U pstate New York-based singer/songwriter Dar Williams is living proof that despite the power of commercial radio and video, a discerning -- and networked --audience exists for music that cannot be slated alongside teen acts or aggro knuckleheads.
Admittedly, Williams's fan base numbers in the six-figure range rather than the millions. But you can bet those fans make it out to every gig in their town with uninitiated friends in tow. And they're deeply rewarded.
Williams proudly confirms that those same fans bootleg her shows with her permission in exchange for sending a $10 donation to her Snowden Environmental Trust and forwarding a copy of their tape for her archives.
"I don't think I could bootleg a tape and have the organizational capacity to send in 10 fucking dollars and dupe a tape," Williams howls, "but a lot of people do. I just exist in a pretty fortunate world."
Who needs major cash and the cover of Rolling Stone when a lifelong career is the alternative? That's especially true for someone like Williams, who comes at her craft from the folk tradition, emphasizing lyrics as much as melody.
That her latest disc, the lovely The Green World, veers toward pop makes no perceptible difference to Williams's attention to detail.
It takes a certain kind of songwriter to cast herself as an eight-year-old sea captain, as Williams does in the haunting epic We Learned The Sea. By comparison, springy love songs like the first single, What Do You Love More Than Love, inspired by a life-affirming 97 trip to Bhutan, must be a piece of cake.
So it's intriguing that Williams's most recent project -- recording a song for a forthcoming tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska disc -- allowed her to step outside herself for a moment. Her choice of Highway Patrolman, a family drama that she presents with bewitching understatement, speaks volumes about the kinds of tales that tweak her ear.
Local assists Interestingly, the recording found her working in Toronto earlier this month, with Möxy Früvous member and friend Jian Ghomeshi producing the track and a cast of locals -- Sarah Harmer, Colin Cripps, Gary Breit and Maury LaFoy -- backing her up.
"I was asked to do the Springsteen thing, and I jump at everything I'm asked to do because it always teaches me something. In this case, I got acquainted with the whole Nebraska album and, of course, that song," the former Buddhist says from a tour stop.
Reformed Buddhist? "I really believe it's important to have an ego before you take it apart. Road bumps in your life are good."
Back to music. "I loved the work Jian was doing with Martina Sorbara (whom he's currently producing) and I knew he'd put a great band together. That song is presented in such an unsentimental way, and yet it's so powerful. Not to compare myself to Springsteen, but if there's one track on that album I would have written, it's that one."
Uncertain sexuality Actually, it could be argued that Williams writes better songs than Springsteen. Certainly, her scope is wider. And while Springsteen's stuff is salt-of-the-earth, Williams's lyrics have a far more poetic edge.
She acknowledges that hardcore listeners tend to project their lives onto her lyrics. That may be rewarding and all, but it makes for some pretty rabid fans. No big whoop, apparently.
"It's OK, because once the music is out there, it's the words that are being dissected and not me. I'm cool with that.
"But yes, you'd think the lyrics would call for people to pick apart my personal life. What's funny about that, though, is that when I hear people speculating about my personal life, they're so wrong it's humorous.
"I have been public with all my significant others, and yet there's still enormous speculation as to whether I'm gay or straight. That's endearing to me somehow. I'm obviously straight -- make that bisexual. I've been going out exclusively with guys for 10 years.
"I'm very open, and yet nobody likes to get near it. They just stick with the songs and how they relate to their lives, which gives me a certain Teflon."
DAR WILLIAMS, with KATHERINE WHEATLEY, at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (September 26). $16-$18.75. 532-1598.