Music

Kelly Willis Returns to Old School of Thought to Teach Herself a Lesson on 'Back Being Blue'

Photo courtesy of artist

In an in-depth interview, Austin singer-songwriter Kelly Willis discusses 30 years filled with ups and downs and her decision to make a throwback record — her first solo album since 2007 — that surely will stand the test of time.

Back Being Blue
Kelly Willis

PREMIUM

18 May 2018

Eleven years since making her last solo record, Kelly Willis has decided to go back in time. That's back as in throwback, not comeback.

Because while the May 18 release of Back Being Blue puts her own career at center stage again, the lovely Austin singer-songwriter with the honey-soaked voice has found other ways to stay relevant on the music scene. Meanwhile, the Texas capital that was "a really lazy little town" when she arrived as a teen with a dream has transformed into a crazy-cool major metropolis where artists experience everyday ups and downs like thrill-seeking roller-coaster riders.

Searching for universal truth as a songwriter, Willis discovered it while writing the title track for Back Being Blue around the time when Our Year, her 2014 record with husband Bruce Robison, was released.

"That one, for me, after I wrote it, lightbulbs went off," Willis said during a phone interview from Austin in late April. "I knew I needed it to be a little more of a simplistic approach to some sounds that had really inspired me to make music when I first started making music. So I was really, really devoted to '50s and '60s sounds, country and rockabilly. And so that was kind of what got me, I got excited all of a sudden."

What Willis called "the heart and soul of this record for me," became the focus and centerpiece of an album, too, especially after she let Robison grab her "Flower on the Vine" for his Next Waltz project. So it was "a no-brainer" when naming her first solo full length since 2007's Translated from Love.

"Back being blue, back singing country music, back making another record, that was a little bit in there, too, for me to call it that, 'cause I just haven't done a solo record in so long," she said.

So take a trip back in the time machine to the old school with the soft-spoken Willis, starting with the most recent events. Then go back, back, back to the humble beginnings of a sweet Oklahoma-born beauty with Big Country aspirations and a demeanor so painfully shy that she let her music — and steady boyfriend — do most of the talking. Until it was time to sing.

Kelly Willis releases Back Being Blue, her first solo record since 2007, on May 18. Photo courtesy of the artist

On the record

The first time I had the pleasure of speaking with Willis was in 2014 (also in late April), when she and Robison took part in an enjoyable phone interview ahead of the release of Our Year, their most recent recording collaboration.

They good-naturedly chided each other about their inability to write songs together and who's in charge when preparing the set list or running the show onstage.

"Her vocals, in a good way — I hate to use this word — will dominate things," Robison said in 2014. "As a fan, I think she's a true stylist among doing other things. But that voice, it speaks through in a way that mine doesn't. And so, you know, that's a great thing when that's what you're looking for."

"It's kind of a fun competition," Willis said then. "We kind of keep each other on our toes. We don't want the other one to overshadow us or outshine us. You know, that's no fun. So we both are always trying to improve and be better and be ready."

Even before that interview, Willis was determined to put out a solo record in 2015, but raising four kids and Robison's scary medical emergency in May 2017 made any thoughts of music-making seem completely insignificant. After Robison was hospitalized with typhus, doctors "miraculously" figured it out and "got him back to speed again," Willis reported with a sigh of relief. "His health is completely back to normal."

She had written at least six songs for her next solo project as early as 2014, and some of them ("Freewheeling," "What The Heart Doesn't Know") landed on Back Being Blue.

Having total control of her work and her vision was empowering, and despite a successful musical partnership with her husband and previous power players over the years, Willis said with a laugh, "You kind of want to prove that you can do it without them."

While comfortably coexisting with Robison since before they were married in 1996, then "problem-solving together as parents, as a married couple, on the road together as a band," Willis surmised, "every now and then you think maybe we should take some of our problem-solving out of our relationship (laughs) and just give ourselves a break. So you know, I thought that's what I was gonna do here."

Yet when it came time for Willis to launch the project with a pre-production session in the fall, she hoped it "would end up being good enough to be the record. And it wasn't, and it was kind of surprising to me."

