By Andrew Dansby
While some artists tag their records with unwieldy faux-philosophical titles, sometimes those that say the least say the most. Easy is Kelly Willis’ fifth long-player, and its handle speaks paragraphs with just four characters.
One angle is to say Easy reflects the current state of the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s life. After a nearly 10-year run during which she was pushed towards next big thingdom in Music City, where image was pumped with as much, if not more, vigor than the music, Willis has earned a comfort zone. Married to fellow singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, she has two great ponds from which to fish for material, and having fully severed ties with Nashville’s labels and settled with square-peg-friendly indie Ryko, she has a medium through which to place her music sans pressure about singles, videos and such. And then there’s the clarity that came with the birth of the couple’s first son, Deral, last year. After years of tiffs over career vision, Willis has found an aspect of life that matters more than making music.
Which isn’t to say her music has suffered. If anything, Willis’ artistry has taken on seasoning like a cast iron skillet. Once given to smoking, sticking and sweltering due to personal and label disputes, her sound has settled into a perfect tool for cooking up her own brand of country music, relying upon her inimitable, honey-tinged voice and love of folk, rock, soul and pop. By no means does it come easy, but sometimes with Willis, it sounds like it does.
It’s, um, easy to read too much into a title, but it seems like the new album is the first to be released without any sort of label pressures or anxieties in some time. So was it easy?
Well, nothing comes real easy to me. I write really slow. I like to take my time making decisions and stuff. It wasn’t purely hard, making the music was fun. But in terms of my organizational skills, it’s a whole other story [laughs]. But mostly I thought that the title would fit the feel of the music. It’s so smooth.
The Kirsty MacColl cover [”Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!”] was a nice tip. Did you know her?
No, I never did meet her or anything like that. I’ve just been a fan for a really long time. Back when I was into rockabilly music and hearing music that I guess was underground, beyond the Top 40, she was one of the people that I discovered, so I’ve always been a fan. It was too strange what happened to her. [MacColl was struck by a speedboat and killed in December 2000 off the coast of Mexico.] You think of those stories, you know that they happen to people, but nobody that you know.
Was that song a particular favorite?
It’s one that’s been on the backburner for me for many years, ever since it came out on that record, Kite. But I didn’t think I could pull off those lyrics back then. I was just too well-known for being really shy and demure. I just didn’t think I could pull it off and that people would believe it when I was singing it. So I was biding my time with it, and now I feel that things have changed and I was ready for it.
You took on production duties this time around. Was that an enjoyable new challenge?
It was nice. On the last record, I was really so protective of it that I think I was hard to work with. I remember Dave McNair would come up with an idea and I would just say, ‘No,’ immediately. Then I would go home and think about it and come back the next day and go, “Ok, we can try that.” I just think with my experience in the past, I let it get out of my control too much, and I’m really protective now. But I just wanted to produce it in name this time. And the only thing that’s different was that at the end of the day, when I would go home, normally I would get to relax, but when you produce you have to call everybody that you need. So you’re still actually working until you go to sleep. And then you dream about working. [laughs] So that was a challenge, but I was up for it.
And there must be a sense of pride that comes with seeing it through to completion.
Yeah, I’m real proud of the growth that I’ve made.
“Reason to Believe” seems to spring from the birth of your child, but is a great love song even if you didn’t know that.
I was hoping it would be perceived that way. It was definitely inspired by my son, but at the same time I was trying to keep in mind that I didn’t want it to alienate anyone. I wanted it to basically be about how love can transform your life, no matter where you find it. And if you find it, it can be an amazing, powerful thing. But he’s definitely changed my life.
So the balance between family and professional goals has shifted?
The family really is my priority. I really want to be a good mother to my son. And that’s the most important thing. When I started the career, that was the most important thing for sure. [Laughs] And I was young enough that I didn’t need to worry about any other concerns. I could devote all of my attention to it guilt free. I guess I was 17 when I started playing music, so I’m ok about slowing down now. I got to do a lot of things I wanted to do playing music. And I still have things that I want to do, but I can do it slower, ‘cause my son really is the thing I’m most excited about right now.
I hope I’m not oversimplifying this, but this album seems to fit nicely with the previous one as sort of phase two of your career. And it seems sparked by the Fading Fast EP. Do you see those four songs as a turning point?
