Kelly Willis

Kelly Willis
If there was any justice in the world of country music, it’d be Kelly Willis, not Faith Hill, selling millions of records, but the immensely talented Kelly has always been too much of a maverick for the Nashville establishment (think of her as a pre-Neko). Instead, she’s long been part of the more adventurous Austin scene, and, since bursting onto the scene in 1990 with her superb Well Travelled Love debut, she has concentrated on putting out stylistically diverse, but gently convincing albums. Here, Kelly discusses making the record, finding her place in country music and being a "housewife goth.”

I gather you just got home [to Austin] from Nashville?
That’s right. They were having a celebration there for a hit song my husband [Bruce Robison] wrote for George Strait called "Wrapped.” They were having a #1 party for him, so I went up there with my oldest boy to help celebrate. It was a lot of fun.

And the royalty cheque won’t hurt.
It won’t hurt at all (laughs).

Congrats on Translated From Love. Pleased with reaction to it?
It has mostly been positive and I’ve been really thrilled.

An easy record to make? Any mandate going in?
It was fairly easy to make because I gave the reins over to [producer] Chuck Prophet. On the last record, I was producing, so there are so many little details and decisions, boring things that are not fun but that you have to do. This time around, I didn’t have any of that hanging over me. I was just there at ten in the morning and was able to completely focus on it. Have fun, make music, then come home. I didn’t have to worry about anything in between. It was pretty much just the fun, creative part of a making a record that I hadn’t been able to do last time.

Was it recorded in Austin?
Yes, at my husband’s studio, Premium Recording Services. That was nice. It’s ours, so we just go there and it feels like home. It has our office in there as well, so it feels like home. We spend a lot of time there when we’re not recording, so just feels like a comfy place to be.

I think it shows in the sound, which has a relaxed feel.
Well, good.

How did you come across Chuck?
I was aware of [his band] Green On Red, and was a fan back in the day. Then when I got ready to make [1999 album] What I Deserve, the first producer brought Chuck in to play a session, and that’s how I met him. Everything else about that session was a complete disaster, but I kept Chuck, and had him come to Austin to help me finish that record. He’s also on [2002’s] Easy, and he has been really invaluable part of my music for the past ten years. I really connected with him, and really felt he understood my songs and showed them at their best. I just really liked his instincts because I’d worked with him and knew what to expect with him. You really have to trust the people you are working with. It’s a very vulnerable situation. Even when you have a great deal of trust, there are moments when you think that other person is out of their mind and your career is going to go down the toilet. I needed someone there I really liked and wanted to be around, so he was a natural choice for me.

You do a lot of co-writing with both Chuck and the wonderful Jules Shear. Did Chuck suggest Jules?
Chuck suggested him. We’d been passing other people’s songs back and forth between each other, songs to consider, and not having any luck whatsoever. Neither of us wanted anything to do with the songs the other brought up. Finally, this song of Jules’, "The More I’m Around You,” was like the first one we agreed on. It lit a fire — "Let’s bring him in and work with him some more.”

How does the co-writing work? All just sit around, tossing ideas around?
We pretty much just did that. A lot of times in the past when I’d co-written, I’d have half a song, or three-quarters of a song, and we’d dig into it, maybe rearrange and add something. This time around I had nothing. I might have a title, or a melody to a chorus. "Sweet Little One,” one Chuck and I wrote together, was the most complete song I brought in for us to work on. But for the most part I’ve had no time to make music, with my children [she has four] and everything, so we just really sat down and hammered it out from the very beginning of a song. It is kind of hard to do that. I think it really helps if someone can come in with something we can all adjust, but it turned out really well. I’m really pleased with the results.

How does the choice of outside songs work? For instance, the Iggy Pop cover, "Success”?
Chuck brought that in. He’d send me a CD with like 15 songs on it, and that was in the middle of one. I remember initially tossing out all them, but I guess almost in frustration he sat down one day and started playing all of them for me again on his guitar. When he played that one, it took on a new life, hearing him sing it. I think the thing about that song that appealed was that I never talk or act like that in life. I never just go out and go "Hell, yeah. Hooray for me!” I’m always trying to be modest, kind, gracious, all that stuff, so I thought "That sounds so fun. I just want to do that, be like that for one moment in my life!” Also, if I’m going to cover a song people know, it needs to be something that I could do something different with. I’m not going to cover a Lucinda Williams song, cos I don’t think I could do anything different. Here I bring something entirely different from Iggy.

I hope someone sends Iggy a copy.
I hope so too.

To me, the song "Teddy Boys” has a swagger to it as well.
Yes, it does. That’s another song Chuck brought in. It was an attempt to pay some homage to my rockabilly start, my rockabilly days. It was really fun, like a snapshot of a night in an Austin club too.

Those early days seem a lifetime away?
To tell you the truth, they seem a couple of lifetimes away (Laughs). That was a long time ago, but they were fun, fun times.

I saw you back in those days, and you were clearly having a great time.
I was so young, and everything was so exciting and scary. I was just cutting my teeth musically, so it was a great time.

Your career after 17 years has had peaks and valleys. What is your take on the whole thing?
I think I’ve really come to terms with the kind of career I’m going to have in this world and who I am. I think there was a time, around when I put What I Deserve out [in 1999], that I’d reflect on and talk about that a lot. But now I just think I’ve had a great career. I found my way through it all, and I’ve been very lucky to have all those opportunities and experiences. I’m just so proud of it. I can’t actually believe I did all that stuff. I also feel that I’m at the peak of my abilities, and I still have that feeling I can do better, that my next record will be better. I think that’s a good feeling, rather than having the day where I think, "You know, I think that’s about it,” and then go on to do something else. It feels really good to want to do more, and to be looking forward to the future.

