Kelly Willis – Nothing to fear
Kelly Willis is out of control. And she loves it that way.
“Life is really easy when you just let things go out of control,” she says. “You have to lose control to have control. That’s sort of a theme of my life right now.”
Right on cue, her 15-month-old son, Deral, cries out for her, taking short-legged strides across the yard toward us before his father, and Willis’ husband, Bruce Robison, scoops him up and lifts him into the air. Deral reaches out for Willis once more, then is pacified by the artificial plane ride his father is taking him on.
Willis laughs quietly, nodding to Robison as he packs the baby across the yard, calling out, “Bath time!”
We are in the back yard of the home that Robison and Willis share in Austin. Willis says she’d love to show off the house, but “it’ll be easier for the baby if we stay out here.” Across from us is Robison’s recording studio, affectionately known as the Boar’s Nest, where a jam session is shaping up. It is a perfect Texas evening in a perfect back yard, complete with the soothing scent of the mimosa tree spread above us. Moisture from the mimosa drips onto us like sweet raindrops. “This tree sweats,” Willis offers, and eyes the pink blooms. She is luminous.
This is typical, this mention of luminosity. Willis — whose fifth album, Easy, arrives August 20 on Rykodisc — is the kind of person who moves journalists to describe her with lots of flowery adjectives and phrases. Rolling Stone called her “sprightly,” People not only called her “striking” but believed it enough to name her to its annual 50 Most Beautiful list a few years back. Entertainment Weekly said she possessed a voice that was as “clear as moonshine”. Spin described her as “angelic,” “model-waifish,” “flawless,” and finally, “Nashville’s most brilliant mistake.”
But what’s most striking about her is that she’s real. And she’s a study in contrasts.
Bounding across the yard, she is dressed modestly in clam diggers and a tee shirt. Her hair is pulled back with a clip. She looks like any young housewife. But in this simple outfit — which you might very well see on any young housewife — she also looks hopelessly, effortlessly glamorous. She moves quickly: realizing that the sprinklers might come on at any moment, she runs to switch them off, laughing with embarrassment as she strolls back; “Soaking the interviewer,” she says, “would not be good.”
Still, she claims to be slow at most things — reading, writing songs, learning the ropes of the music industry. She’s considered a rebel who famously told Nashville to kiss off via song, but she’s still in touch with the establishment enough to sing on the latest Mark Collie project (produced by Tony Brown, the man who brought her to MCA for three albums in the 1990s).
She is impeccably polite, asking “Would you like a drink?” with an upward curve of the last word, as if chiding herself for not having asked sooner. Still, she is blunt and honest and doesn’t mince words. She has been a restless spirit who loves to travel, but always longed for a place to call home.
The baby’s voice carries to us from inside the house, and she eyes the back door. There is a pause while we wait to see if Robison will come back out with Deral, but when he doesn’t, she continues.
“Having the baby changed everything for me,” she says. “It made every single thing in life better. It’s made me have more of a purpose in life. I want to be a good role model for him. And I want to make life good for him. He takes so much anxiety away from me; he gave me direction — which has always been a problem for me.”
Suddenly, it is dark. It gets dark very quickly in Austin, as if a lamp has been snapped off. But Willis keeps on talking. Even in the darkness, her face is bright. Her hands move before her, animating her words.
“And the best part is, having him made me completely fearless,” she says, in a manner of certainty. She does not sound like a woman whose child has reduced her to one of those sappy mothers who talk about all the incredible joys of parenthood. On the contrary, she seems to be a deep thinker who has come to some greater truths through the process of raising a child. “Anything I was afraid of before, I just dive right into them now. I go out and do it, because now I’m able to think, ‘I’m doing this for my son.’ And it has given me roots, at last.”
As darkness grows thicker, as night sounds begin to drift up from the street and the mimosa’s scent is made more potent by the coolness moving over the town, Willis will talk a lot about purpose, about roots, and about losing control only to gain it.
