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Green Thumb

After years of playing coffeehouses and churches, Dar Williams hits the clubs.


Think about the number 150,000. When it comes to quantifying most things -- frogs, bowls of Super Colon Blow cereal, Ralph Nader supporters -- it's a big number. But for label heads Clive Davis and Tommy Motola, or megabands Aerosmith and Metallica, it's table scraps. Major-label musicians frequently lose their identities in the miasma of corporate accounting that makes sales tantamount to merit and dictates press coverage. But put down your Rolling Stone and think about the last time you said anything 20 people heard (something you're proud of, anyway), let alone 150,000.

For a folk singer such as Dar Williams, selling roughly 150,000 copies of her last two releases happens after years of touring, not hours of Total Request Live exposure. It means starting with gigs in church basements and maybe earning festival slots -- and a living -- eventually. It means constant output. It means some soul searching about becoming a product for the marketplace.

Williams told an interviewer earlier this year that one of the songs on her new disc, The Green World, "is about fear of self-commodification." But before the album came out, she traded her management firm, which handles mostly folk acts, for the city slickers A.G.F., which helped push Shawn Colvin toward the Grammy spotlight. And, seduced by the district's artistic cache, she narrowly avoided moving to New York City's SoHo, a realization that colors the aforementioned tune, "Spring Street."

Instead, Williams settled in New York state's Hudson Valley. The move and its subsequent gardening occupied what little downtime Williams had between the collaborative "Cry Cry Cry" (a trio with fellow folk talents Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky) and The Green World.

"I did spend more time at home," Williams says by phone from a tour stop in Sacramento, California. "I grew flowers and vegetables. My dad gave me eight kinds of tomatoes, and I grew basil greens and chelsea. But the planting was much more important to me than the harvesting." Such an outlook might be expected from someone who values the writing and playing -- the sowing -- well above the potential rewards.

Williams is four weeks into a tour that takes her to clubs more than coffeehouses. The change, she says, lets her audience "stretch out and dance" to songs that have a more distinct groove, with the help of some new band members.

"It's an equal exchange of fear and excitement," Williams says of band turnover, though she could be talking about any of her recent changes. "You lose familiarity, but you learn so much." Describing the pull of these events on her songwriting, she adds, "In terms of mental cogitation, the album speaks for itself."

Williams, a graduate of Connecticut's Wesleyan University who majored in theater (the new album is titled after theater shorthand for Shakespeare's noncourt plays) and religion, gives off a studious, centered vibe in conversation. She can be guarded, as when she coyly but politely refuses to detail a nonmusic project she's working on: "That's an excellent question, but I can't -- I won't -- answer it." She is tersely funny, as when describing her songwriting process as one in which she has had to learn "to get out of (her) own way." And she is dedicated to her craft.

"When I have an idea for a song, I kind of flash it through pretty clearly," Williams says. "This time, 'Spring Street' came first. All of them this time, I spent an extra few months to make sure I got the details in order. Trial-and-error stuff. Play-throughs for myself. I tend to keep them for a while." The result this time is an album more lyrically spacious and musically confident. Compared with 1997's End of the Summer, The Green World is sonically dreamier. The music, like the CD artwork, reimagined a sepia-toned, serious Williams as a smiling, full-color star about to be born.

Williams trusts her instincts; she says she plays new material for "certain friends," particularly fellow musician Cliff Eberhardt, but doesn't rely on their input.

"I don't dread it anymore," Williams says of the nagging worry that a friend will advise against a direction one of her songs is headed. "It's my job. I've written a couple that are embarrassing because I'm the only one who likes them. But there's also something good about having a couple of failures to remind you that the process is working.

"I can abandon things," she continues. "And I do keep things in the back of my mind. But the best thing to do is to follow a flash the first time. If it's worth doing, it will come back to me."

Williams keeps a tape recorder handy to document those flashes. "It's the closest I come to being a self-indulgent artist type. You have to arrange your ideas, though. But it's a mess to have performer friends. I think everybody is creative, so people do understand, but you don't want to make them feel competitive by whipping out your tape recorder. I don't want to make it seem like they should be doing what I'm doing. It's lucky when things are flowing, but you have to be polite and recognize that it doesn't always happen that way for everyone."

The morning of this interview, on I-80 bound for Sacramento, Williams experienced one of her flashes; a new song, "Second Death," emerged in skeletal form while she was driving. "Ideally, I get the melody and words at the same time. But if I set aside time to try to write songs, I'd be sitting around a lot," she says. Sitting around, after all, is for the platinum-sellers.

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