Cry Cry Cry is back together, but not for long. A collaboration between established folk singers Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, the harmony-based trio formed two decades ago to release one album before members went their separate ways to focus on individual careers. The project mostly sat dormant until last summer, when an invitation to perform at the lauded Clearwater Festival in New York brought the three artists back together. Now they’re on a 12-show spring tour, which stops at the Jefferson Theater on Saturday night, but, according to Williams during a recent phone interview, it’s likely one of the last opportunities to see the trio combine their voices on stage.
“I don’t think we’re going to do this again,” she says. “We love performing, and we love rehearsing, but we just couldn’t commit to making a full-length album this time. It seemed like a miracle enough that we were able to come back together.”
News of the short-lived reunion will be a bummer to longtime fans who’ve been hoping for more. The group’s one album, a self-titled effort released back in 1998, is a cult favorite in folk circles. The set of mostly covers found the singers delivering some of their favorite songs by other artists with intricately layered vocal arrangements. Starting with a take on the R.E.M. hit “Fall on Me,” the album goes on to bring sophisticated harmonies, both gentle and soaring, to songs by Robert Earl Keen, Julie Miller and Greg Brown, as well as lesser-known songwriters like Canadian James Keelaghan.
During the comeback shows, the group members have been leaning on songs from their one record, as well as selections from their own solo catalogs. They’ve also found time to add some different material to the repertoire. Back in February, the trio digitally released a recently recorded emotive version of the Jump Little Children ballad “Cathedrals.”
“The first thought is, ‘Do we have anything to bring to the song?,’” Williams says, when Cry Cry Cry choses tracks to sing. “Then there’s just something about adding harmony to a song that’s beautifully written. When you add harmony you show that the song has its own beauty, apart from its original performer, that can grow. That’s an exciting thing, because you don’t know if it will work until you’re doing it. The more you sing together, the better it goes.”
Individually, all three members of Cry Cry Cry are prolific singer-songwriters. Williams has released nine full-length albums dating back to the early 1990s. Last fall she also published a book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, about the community-driven resurgence of small cities. Kaplansky, once a staple of the New York City folk scene in Greenwich Village, has released half a dozen albums and collaborated with Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith. Shindell, whose tunes have been recorded by Joan Baez, is known for writing vivid story-based songs that he delivers in the first person as different characters. Williams says Shindell’s diligent work ethic deserves credit for the unique dynamics of Cry Cry Cry’s song arrangements.
“Richard will go into his studio with his guitar and emerge at the end of the day not realizing that it got dark outside,” she says. “Music is a really deep language for him, so there are a lot of subtleties that he pulls out in the way that he arranges things.”
The trio’s initial formation was spontaneous; while touring together more than two decades ago, Williams and Shindell started singing duets during sound checks. After realizing they had vocal chemistry, they decided to bring Shindell’s frequent collaborator, Kaplansky, into the mix.
The mission of the group has always been to shine a new light on songs the members mutually admire through three-part harmonies, and Williams believes the singers have a special connection that can be hard to find. One of her favorite memories is getting the group to sing Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” the first song she ever learned on guitar.
“Live performance of music is so much of what my life is about, and I’ve had career high points on stage with Richard and Lucy,” Williams says. “We can be singing together without looking at each other with the exact same timing and the exact same phrasing. During the tightrope walk of trying to find those things together, we’ve had magic moments where everything lines up perfectly.”
Because the landscape of the music industry is much different now than it was when the group made its debut, pursuing a second album was deemed unfeasible. They’re planning to release a few more songs from some recent short recording sessions and tour though the middle of the month.
Although Williams seems pretty certain this is the end, she won’t entirely close the door on Cry Cry Cry. “Nothing teaches you never say never like coming together 20 years later, but this is it for the foreseeable future.”