Willis was born into a life that actually was never in control, since her father’s military job took them all over the country. Originally from Lawton, Oklahoma, which she always considered her “family’s home base,” she grew up mostly in North Carolina and Virginia. Her father, the late Deral Willis, was in the Army; her mother, Julia Oldfield, was a nurse who often acted and sang in musicals. “You know, Broadway-type things,” Willis says. “She would drag me to these musicals she worked on.” She had sung in quartets during the 1950s, but “she had her first baby at 19, so she never pursued it much,” Willis recalls. “I was her last child, and only after I got older did she start to do it more.”
Willis’ father was also a good singer, but “he was — you know — an Army guy, so he didn’t do it much.” Her mother left when she was nine years old, causing Willis to “grow up instantly,” and Willis stayed with her father by way of a mutual agreement. She feels a connection not only to Oklahoma, where both sets of her grandparents lived, but also to North Carolina, where she spent seven years and went to elementary school, and Virginia, where she lived another seven years and went to high school.
She says she had never “actually sung in front of people” until she was a senior in high school. Her career began the day she went to the beach, stepped into a recording booth and belted out Elvis’ “Teddy Bear”. Her then-boyfriend, Mas Palermo, used the “demo” to convince his rockabilly band to take her on as its lead singer. She says she learned to sing by listening to a Patsy Cline/NRBQ tape that stayed in Palermo’s tape deck.
After a run in the D.C. area as Kelly & the Fireballs, the band decided to move to the thriving music scene in Austin, prompted by their idol Evan Johns’ move to the same city. Willis had a dream, and nothing was going to stop her now, even though her father tried. She had recently been accepted to Virginia Tech, and he didn’t want to let go of his little girl.
“He did not want me to go,” Willis says, with a bit of sadness still evident in her voice. “I think that was one of the few times he called my mother for advice. He just didn’t know what to do, and they both knew if they tried to keep me from going to Austin, they’d lose me completely. So he agreed to it, under the condition that I would go to college and wouldn’t live with the band.” Willis’ father paid her tuition to Austin Community College and rented her an apartment.
Johns, a semi-legendary roots/rockabilly guitarist with the LeRoi Brothers and other bands, helped the group get a few gigs. Only six months after they moved to Texas, the Fireballs broke up, but a new band formed under the name of Radio Ranch. As fate would have it, Nanci Griffith heard them play, and liked them enough to alert Tony Brown, her producer at MCA at the time. Brown, fresh off successful projects with maverick country artists such as Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, signed Willis in 1989, when she was only 20.
The rest of the story has been well-documented and is now the stuff of how-Nashville-can-do-it-wrong legend. Backed by a huge promotional push from MCA, Willis was one of the first country stars to be featured in such magazines as Vogue and Mademoiselle. In 1992, actor/director Tim Robbins cast her in his political satire, Bob Roberts, which Willis says was the perfect role for her because all she had to do was “sing and say a couple lines.” Her music was also featured in the huge hit film Thelma And Louise. The future looked bright.
But things didn’t work out as planned. Willis wanted to record “a Lone Justice record” and Brown wanted country-radio hits. From 1990-94, MCA released three albums. The critics adored them and they sold respectably, but the records received very little airplay. A video for “Baby Take A Piece Of My Heart”, her highest-charting single, shows Willis dancing around in tight clothes and looking completely uncomfortable. Her fans were more accustomed to seeing her in peasant dresses and little makeup. The albums had garnered her a reasonable following, buy did not sell enough to pay back the money that had been spent on her. Although her third album, produced by Don Was, showed maturity and suggested the kind of artist she wanted to be, MCA dropped her.
In the years that followed, she began to gain more control in her life. She and Palermo divorced and she briefly worked with A&M. That union produced an EP, Fading Fast (the title track was featured in the Winona Ryder film Boys), that hooked her up with members of Son Volt, the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower. Jay Farrar, then heading up Son Volt, became part of the renewal process Willis was going through. When Willis recorded a Townes Van Zandt song with him on the Red Hot & Bothered compilation, she realized it was a turning point in her career.
