Kelly Willis and husband Bruce Robison are making a record together. Though they have more than a dozen albums between them, this is their first one together, unless you count their 2003 Christmas record. Like a lot of other artists these days, they're skipping the record company and going direct to their fans to finance the project through Kickstarter.
Instead of doing the typical pitch video, Kelly and Bruce went a different route (you can check out their Kickstarter page here). Their video stars Austin comedian Bill Wise as Gil Webb, a clueless radio host who's a bit disappointed that Kelly and Bruce are sitting in his trailer-studio (he'd been promised a juggling monkey). He thinks Kelly is Bruce's daughter and dislikes country music. "The album is called Kickstarter? That sounds a little heavy metal." Wise is an excellent improvisational comic, and it just gets funnier as it goes along.
Kelly and Bruce are working with producer Brad Jones (Hayes Carll) on the new album, writing and recording a few songs at a time. Pour Me A Waterfall is one of the first songs to surface from their efforts. Here's a video of Waterfall (you can also hear Kelly and Bruce singing the song in the Kickstarter video):
The new project gave me the excuse to set up an interview I'd been wanting to do for some time, so the Wednesday after Christmas, we spoke by phone. Kelly was at her mother's house, still in Christmas mode, but seemed glad to spend the time together. During the 45-minute interview we talked about the new project, the music business, Star Trek, Twitter, her sister-in-law and her New Year's resolution. I came away with a new appreciation for this straightforward if soft-spoken musician who describes herself as "socially awkward." Hardly awkward on the phone, Kelly was candid and open about every subject, including husband Bruce.
Kelly and Bruce have covered a lot of ground in 15 years of marriage. As each of them made records, they were also making kids. "Well, I don’t know how we got four kids." As if to explain that, she added, "We didn’t plan very well - we meant to have two." Their first was born in 2001, then came twins, and then one more in 2006. Three boys and a girl. The youngest is in kindergarten, and for this year, they're all in the same school. The Robison family has a Chevy Suburban which Kelly says "is one step cooler than a mini-van." She also says that it's a mess - she doesn't even go into the back for fear of what they might find. The kids are old enough now so things aren't quite as intense as they were a few years ago. "Four is probably more complicated than we are capable of handling, but we’ve got four and we’re finally at a point where it’s actually really fun."
But the kids and all the pressures that go with managing a family while married to another musician caused Kelly to give it up (or at least think she was giving it up) several years ago. "We had our four in a space of five years, so we had a lot of babies and it was insane. In fact, during that time I tried to quit being a musician, thinking, 'Okay, I’m done with that part of my life.' I couldn’t imagine being able to devote any time or energy to music, traveling and being creative. I was just so sleep deprived and so needed at home." As all of us who have raised children know, just when it seems there's no way you can make it, they grow up a little and things lighten up and level out. That happened for Kelly over the last year, as she ventured out with Bruce for a few shows and started the process of recording their new record. The progression back onto the stage was the only natural course for someone with her gifts. "At some point, music is your only outlet, your only sanity. So I found my way back to continue making music."
Kelly and Bruce had sung on each other's records for years, so it made sense for her to resume performing with Bruce, at least in the beginning. They're not ready to say that this is the way it will always be. And she's not sure that they're going to co-write any songs, at least not yet. "Just being in a band together feels like we’re pushing it. So, writing songs together isn’t an area that we’ve been comfortable doing. You know, you’ve got to try to keep those lines the best that you can. So this is a big deal for us, to do this project together, to say that we think we can handle merging our professional lives at this juncture. The cool thing is that we both know that it’s just this project, it’s just this moment in time. The next one that we do will be individual records again. Or, if we really want to make another one together, we can. So that helps us not feel trapped by this, or something like that. We have to keep some lines there, to balance our lives."
"We like playing together, we love making music together. We’ve sung on each other’s records for so long now that we really do have a sibling harmony working. We just know how the other one sings and we know how to match each other. It’s instinctual, we even know when the other one’s going to take a breath." She's right, of course, and it's evident to even a casual observer. There is something about the way their voices blend. Take a look at this video from 2007 of Kelly backing Bruce up on Angry All The Time:
As Kelly shifts from talking about them to talking about him, her voice changes a little. "I love Bruce’s songwriting and I have loved singing his songs over the years. I feel like I really get his songs and that they’re a natural match for me." It's not just Bruce's songwriting that she likes. It's the way he takes care of her and her songs when he's a member of her band. "When Bruce is there, he’s actually a fan of my music. So if I’m doing a song, he’ll say 'Why isn’t anybody playing this little guitar thing right here?' And I didn’t know there was a guitar thing right there, nobody in my band knew it. So when he’s there he’s playing those parts that really made the recordings special. That’s a really cool thing to have going on, somebody who’s paying that much attention." Her voice continues to hold that same tone as she explains how Bruce completes her on the road and as a performer. "We just make each other better somehow. So, it’s really fun for us. Bruce is a much more fun person to hang out with on the road or at the gig. The Robisons have a very quick wit. They’re just interesting people to have around. I’m always worrying, studying the set list, kind of uptight before the show. Bruce is just fun to be around. So the whole vibe changes and, I don’t know, it’s just different."
