility, while Williams is a poetic, often meditative singer-songwriter more in the tradition of Joni Mitchell.

"In our music there's a sense of someone who is struggling against voices in their heads and negativity around them--and winning," Williams said. Much the same could be said for Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin and others in the wave of women singer-songwriters whose commonality was underscored in the Lilith Fair touring showcase of female talent.

Williams played some Lilith dates last year and is signed up for this summer's sequel. She hasn't achieved the million-selling status of Lilith's leading ladies, but her three albums (all on the small, New York-based independent label Razor & Tie) qualify for solid cult status, averaging more than 70,000 sales each, according to SoundScan.

On "The Honesty Room," the 1995 debut album that Williams financed herself, and "Mortal City" (1996), she established her roots in the acoustic-folk scene. "End of the Summer" has more elaborate pop-rock production, including songs with the marching, hip-hop-ish rhythmic underpinnings that lately have carried hit releases by Cole and McLachlan. The director who made Cole's breakthrough video for "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is behind the one for Williams' "What Do You Hear in These Sounds"--the song that executives at Razor & Tie hope will establish her on MTV and VH1.

The song is about how Williams learned to deal with those undermining inner voices: It's an alternately humorous and glowing ode to the healing power of psychotherapy. (Williams said her inner critic had this to say about the song: "Who are you, the Erma Bombeck of the '90s?")

After growing up in the well-heeled suburbs of New York's Westchester County, Williams studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In college, she fell into a severe depression and sought treatment.

"I think it saved me," she said. "I think [therapy] can save a person's life."

*

After college, Williams moved to Boston intending to write plays, but she got caught up instead in New England's fertile regional folk scene.

"Because it was a movement, a scene, there was a lot to explore and sink your teeth into," she said. Playing at open-mike nights and small coffeehouse gigs yielded some constructive criticism: "I got a lot of encouragement to practice my guitar more, to get a new guitar, to practice my diction."

She emerged with a regional following, and word-of-keyboard on the Internet helped create a national fan network after she began putting out records. The result of that independent, grass-roots buildup, she said, is "an audience-defined career, as opposed to an industry-defined career. It gives me a lot of autonomy to decide for myself what a good song is."

Williams has produced lots of good ones. Her playwriting aspirations haven't gone to waste. Such literary devices as scenic detail, dialogue, narrative and symbolism are a large part of her appeal, along with a pliant soprano well-suited to storytelling.

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