“When I did ‘Rex’s Blues’ with Jay, I listened to it, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,'” she recalls. “That song made it easy for me to communicate to the record companies and other people what I wanted to do with my music. Before, I was trying to do something like that, but I could never get it to translate correctly. Suddenly, I had this song that I could play for people, to show them what I wanted to do. And that completely changed the way the world perceived me.”
Her life changed most notably when she married Bruce Robison in 1996. Six years later, they look at one another like newlyweds. Robison is a tall and incredibly likable fellow, smiling widely as he stands by his wife. If alt-country had a prom, Willis and Robison might well be its king and queen. Robison’s music has garnered a rabid following of its own, and he is one of country music’s most respected songwriters. (He earned his first #1 single last year with Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s duet on “Angry All The Time”, originally recorded by Robison and Willis on his self-titled 1996 debut disc on Vireo Records.)
Willis says Robison “has been a huge inspiration to me. He’s taught me so much. About everything.” Their early years were “tumultuous,” Willis says — most visibly, there was a rumored affair between Willis and Lyle Lovett that was plastered across the supermarket tabloids — but their relationship survived in the long haul.
As her personal life became more grounded, her musical career followed suit. She recorded her fourth album independently, free from the concerns and demands of a label, and subsequently sold it to Rykodisc, which released What I Deserve in 1999. The record not only satisfied her artistic desires, but was a solid commercial success; to date, it has sold more than 120,000 copies, twice as many as any of her MCA albums.
The media quickly picked up on the album’s defiant title and ran with the slant that this was Willis’ rebuttal to a Nashville that had turned its back on her. Although Willis admits she was confused and hurt by the way things were handled at MCA, she claims she was never bitter.
“With What I Deserve, I only wanted to prove myself,” she says. “I still get along just fine with Nashville, but I’m very proud of what I’m doing now.” Instead of resenting her time on MCA, she looks at it as a gift. “It was an amazing thing, to observe the way people work in Nashville, in the studio,” she says. “They gave me a career, a name, and I’m thankful for that. I now have a very positive feeling about all of that.”
She’s not sure whether the album’s title was an intentional slap in the face to the industry players. “I might have done that subconsciously,” she says, after a long, thoughtful pause. “That title track started out as a love song. I delved into it and it became a much broader topic. The only part of that song that I wrote directly about my career is the bridge: ‘I’ve done the best I can/But what I’ve done is not who I am.’ It was a very, very personal song to me. The song is really about soul searching, but it can also speak to that big Nashville machinery, sure.”
Willis doesn’t have to worry about Nashville now. She’s perfectly happy making her music in Austin, which she is proud to call her adopted hometown. “The success of What I Deserve made me realize I might know what I’m doing. I do feel more confident these days,” she says.
She then frets her brow and reconsiders. “On the other hand, I don’t want to get too confident. I think it’s better to strike a balance between being confident and still valuing other people’s opinions. What I really did right was surround myself with good people. I chose a good team of people whom I could trust. The secret for me was to think ‘I’m just doing what I like’ and to do it the way I thought best. The way I operate is to think this might be my last record ever. That way, I put my all into it.”
Easy, her fifth album, is her tightest, most mature record to date. A great deal of the record has to do with the blessing of losing control, and how easy that makes it to gain control.
“This album is more acoustic. I don’t know if organic is the right word, but that’s how it feels, more organic,” she says, taking her time about answering, s she still doesn’t know quite how to describe Easy. “I know that it’s more mature. I’m 33 now. So the record is more laid back. It’s cozy.”
It’s also a record that she’s been actively thinking about since What I Deserve was released, according to her manager, Joe Priesnitz. “Two years ago [Rykodisc] asked her what she envisioned for her next release, and without missing a beat, she said she was thinking about making a record in a simple acoustic style leaning toward bluegrass and real country,” Priesnitz says. “It was a bit of a shock then. But talk about vision…look what style is the talk of the music business today.”