So the best choice to produce her next album was sitting in the same house, and "nobody cares more about what I do than him," Willis pointed out. "I probably don't have a bigger fan on the planet than him." He also has an analog studio called the Bunker in Lockhart, just 40 miles south of Austin.

"It was a good turning point for me because I was talking to Bruce about what didn't work," Willis said. "And he was responding to all the things I was saying and really getting what it was I was wanting to do and saying all the right things back to me and helping me find the sound, and I just thought, 'You know, I think Bruce and I can do this together.'"

The old-school vibe with classic sounds and reverb, along with a reference to "Cassius Clay" on a 1960s cover, produced the desired effect of a group recording in the same room together, sending the listener to a simpler time and place.

Back Being Blue took about a week in December to record and included appearances by some favorite players from her past, too, such as fabulous fiddler Eleanor Whitmore (the Mastersons), who toured and/or recorded with Willis and Robison back in the day.

Knowing Whitmore's busy schedule in her own duo with husband Chris Masterson, Willis found a window of opportunity when she was available, and said having her contribute fiddle, strings, and mandolin on the album and sing harmony vocals on cuts such as "Freewheeling" helped "set the wheels in motion," to make this project work. "A momentous occasion," she added.

Mark Spencer (guitars) can be heard on Willis' landmark 1999 album What I Deserve and 2002's Easy, while Geoff Queen (guitars, pedal and lap steel), John Michael Schoepf (bass) and Joshua Blue (drums, percussion) are in her "tight little rocking combo" that's headed on a U.S. tour (kicking off with two album release shows on May 19 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck in Houston), then seven July dates in the United Kingdom.

"It's always scary but I've had a couple of shows where we got to do all the new songs, and it's a lot of new songs," Willis said the day after an April 25 trial run in Fort Worth. "So, you know, my brain, I have to find space for more lyrics in there. (laughs) But it's coming together."

It will be her first major tour as a solo act since 2016, when she celebrated the silver anniversary of the 1990 release of Well Travelled Love, her first record for MCA that she arranged to have re-released for this special occasion. The band called Radio Ranch — David Murray (lead guitar), Mike Hardwick (steel), Brad Fordham (bass) and her ex-husband Mas Palermo (drums) — that played on that album also joined Willis on tour.

Willis' ageless, seemingly effortless voice was on display again, reminding the singer of those days when she belted out songs so hard that those polished pipes felt like damaged goods.

"I didn't know how to pull back," she said. "And so necessity made me learn how to, just to save my voice out on the road, to sing softer. Which I think made me a better singer. I mean, I can't even hardly stand to listen to my first record or two. (laughs) It really makes me cringe but I'm OK with it now.

"I think I sing differently now than I did then. … I think I used to do songs that weren't suited to my voice and then to re-create them live was really strenuous and I don't do that anymore. … So hopefully that's helped me."

Keeping Austin Weird

A rockabilly fan's appreciation of Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Marshall Crenshaw and memories of when she "first fell in love with music" led Willis to bring some hard Rockpile and Texas twang to Back Being Blue on cuts like "Only You" ("my favorite song on this record in terms of performing it and singing it") and the Skeeter Davis cover "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)".

So it's understandable that the restless teenage daughter of a military man gave up college after a semester at George Mason University in northern Virginia to move deep in the heart of Texas with Palermo, her boyfriend/then husband from 1989-91, and their band in 1987. She was only 19.

Thirty-one years later, Willis has never considered leaving Austin, despite all of its changes.

"It was the perfect place to be a musician and kind of be able to work on your music and so many venues to play and lots of people that were really into music that just went out all the time," said Willis, whose early appearance at South By Southwest led to a show at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, where Tony Brown signed her on the spot to MCA. "But it was really manageable, you know. You could find your little place in this world here. There was a place for everybody. And then it exploded. For a little while, you'd feel like you'd get lost in the shuffle."