Another thing that's different, at least since Kelly's hiatus, is the music business. She's no stranger to making an album on her own, though. She did it with What I Deserve ('99), arguably her best record. "It was really liberating to make What I Deserve on my own, to completely make a record then go find a home for it where I knew the people wanted what they were getting . . . no surprises, no letdowns, they either loved the record and wanted to work it or they didn’t." Like many others, Kelly and Bruce are questioning the record company paradigm. "We haven’t even looked into seeing if there’s a label to make a record with. I believe that there probably is someplace if we wanted to go that route, but the way to work a record has completely changed. What is heartbreaking is to throw all your blood, sweat and tears into something and then give it to somebody and then have that be the end of the story . . . you’ve gotten nothing in return for it. This route, we get to make the record, we get to keep it, even though the way records get made, there’s still not a whole lot of length to how the long the record is relevant, you know. But at the end of the day it’s ours, we didn’t give it away."
To be clear, it's not about the money for Kelly and Bruce. "For us, to make a little money off of a record would be a big deal. It’s never happened, really. We’re just loving making music together. We’re not concerned about becoming some big star by making a record. We just want to make this record, go play it for people. The joy of making music is our motivation. We’re not really concerned with a lot of the things that record companies are concerned with."
At that point I figured we'd done enough shop talk, allowing me to get to one of my main reasons for setting the interview in the first place. Would she sing me a few bars of Heaven's Just A Sin Away over the phone? No, as good as that sounds (as I type this I'm wondering why I didn't make the request), my true ulterior motive for this interview was to talk Star Trek with another Trekkie. Kelly's been a Star Trek fan a long time. When she was in high school, she and Mas Palermo (her boyfriend who later became her first husband) recorded the original series episodes on VHS. At one point she had them all, and has "watched them too many times." Me too. So, what about the J.J. Abrams take on the Star Trek franchise? What about his tinkering with the timeline? "There’s so many ways to poke holes in that but I loved the most recent movie. I almost cried! I felt like he’d redeemed us in some way or made it relevant and fresh and fun and exciting again. You know, I really did love what he did with that, bringing those characters back. You just missed those people. And even though I loved the little spinoffs and I really loved The Next Generation, you know you just miss Kirk and you miss Spock and all those characters. I was just thrilled and not willing to criticize because I thought that was so brilliant the way he brought them back."
I knew about Kelly's addiction to Star Trek because I follow her on Twitter. Unlike a lot of musicians with Twitter accounts, she doesn't just post information about gigs or do any real self-promotion. Instead, most of her tweets are observational humor, focused on her life with Bruce and the kids. Here's a piece I wrote a while back on her Twitter activity. I wrote that piece without talking to her, so I wanted to get her take on this medium that she does so well. "I’ve just loved Twitter as a little creative outlet. It’s a great little place for people who are socially awkward to participate in some social exchange that doesn’t have any of the actual awkward social stuff happening. You don’t have to worry about that being in front of someone stuff. So I love it because I’ve always been really awkward in person. It’s just the perfect outlet for me."
Another subject that I wanted to cover with Kelly was her take on sister-in-law Robyn Ludwick's new record, Out Of These Blues. If you've read my stuff, you know that I think this is one of the best records of the past year. Kelly agrees. "[The record is] fabulous. Robyn is really amazing. What amazes me about Robyn is she didn’t really begin making music until just a few years ago. She just comes out of the box so great and she’s getting better. Really what I found so exciting, as great as the last record was, I felt like on this one her vocals got better, her songwriting got stronger, there was a real visible jump. And I didn’t even think there was a jump to be made. So, she’s just fabulous, I love her. Lunchmeat (her husband, John) played bass with me for years and years and years . . . I’m just real happy and excited for them."
As we closed out the interview, we talked about listening to new music. She credits Chuck Prophet with teaching her that an artist has to be listening to new stuff all the time, but admits that with her schedule, it's been hard to do over the last few years. Which leads her to share a New Year's resolution. "Bruce’s New Year’s resolution is to listen to new music and to stop listening to so much old music. So we’re driving up and have the SiriusXM and we’re trying to find to find the new music. And we’re just trying hard to keep the song on, to keep from changing it. Because it’s hard to find the new stuff and then it’s hard to give it a chance. But we’re both going to do that this year, find some new stuff, listen to what’s going on out there, give it a chance to be good."
I'm guessing that the new stuff from Kelly and Bruce will be good, too. I'll definitely give it a chance.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. Kelly Willis is on Twitter @KellyWRobison.