True to Willis’ vision, Easy is a stripped-down, acoustic record that slides toward bluegrass and traditional country while hanging onto its folk, rock and blues inspirations. It was recorded over two weeks in December in the Austin studio of Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson, and mixed over two January weeks in Nashville.
“It was different because I had the baby at home, and it was Christmastime,” she says. “I felt like I was doing 100 different things at once, but it was a very positive experience.”
The title track, “Easy (As Falling Apart)”, is Willis’ declaration of giving up control. In a beautifully arranged slow groove, Willis sings: “I want the sun to shine on me/To shine on me/And set me free/How could I know/Oh, how could I know/That it’d be easy…easy as falling apart.”
Willis is an artist who makes an album in the purest definition of the word: Each song is related, like a beautiful collection of linked short stories. The theme continues in most of the album’s songs, most notably the uptempo self-realization of “If I Left You”, the Robison-penned “What Did You Think”, and “Not What I Had In Mind”, a beautiful ode to indecision.
The closing track is called “Reason To Believe”, and is one of the best songs she’s ever recorded, speaking to the album’s double theme of redemption and losing control. In this case, it’s redemption by way of a child.
“I feel amazed that I was able to capture how it felt to have this baby in my life,” she says of the song. “I wanted it to be subtle, so that it could play as a love song as much as a lullaby, but most of all I wanted that to be a song for my son. I wanted to give that to him, for him to have that song when he’s a man. You know, he gave me a freedom that I’ve never experienced before, so that song is all for him.”
Even without hearing her thoughts on this, all of the above is presented to the listener not only in the lyrics, but also in Willis’ quiet, hypnotic delivery: “Suddenly it’s clear/There’s not a thing I should fear.”
Willis wrote or co-wrote six of the record’s ten tracks, and does a rousing cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim” — a song she has wanted to record for years, “but I knew I didn’t have the vocal maturity to do it,” she says.
Willis was surprised to learn that MacColl, who died in a boating accident in Mexico two years ago, was often even more paralyzed by stage fright than Willis has been in the past. “I was drawn to her music because she was so strong and confident, playing all those instruments,” Willis says. “When Kirsty died, it was a renewed inspiration to record that song. And I had been biding my time until I thought I was mature enough to do it.”
One thing she wanted for the album was a feeling of strength, so she not only recorded the MacColl cut, but also “Find Another Fool”, written and originally recorded by fellow Austinite Marcia Ball. The song portrays a woman who is grieving the loss of her man but is simultaneously glad to be rid of him. It’s the most traditionally country track on the record.
“I have covered that song forever while playing shows, and finally got it on an album,” she says. “I love how empowering it is. I’ve always been so annoyingly meek, so I was looking for music that made me feel stronger.”
“You Can’t Take It With You” is a bluegrass-driven cover written by Australian rocker Paul Kelly. Willis says Kelly is one of the very few songwriters who inevitably come to mind when she needs outside material. “Ever since I used ‘Hidden Things’ on Bang Bang, I’ve looked to him for new songs to record,” she says. She also covered Kelly’s “Cradle Of Love” on What I Deserve.
Willis also included a song she’d had in her head for a long time, but could never get right. “I had the melody and title lyric for ‘Not What I Had In Mind’ for awhile,” she explains, “but I never could get the lyrics to come. Bruce and I used to go for long drives and try to think of the words to match the melody, but we never could force it out. Finally, I was alone in a hotel room and it just came to me out of nowhere. That song just wrote itself; it all just fell into place.”
The musings of a woman who is most certain of loving her man once he is gone, Willis says the song comes from personal experience. “Bruce and I have been there many times. Before we got married, we used to break up every other month, only to realize how much we cared for each other,” she says with a little laugh. “Yeah, I’ve experienced that song for sure.”