Oh sure, it definitely was. Before Fading Fast, my career was just out of Nashville. And when I got dropped by my label I saw it as my opportunity to get away from that and start over. I thought that I needed to pretend that I had never had a record deal with anyone and I was going to have the freedom to completely redefine who I was and just start over. That’s what my intention was. And Fading Fast was getting my feet wet in the first recording sense. And I love my Nashville stuff, but I just felt I couldn’t record there anymore. I knew I wasn’t going to feel like an artist, or feel that artistic freedom. It upset me that I hadn’t had it in so long. I just needed to make a clean break and try to move forward.
Not that the MCA records were lacking in energy, but the songs really leapt off of that EP.
Yeah, I had a lot of energy back then. [Laughs] These days I’m not getting very much sleep.
And it seemed to have legs. Originally, it was just a promo, right? But demand pulled it into stores?
Yeah, it was intended to be sent to just the triple-A and Americana stations. I was on A&M at the time and their intention was to remind people that I was still around and that I had something in the works. There was a demand for it to be in the stores, I don’t know how much of one, but enough to where they decided to release it in Texas. So it was released in Texas stores, but I think only about 2,000 copies were made. So that’s the history of it. I’m curious about whether I could purchase it back from them. They probably don’t even know they own it or even that it’s there. [Laughs]
You also began collaborating with [the Jayhawks’] Gary Louris. That seemed to open up the songwriting gates.
Yeah, it was a really great time for me. I was writing a lot and writing with a lot of people that I admired. I was working with a woman over at A&M, and she was just such a great collaborator for me. She was not afraid to ask anybody on the planet to write with me. I’ve always been, “I can’t ask them, they don’t know who I am, they’ll never say ‘yes.’” So she’d say, “Well who do you like?” And I’d tell her all the people and she’d just go call them and it’d be set up the next day. Plus it was A&M, so there was money to fly me around to write. I guess I was on there for a year and a half or two years, maybe, the entire time I was there it was just pre-production where they flew me around and I wrote with everybody. And I did demos and I did that Fading Fast stuff, and I never made a record with them, but I got to do all of this pre-production for what would become What I Deserve eventually.
And for someone who’s covered the likes of Paul Westerberg and Marshall Crenshaw, the new album has a decidedly country bent to it. Maybe more so than the last one.
Yeah, I wasn’t sure exactly how it was gonna turn out, but there were two things I was leaning towards. I wanted to do more of an acoustic record, and the other thing was I wanted to do more of a country record. At one point I thought I was gonna do a straight ahead hardcore country record, and I’ve never really done that before. But I ended up leaning towards doing an acoustic record that didn’t have to be such hardcore country, but the material I gathered in the meantime kind of reflected both. It definitely has more of a country slant than the last one did.
And you sound so comfortable these days. How is looking back at the MCA records? The machinery is obviously different, are they difficult to listen to?
I like all the records, I like moments on all of them. And there’s moments on all of ‘em where I go ugh. I just see those years as, I was really young. I was 20 when I made that first record, and I know some 20-year-olds really have it together, but I was just starting out and trying to figure out what I was doing. So I just see those as a learning experience. Each record I grew. The first record was a band record. The second record the band dissolved and I was a solo artist for the first time. Then the third record was me trying to take the reigns and be a solo artist in Nashville that I could live with. That was good and commercial. None of those records made any of them happy and I was starting to feel more unhappy, so it was just a learning experience with someone taking those steps in front of the nation … [laughs] … not that the nation noticed, but some people did.
With a marriage and a label deal at that age, did you find life moving too fast?
I think there is something to that and I think that might be one reason why I work so slow today. It was too fast for me. I mean, I wanted a record deal and everything, and it was exciting that I got one at twenty. But from then on, they wanted a record every year and I wasn’t really capable of that and I felt like I needed more time to create and figure out what to do next. It was a really exciting time and we had a lot of fun, but I think it’s a reason I work so slow now.
Did performing come naturally?
It did not come naturally at all. I was a very shy, nervous performer. And a very shy person in real life too. Bruce says one time — when I was married to Mas [Palermo, her former drummer] — he and his girlfriend at the time came up to us at a club in Houston. And he came over and said, “Hi.” And I think I might have gotten a “Hi” out and we just stood there quiet for ten minutes and they just finally walked away. I didn’t speak well, [laughs], so you can imagine being onstage. But over the years I’ve done everything you could possibly do wrong, and I know that you can survive it. So I’m not so terrified of it anymore.
