"I remember thinking after The End of the Summer (1997), 'That's it, that's all I have, this is the best I'll ever do. This is all I'm capable of,'" she laughs. "And now I've done this (her new release, The Green World) and I think, 'OK, that's it; that's all I'm capable of.'"
The Green World continues to move Williams to a more carefully crafted sound and away from her simple folk roots on the Boston-Cambridge coffeehouse circuit. Her music is easy to listen to, but her lyrics have a depth and insight that can be profound and personal:
"Well a god descended / And the real time ended / His light was lifted just above the law / And now we have to live with what we did with what we saw."
--"And a God Descended"
After touring to promote End of the Summer, Williams took a hiatus for a side project: a harmony-drenched trio called Cry Cry Cry with fellow singer/songwriters Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell. They recorded an album covering their own favorite songwriters and gave their first-ever performance in Tucson, a flawless gig, though all three admit to extreme jitters. Their shows were one of the highlights of that summer's folk festivals.
"I was part of the 'Honor the Earth Tour' that the Indigo Girls put together in Montana," she says. "I had 20 minutes before I went on stage and I'm shmearing on makeup and trying to add a part to 'All My Trials.' That's the kind of intensive harmony training from Cry Cry Cry that came in handy. I really appreciated how good it was for me to bend my ear to interesting harmonies, to know what works and what doesn't, and to know that I'm really in love with that process."
Williams isn't a major star in entertainment industry terms, barely a blip on the radar that tracks a Faith Hill or Madonna. But her first three albums sold a healthy total of 500,000 units, a huge number in the obscure singer/songwriter genre. She certainly felt she had achieved success, given that her goal was to one day sell out a 120-seat club in Cambridge. But she found a weird vibe as she hovered on the edge of mass-media awareness.
"I knew from the start that celebrity culture is this giant vacuum," she concedes. "Going into End of the Summer, I clocked a lot of miles and it seemed that for all the positive space that my career was taking up, here was a world that was asking about the negative space. Interviewers were asking why I wasn't famous! End of the Summer was about the reckoning of that very corporate-saturated media, getting caught up and overwhelmed as a citizen, as well as a performer. I started to see the seams in the American Dream as I traveled. That manifested itself in songs about rebellious teenagers and disillusioned people, people in therapy."
She explains, "This new album is about finding the well, something more internal. I've made a peace with the drive of being in the entertainment business, especially on the periphery as I've been. I love to perform and I love being the disc that cousins send to each other or that someone spreads throughout their dorm."
Noting that her tax returns now list her as "musician/writer," Williams is eager to carve out more time in the future for other forms of creative work. She'd like to write songs for other people, collaborate with a choreographer friend and maybe even co-write a children's allegorical play or a musical.
"I do have a goal to tour less. I don't think I'm going to be a road warrior. When you're out on the road, you're just splattered across the map and then you go home and collapse, so I don't mind. I just look forward to building my nest when I get home," she says cheerfully.
Still, she has an intensity about performing. She can discuss in detail remembered nuances of performances years ago.
"It's a very vivid three hours of your life. Every night has some cool little things in it that you find. You remember the sound and the people," she says. "We played at a place in Tucson in '97 before Cry Cry Cry that was horrific. We had to stop halfway through because of the bass hum."
Williams says she's pleased with The Green World and proud of her collaboration with producer Stewart Lerman.
"I used to think if you had magic inside you, you would bring that magic to an album," she admits. "Now I realize that magic on an album is a change operation; everybody gets a little piece of lightning and brings it in. There are these wonderful moments of 'ah-ha.'"
With a new home in upstate New York to eventually return to, Williams sounds sure and confident.
"It's nice to be doing my own stuff again," she says. "I had no idea how great it would be playing with a band again. It's funny now to think about playing this album for my friends when we were first working on it and to be really unsure if this material was a next step. It sounds to me like a next step, but my barometer is really subjective."