On Easy, Willis is backed by a stellar cast of players, including keyboardist Ian McLagan, guitarists Chuck Prophet and Mark Spencer, and drummer Rafael Gayol. Background vocals were contributed by a startling cast of high-profile country and bluegrass artists, including Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Chris Thile. Co-producer Gary Paczosa had worked with many of the singers, and asked them to participate.
“I would have never had the nerve to approach them,” Willis says. “I was thrilled to work with them. I shy away from using the big stars because I want it to be all about the songs, all about the music, and not about the images that go along. But with these guests, it just made the songs stronger because they were all so talented.”
Willis produced the record with Paczosa, who has engineered and worked behind the scenes on albums by such artists as Krauss, Dolly Parton and Patty Griffin. Former Rough Trade Records chief Geoff Travis reprised his role as executive producer (he had done the same on What I Deserve).
“I love it that Geoff just says ‘Go with your instincts,'” Willis says. “And Gary and I only talked a couple of minutes about the record before deciding to do it together. He hadn’t had many producing experiences and I had never produced a record at all, so we learned together. Gary is such a kind man. He made me feel very safe about the record.”
The feeling is mutual. “Kelly is such a joy to work with,” Paczosa says. “This go-round she really seems to have found her voice and vision. Her unassuming style, honest approach and easy nature really kept the energy level nice and steady. She’s one of those singers that while you’re hanging with her, you forget what a talent she is, then she goes to the mike and knocks you out, every time.”
It’s also easy to forget that talent while Willis sits in her own back yard, cloaked in darkness. She chatters on as if we are old friends, her voice quiet and soothing, not giving a hint of its ability to belt out in song. Even when she speaks passionately on a subject, her words are carefully chosen and her tone is subdued.
She stretches her legs straight out from her wrought-iron chair and looks up into the branches of the mimosa, listening as I quote from a journalist who calls her a “perfectionist.” She laughs, bringing her feet back down to the ground quickly. “I am definitely not that. I hate to rehearse. I hate to practice — not exactly traits of a perfectionist. After a show, I won’t even be aware of what went wrong.”
She pauses for a long moment, her face golden in the light from the long, rectangular windows of her house. “I do want to be prepared for anything that can happen, though. I’m not very good at winging it.”
Willis says she wrote most of the songs for Easy while on the road and hasn’t been writing anything lately. “I write best under pressure,” she says. “Sometimes around the house, I’ll catch a melody or a phrase. But as far as songs, I only write those on the road. Like in a motel room, where I have absolutely no distractions.”
Willis won’t be spending too much time in motel rooms with the release of Easy. She is planning a short tour, most likely only going out on three 10-or-12-day runs. “Because of the baby,” she says, looking sad at the mere thought of leaving home. “I’ve only been away from him for four days and that just about broke my heart.”
It is past the baby’s bedtime now, and Willis is anxious to get inside and see if he has fallen asleep. Still, she takes the time to walk me out front. When she sees that my taxi still hasn’t arrived, she peeks in the front door to see what Deral is up to, and snaps on the porch light.
The scent of the mimosa has followed us out front. Either that or the smell has settled on our clothes. Willis crosses her arms against the fragrant night air and stands on the front stoop. A baby carriage is parked haphazardly in front of her on the sidewalk, and daylilies — neatly planted on either side of the steps — glow in the faint moonlight. “I can’t let you wait out here alone,” she says.
Robison appears at the door again, all smiles. “You want me to order a pizza?” he asks.
“Yeah, we should have ordered it before so I could have done the interview in my true form…with pizza sauce all over my face,” she says.
The taxi driver’s son is with him when he arrives, clad in a perpetual grin and a Willie Nelson T-shirt that makes him look like a member of the Austin Welcome Wagon. He leans against the window and squints at the gray shadows of the stoop as Willis and Robison stand there, waving goodbye. “Aw, man. Is that Kelly Willis?” he says. “I heard her down at the Continental one night, and she was just awesome. She’s got it all together.”
Silas House is currently looking for a mimosa tree to plant in his own back yard. House’s second novel, A Parchment of Leaves, will be published by Algonquin Books in October 2002.