That disoriented feeling intensified as Willis became a mother and focused more on her family than her career. As her children grew older — Deral is 17 followed by 15-year-old twins Abigail and Benjamin, then sixth-grader Joseph, 12 — Willis said, "I was able to go out, and I swear to you, I felt like Rip Van Winkle down there on Congress [Avenue]. Like, 'What is this? It's like an amusement park down here.' It used to just be the Continental Club. Anyway, it was weird. I'm OK with it now. You can't stop growth and change so … I still have a lot of fun here and there are still secrets to be discovered around this town."

No discoveries were shared, though Willis did add that the slogan, "Keep Austin Weird", basically "became a celebratory term about, you know, just loving our weird little town. And, I don't know. It's still weird. It's just a different weird."

Not Exactly a Nashville Smash

Yet Nashville didn't make Willis' wish list of places to live.

"I would be up there enough [recording] and I was really young and really terrified by the whole machinery and everything that I only felt secure in Austin," Willis said. "I felt like Austin kept my feet on the ground and helped me know what I wanted and what I liked because it was kind of dizzying to be in Nashville.

"There was so much pressure to try to do something that would sell records. Try to make the music appeal to more people. Try to tweak it and change it and I wasn't opposed to trying to make the music the best it could be and better but sometimes I'd get confused by it. And I really felt like Austin helped me to remember and see what it was that I liked and kind of stay true to my vision, you know. So I never wanted to leave Austin. I really needed it."

In the early '90s, Willis might have even been considered the "It Girl" of Nashville. She landed in People magazine (one of its "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1994) and fashion industry staples such as Vogue, while the Music City looked for its next conventional sensation before the reality competition shows like American Idol began finding them. Seeking edgier, alternative formats, Willis has said she never felt comfortable in that role and wouldn't even consider herself a trailblazer for pop-country artists such as Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Sara Evans.

"I do remember that there weren't any young women or girls making music at the time," Willis said. "It was weird, it was a rarity. … And then, of course, Faith Hill came in and other people came in and really blew that whole thing all wide open. … I would never think that I actually forged some path for anybody or anything. (laughs) … I just did some crazy path through there that I don't know if anybody would want to follow."

Though she thought those early MCA days were fun, she was dropped by the label by the age of 25, making her feel like a failure.

"I wasn't delivering for my record company," Willis said. "You know, they were investing in me and it wasn't succeeding on their terms. So the most gratifying thing for me was I went off and made What I Deserve and found my … found this force of will to just do the record I needed to do to sort of say, 'This is who I am and this is what I've been trying to do.'"

While writing songs for her new solo record, Kelly Willis was searching for universal truth.Photo courtesy of the artist

From Red Hot to True Blue

To propel that into motion, though, required getting Red, Hot + Bothered. Not necessarily emotionally, but in a collaborative sense, with a firm push that led to her next lucky break and a move out of mainstream country. Son Volt's Jay Farrar asked Willis to sing a duet with him on Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues" for the 1995 compilation album.

"It was this amazing gift because I felt like it made people who were into his music and that world of music, you know, maybe look at me again," Willis said. "So that was a really cool thing for him to do and a great experience for me."

Eventually, Willis was signed by Teresa Ensenat of A&M Records, which laid the groundwork for What I Deserve, which was released by Rykodisc.

Now that she's officially back with Back Being Blue, her seventh solo album, Willis can truthfully reflect on her slow-burn turn with fondness, feistiness and a wry sense of humor. Quickly dismissing a possible career in education after struggling to audit one class in college ("I was too used to being my own boss"), she always knew there was nothing else she would rather do than make music, even those three early MCA records.

"I'm proud of those records," she said. "I still do songs off those records at my shows. I'm stunned that I was able to do that stuff at that age, considering how I was really, really shy. I really had a lot of social anxiety. My husband back in those days was the mouthpiece (laughs), so I had to learn to speak for myself. So it's stunning to me that it even happened, but it did. I'm glad it did."

While joining this joy ride, discerning music lovers should be ecstatic, too, and ready to welcome Willis back to business with open arms.

Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas

Hear "Back Being Blue," the title track from Kelly Willis' new album.

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