Was acting worse?
If I ever had to really truly act it would be difficult. The only things I’ve done I’d just sing and maybe have one line or two. It wasn’t so hard … well, it was still a challenge, because I’m just not an actress. But it was an exciting thing to get to do. I haven’t seen it in a long time, I’m actually curious.
Was the MCA split ugly?
It was expected. Everyone knew it was the third record, and if the third record didn’t work, we were gonna end up going our separate ways. But it came earlier than I thought. [Laughs] We had just released a single, and then they dropped me. So I was surprised when it happened. And I was with this company through my cutting the teeth years, twenty to twenty-five, and suddenly, I mean, when you get dropped from a label, you’re nobody anymore. You think that they’re your best friends because you talk to them all the time, and they’re involved in your life, but then the next day, you’re like someone they don’t ever want to have to see again. It was kind of painful, because that year I got nominated for New Female Vocalist at the ACMs and MCA didn’t even put me in their ad for all of the artists that had been nominated. [Laughs]
No! It was like I had been banished. And they didn’t want to have anything to do with me and it was an odd feeling, because I thought they were kind of like family. So that did hurt, but I knew it was time to move on. And I knew that I needed to try and do something else.
Was it daunting, exciting, terrifying?
Yeah, all of those things, But it was also hopeful, because I needed something to kick me in the pants.
Did you have any input in the compilation they put out?
Actually I got to choose the songs. That was kinda nice, I think. But the guy putting it together was disappointed I didn’t pick as many rockers. And I thought, “Oh yeah, I guess I didn’t.” But you know, these days I have my favorites, and they’re not always the rockers.
Was it like having dinner with an ex?
Actually, it felt comfortable. I still perform a lot of those songs in my show, so I think I tended to pick the ones I still perform, because I still like ‘em. I didn’t want to put “Baby Take a Piece of My Heart” on there, but they insisted because it was the best single I had. But that song has always made me cringe, even though I wrote it. It’s just … the video we did for it, it represented a difficult time for me. Because I was feeling a lot of pressure to be a really beautiful starlet, and I was also feeling like, “I don’t wanna be a beautiful starlet. I want to try to make music that turns people’s ears.”
Is it safe to say the logistics of touring have changed for you since Deral’s arrival?
Most definitely. For What I Deserve, I was out for about six months straight. And that was the most I’d ever done. This time around that’s not gonna happen. I can’t leave him for six days, let alone six months. I’m gonna try to do long weekends and come home. Find little four dates together and then come home.
Has your work schedule changed too? How do the two of you find time to write?
It’s kinda difficult. My husband, he’s one of those people who likes to do everything. So he’s been producing somebody, he’s working on his own material, songwriting and he’s thinking about producing a movie. I can’t understand people like that, but that’s the way he likes to be. So between what he’s doing and what I’m doing and having a child, it’s kinda hectic around here. But we are trying to schedule our time better. I used to get little ideas better just on spur of the moment, so I don’t’ know how it’s gonna change.
Speaking of Bruce, you’ve covered no small number of his songs. Have they always been such a comfortable fit?
Doing Bruce’s songs has always felt really natural to me. I just really get his music and I love it. He’s been a huge inspiration for me. I think all I could ever hope to be is half as talented as him. I think that his stuff is the easiest for me to take on. But I’ve always liked collaborating. I didn’t do as much of it on this record, I think it was just a control thing. I was just feeling like I wanted to take my time with everything and get where I wanted. I didn’t want to just sit down and try and write a song, I wanted to be able to mess with it. So the songs I did co-write, I co-wrote a long time ago. “So Dark” was written in ‘91, a t the same time I wrote “Get Real” and “Shadows of Love.” And the other song with Gary, we wrote the same time we did the What I Deserve songs. The rest of the stuff was new.
Think you guys will ever do a full album together? Perhaps more Buddy/Julie than George/Tammy …
We talk about it. Someday we might. Bruce is in an interesting situation, in that he also has that option with his brother [singer-songwriter Charlie Robison]. We’d have to decide we were gonna do it and start writing the songs specifically for us. He’d have to set the time aside and make sure it didn’t conflict with his own thing or his brothers.
Between Bruce, Charlie and Emily Robison [Charlie’s wife and a Dixie Chick] your family collaboration possibilities seem endless.
[Laughs] They just go on and on …