One of the special treats at this weekend's fourth annual Sisterfire festival on the grounds of Takoma Park Junior High School will be the opportunity to hear Ferron, the most intriguing and powerful lyric voice to emerge from the admittedly wide-ranging genre known as "women's music."

Last year Ferron's "Shadows on a Dime" won rave reviews and made many critics' 10-best lists, despite being on an independent label with limited distribution. Along with "Testimony" (1980), it established Ferron as a remarkable singer-songwriter in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, fellow Canadians as well as fellow travelers in the twisted landscape of emotions and relationships.

The surfaces of her investigations are everyday: dying romances, distant lovers, fluctuating friendships. And while Ferron's twist is that her key relationships are with other women, her essential journey between loneliness and self-discovery, toward deeper meanings in life, is universal.

"I've always sung to mixed crowds in Canada, sung to the left, seen myself as an underdog voice," she says. "The feminist movement and the socialist movement are strung together there. It has to be that way because we're so small that we all come together, the thinking comes together. Some of the American feminist singers came up to Vancouver, and I was surprised that they had never played to a mixed audience and yet they were at the top of the pile."

In the States, Ferron is best known on the women's circuit, which she finds "a bit shocking and sad. But I keep thinking it will come together at some point. It has to, or else the whole thing's going to fall apart. It's a big country you have here, and everybody gets into their little niche and really digs their claws in, so it takes a long time."

As for that particularly introspective and searching lyric sensibility endemic to so many Canadian songwriters, she says, "Maybe one reason is our population is the same as California and it's spread all over the country. There's a vastness there, and an isolation."

Ferron (a name she took 15 years ago from a dream -- it suggests iron and rust) was born in 1952, the oldest of seven children in a blue-collar French Canadian family. She grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, with her earliest influences American country music; at 14 she financed her first guitar by mowing lawns. Two years later Ferron made a less-than-auspicious debut with a local country-western band, hitting the stage, tripping on a cord, pulling down the microphone and falling into the drum set.

She had already started writing, but a first collection of 100 songs was stolen from her high school locker. "I was probably being saved," she laughs. "It would be interesting to look at them now because I was thinking about similar things for a long, long time. I just polished up the approach."

Ferron's densely packed songs are achingly poetic explorations of the vagaries of love and communication. She describes them as being about "relationships -- self relating to others, self relating to self, self relating to the universe. I'm really not that young anymore, and as I look around I'm a little in despair in that I don't see much spiritual base for us all to live by or to pass time through and consequently find a way to pass on, not only to our children but right out of our lives. That's essentially the world I'm trying to build for me -- a value system so you can know what decisions to make in time of crisis, or emptiness, or bareness, all those moments that nobody talks about.

"That's one reason I'm envious of those Indian cultures where the first thing spoken about in the morning is dreams, which are then incorporated into their lives. Basically, you live from the inside out. I'm not trying to go over the edge or take a whole bunch of people with me," she adds. "I'm trying to take that kind of thing and plant it in the system we're living in, a buy-and-sell system, with a buy-and-sell language, a buy-and-sell cruelty and mentality. It's very hard if you're a dreamer to go along with that. I want to be one of the people to put the match to the torch so the bloody thing will light up."

Ferron is a compelling singer, a throaty alto whose Dylanesque edges are perfectly in tune with the material (although she didn't hear Dylan until she was 23). Her delivery, understated and almost conversational, is beautifully showcased on "Shadows," which was produced for her own Lucy label by Terry Garthwaite and is distributed by Redwood Records.

"We end up in the 'women's' bin because stores have their own bookkeeping system and Redwood goes there," she says, admitting to some frustration with the album's limited exposure. "So much of what we deal with is not our own ideas and values and attitudes but the common denominator of the culture, and that's slow." But she also "values independence. It's sort of the best we can do at this point and still retain our autonomy and our vision. If somebody knocked on the door and said, 'Hey, you can keep all that and we'll put your records in stores all over the country,' we could have a conversation."

When she's not performing, Ferron can usually be found on the outer island of Saturna on the west coast of Canada. "It's been my home since I was 18," she says. "It's a gorgeous island 7 miles by 13, with 200 people on it and twice as many sheep and goats, and gravel roads. You have to take two ferries to it. I rent a house on the water, live alone, and that's where I do my writing. It's ideal for my sanity."

Ferron will perform Sunday afternoon at Sisterfire, the open-air festival of women's culture that she loves for "a vision that is so cross-cultural and hopeful." Others on the Saturday and Sunday programs include Casseberry and Dupree, Edwina Tyler and A Piece of the World, and Sweet Honey in the Rock. Theater, poetry and dance from various cultures also will be featured on three different stages, with events scheduled from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. For further information, call 234-9308.