Dar Williams came out of the intersection of several particular geographical (New England coffeehouse), political (feminist, LGBT-friendly) and academic (liberal arts – her website includes a page on “Lectures & Workshops”) spaces in the early-mid-1990s, a time that happened to be receptive to musicians who played acoustic guitar, made low-budget albums and wrote songs that explored gender and relationship politics.
This Northeast folksinger/coffeehouse circuit existed – thrived, even – as a separate ecosystem to the wider music industry. Occasionally artists crossed over from this folk circuit to the mainstream (Lisa Loeb, for example. But then, she had the good fortune to live in the apartment opposite Ethan Hawke’s), but someone like John Gorka, meanwhile, has spent 25 years as one of the biggest stars within his scene, but remain virtually unknown to a rock and pop audience.
I’d heard Dar Williams’s name long before I heard any of her music, not because I’d made a conscious effort to avoid it, but more because no radio station I ever heard played her stuff, and I wasn’t in a financial position then to lay down money for a record unless I was damn sure I was going to like it. (Now I think of it, that’s a key reason why for several years I went deep into the catalogues of artists I knew I liked rather than letting those be and checking out something else instead.) The song that did get me interested was atypical of her work, and from a recent album. I’ll Miss You till I Meet You, a yearning love song to the idea of someone rather than a specific parter, musically owed more to Aimee Mann than Joan Baez, or even Suzanne Vega (who often seems like New England coffeehouse singer who by some lucky fluke got famous). I think, actually, it was a specific comparison of this song to Mann’s work in a review I read that prompted me to check it out.
I’ll Miss You till I Meet You is built on similar changes and an identical drum pattern to Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which is probably a better song, and certainly has a more memorable chorus, but is a regrettable record – the humanity of Marie Fredrikson’s vocal trampled to death under a herd of stampeding elephants banging snare drums. Such was the fate of many a good ballad from about 1984 to 1994. Williams, though, wisely kept her recording intimate, with the sleeve art even suggesting the album was recorded in a cosy living room. In fact, this is a smart piece of misdirection; the record was actually made in Allaire Studios in the Catskills, which is an upscale facility with a client list to match. Nevertheless, Williams still sings like she’s in a small coffeehouse, playing unamplified to 15 people, and she avoids self-consciously stadium-sized moves. Guitars chime and sigh, but they don’t thunder. If you’re going to do a song that has a more than touch of the power ballad about it, it’s a wise idea to underplay it.
Like anyone who manages to make a middle-class career out of music for 20 years while never becoming close to a mainstream figure, Williams is a canny operator, and she surrounded herself with good people on this record: Eric Bazillian and Rob Hyman from the Hooters (the kind of constantly employed industry vets that I have a lot of time for), Steuart Smith who is a member of the Eagles’ touring band and even Marshall Crenshaw, once and future power-pop boy wonder.