Kelly Willis – Redemption Road
It gets to the heart of the matter when we’re discussing a couple of cover songs, sitting in the living room of the North Austin home Kelly Willis shares with her husband, fellow musician Bruce Robison, on the first day of winter.
We’re briefly interrupted at one point by cat meowing at the door: “Oh, there’s my stray kitty!” Willis chimes, presently explaining a feline situation that has gotten a little out of hand: “Well, there are four that are really mine, and then I have three strays that are really mine too, but I didn’t intend them to be mine,” she says with a sheepish smile.
But back to the music. The songs in question are Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”, which Willis recorded as a duet with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on the 1995 compilation Red, Hot & Bothered; and Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me”, which appears on her new Rykodisc album What I Deserve.
Having been through five years and three albums of mistaken-artistic-identity syndrome at MCA Records, followed by a two-year stint with A&M that produced a revelatory EP but ended on similarly uncommon ground, Willis desperately needed to make her musical intentions clear. Those two songs went a long way toward helping her convey what she wanted to be: Not quite country, perhaps, but not quite rock, pop or folk, either — yet full of a spirit as resoundingly enchanting as it is impossible to define.
“That recording of ‘Rex’s Blues’ — I was so happy about it,” she says. “It sounded so beautiful. And I thought, ‘Oh, I have this thing now that I can play for people — it was like with ‘Time Has Told Me’. Together, those two tracks were like, I could say: ‘This is what I’m trying to sound like; this is the kind of loose, warm feel that I keep talking about, that I want.'”
The idea, ostensibly, was to be able to show record labels who were interested in signing her precisely what she had in mind, so as to avoid the kinds of situations she’d ended up in before. Ultimately, however, Willis realized an even better solution was to take it beyond just a couple songs, and record an entire album her own way, before controlling parties had the opportunity to determine its direction.
“I talked to a lot of different labels in that time period [after her A&M deal],” she explains, “and they all had this initial interest, but they wanted to know what I was gonna do. And they didn’t quite understand, or didn’t think they could do anything with what they thought I wanted to do. And so I thought, ‘Well, I just need to make the record and find somebody who likes the record.’
“So that’s what I did — so that there would be no misunderstandings or quarrels about how or what kind of music I should be doing. You know, ‘This is the music I did; if you like it, you can put it out.’ And Rykodisc loved it exactly the way it was, and that’s the record they’re releasing.”
The record Willis made actually turned out to be somewhat of a hybrid between two projects. She began in San Francisco with producer Norman Kerner and a band that included guitarists Mark Spencer (ex-Blood Oranges) and Chuck Prophet (ex-Green On Red), and bassist Michael Been (ex-Call). After former Rough Trade Records boss Geoff Travis stepped in to offer financial assistance, Willis opted to record additional tracks in Austin with producer Dave McNair and several local musicians, including Amy Farris on fiddle, Jon Dee Graham on guitar, Rafael Gayol on drums and Lloyd Maines on steel guitar.
The finished product is a noticeable departure from Willis’ three MCA albums, though it follows the direction her four-song A&M EP, Fading Fast, had plotted. Whereas MCA was basically trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by marketing Willis as a shiny new starlet in mainstream country (something MCA is most accustomed to doing), A&M allowed her to work outside the box.
That was largely the result of A&R rep Teresa Ensenat, who signed Willis to A&M and subsequently hooked her up with Son Volt, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and Sixteen Horsepower (all of whom appeared on Fading Fast) in an attempt to broaden her horizons beyond the boundaries her previous albums had established. Willis co-wrote three of the EP’s four songs (one each with Louris, Sixteen Horsepower and John Leventhal), the fourth coming from her husband, Bruce Robison.
Fading Fast was a limited success — it earned Best EP honors at the 1997 Austin Music Awards, and to date remains the all-time best-selling record for mail-order company Miles of Music — but the key word there is “limited,” as it was never officially issued beyond the borders of Texas. Furthermore, a few months after its release, Ensenat parted company with A&M, which inevitably led to Willis’ departure from the label shortly thereafter.
“On one hand it was disappointing, because I wanted to have a record out,” Willis says. “But on the other hand, I felt that I was doing the right thing. I knew that the EP was my favorite thing that I had recorded so far in my career, and after Teresa left, I would have been working with David Anderle. And David Anderle didn’t really like the EP — well, he liked it, but he didn’t want me to be doing that. So, I think it was good that I didn’t get in another one of those situations where we were struggling over what I should be doing.
“It’s scary in a record company because the big major-label ones, they’re always wanting to try and figure out how to package you and market you and sell you. And I understand their need to do that, and I want to help as much as I can, but I’m not comfortable with trying to change who I really am and my image in order to help them sell records.”