You now have a real body of work. Is that a source of pride?
Yes. There are some I won’t pull back out again, but most of it I am still very proud of.

A lot of critics and observers consider you a more substantial artist than Nashville country stars who may have sold many times more records. Ever second-guess about what might have happened if you’d allowed yourself to be moulded or marketed in that way, or was that never an option?
You know, it occurred after some time went by that I simply was not capable of doing that. I’m just not that kind of performer; I don’t have that kind of talent. So I just don’t think that ever would have happened. It wasn’t in the cards for me. I was so young, so none of us knew that at that time. I didn’t know that, neither did [early producer and head of MCA Nashville] Tony Brown. We all thought it was possible, because my talent was really raw back then. No, I don’t have any regrets. I’ve found a career I always wanted to have. I always wanted to be more of a creative artist as opposed to more of a performer, but I didn’t have anything to back that up with at the time. I needed time to grow and become an artist.

Have many of your compositions been done by other artists?
I’d love to see that happen. Just one or two cuts over the years by people you’ve never heard of. It’s funny that I do that song "Wrapped’ on one of my records and I do it in my show. It’s strange to have a hit song in my show that I didn’t write and is a huge hit for someone else. It’s kind of bizarre, but I enjoy doing it. There’s a whole new reaction to it now.

Have you done much writing with your husband, or do you think it best to keep that separate?
No, we don’t write together. We sat down to write together one time and just ended up fighting. We have written a song or two together where I’ve given him part of a song and he’d finish it. That worked out pretty good for us. Really — and I’ve heard it from other people too — you’re just too close to that person. I think it’s nice to have a little distance with somebody you’re writing with, where you have to be polite and respectful. Sometimes you can get offended by someone not liking what you do, but you still have to be polite. If it’s your spouse, it’s like "Whaddya mean? My idea is way better,” and you end up fighting!

As a songwriter is it a challenge to have a seemingly content family life? A lot of singer/songwriters seem to thrive on heartbreak or loneliness.
Having the kids, the challenge with my family is that I don’t have creative energy. When I have a few minutes, I want to sit down and do nothing. My brain is at its wits end. I don’t have enough energy to create after taking care of people. I just don’t have time. When I do get the time, the main thing I like to write about is relationships and how you keep them together. Bruce and I have been married ten years and been together since ’91. I think it is fascinating that people manage to stay together and work through all the obstacles. That is my area of interest.

That is fertile and valid ground as subject matter, isn’t it?
I think so. I’m amazed that people stick it out.

With the new record, people are calling it your most eclectic yet. Was that conscious, or just a matter of going for a certain style for each song?
It was completely organic. We didn’t set out to make a real diverse sounding record. There was also that understanding that if these songs don’t work out, we won’t put them on the record, so we took each song as it came. Just saw how it felt the best. Chuck was really key to that. He had specific ideas for each instrument. He’s a very creative person.

Doesn’t hurt to have such stellar sidemen.
Oh yes. It was fantastic. Greg Leisz, I’ve always wanted to work with him, so that was a dream opportunity. Everybody brought so much to their instruments. Really was a lot of fun.

How much gigging do you do these days?
Now that I have a record out, quite a lot. Normally just about two weekends a month. I do have a steady band. I have to be creative, because of my family. I can’t just go out, stay out and get it all done in two months. I’m going out for five days at a time, coming home for ten, maybe go out for eight, come home for 12. I need to be here for them — dentist appointments, first day of school. I have gigs booked right through end of year, but have Halloween booked for being home! You just have to be very organised. Plenty of things go wrong, but we’re doing OK. Neither Bruce nor I are very organised at all.

Hopefully plans for Canada?
Yes, has been a while, It’d hopefully be after the new year that we could get up there. It’d be fun.

Your first record came out in 1990, and back then there was no such thing as an alt-country or Americana scene. Gratified to see that community grow, and have they adopted you to some extent?
Yes, it has been really nice to see that world of music persevere in spite of all the challenges. It has been nice to be embraced, by anybody, but I’m proud to be part of all that. I like all that music a lot.

Do you feel part of the Austin scene and that great Texas tradition of singer/songwriters?
Austin definitely had a huge influence on me. I just felt that people in this town were either a little pickier or they had a higher standard or something. I always respected the opinion of the musical audience here. I’ve been very grateful for this town, as a place to cut my teeth, learn how to play guitar. Just everything happened in this town for me, every aspect of my career. There are clubs where you go to get better, and I’m so happy to be part of it, and to have a place to call home.

Guess you don’t get the time to hang out at the Continental Club much these days.
I’m afraid those days are behind me. I used to have my end of the bar down there, my friends and I. If you were sitting down there, then you must not be from around here, ‘cos that’s our spot! I spent a lot of time there, but these days I have a whole other agenda.

I’ll let you get back to that other agenda. One last question — is there a phrase or tag you prefer to describe your style? I see the bio mentions "housewife goth.”
That’s a hard question. I don’t really think it’s housewife goth. I think they got that from Chuck. He’s a colourful conversationalist. I just don’t know. I always just call it country music, but that can be so many different things. I’m always entertained by what people come up with, but I don’t have one I stick with.

Congrats on the record and come up and see us in Canada.
I will, and thanks.