By Richard Skanse
Bruce Robison’s Premium Recording Service doesn’t look like much from the outside. To most passersby it’s just a nondescript house in the middle of a non-descript neighborhood in north-central Austin. Never in a million years would you guess that the common exterior houses one of the most state-of-the-art recording studios in the Live Music Capital of the World — an audiophile’s dream factory, really, with a fetishist’s attention to detail, right down to the old-school reverb chamber. It’s the kinda joint in which you could probably lock up one halfway decent engineer and a gang of musically inept accountants (hell, monkeys, even) for a week or two and end up with at least a four-star record (crappy songs, sure, but oooh, that sound!)
Needless to say, the results are even better when the studio’s handed over to veteran artists on the level of Kelly Willis (aka Robison’s far shorter, blonder and much prettier better half) and Chuck Prophet. The proof’s in the digital grooves of the Prophet-produced Translated From Love, Willis’ sixth album and first outing since 2002’s Easy. Like its predecessor, Translated From Love reaffirms Willis’ standing as one of the finest voices in Texas, if not in all country and Americana music. But where Easy, true to its name, found her in a rather mellow mood, Translated From Love rocks with the confident swagger of Willis’ widely acclaimed 1999 breakthrough album, What I Deserve — the record with which she reinvented herself as an independent spitfire with songwriting chops as bold and sure as her hallmark wallop of a voice.
In the eight years since What I Deserve put Willis back on the map following an early-’90s run on major label MCA Nashville, both she and husband Robison have had their hands full trying to juggle separate music careers and parenthood, having produced four (!) kids (including twins) in rapid succession. When she made Easy, Willis was still adjusting to the challenge of channeling creativity on a first-time mother’s schedule — resulting in what she called at the time the hardest record she’d ever made. But a handful of kids and several years later, she’s clearly either got a handle on things or she was long overdue for a little playtime of her own, because Translated From Love sounds like it was as fun and freewheelin’ to make as it is to listen to. And as Willis told Lone Star Music over coffee in Premium Recording’s cozy downstairs dining room, “fun” was indeed very much the first order of business throughout the making of the album, long before she and Prophet started tracking — hell, even before Prophet talked Willis into having at go at Iggy Pop’s uproarious “Success.” Rest assured, this ain’t no lullaby collection.
For starters, congrats on finishing another record. A new Kelly Willis record is always an occasion, because you’re not exactly on the Willie schedule — you don’t crank ’em out year after year.
No. [Laughs] But I think I might be able to do better from this point on. That is, assuming I don’t get pregnant again … which is not in the plans!
You gotta keep Bruce away.
How old are all the kids now?
Doti [Derel Otis] is 6. The twins, Ben and Abi, are 4. And the baby, Joe, is 16 months. After twins, one baby was a piece of cake! And plus, he’s a really easy-going kid, too; his personality is, he just goes with the flow, so that was really helpful. But it is hard. Every child is just that much more time that you can’t sneak for yourself. But it’s OK … you get used to it.
You said in interviews at the time Easy came out that that was a hard record for you to make. But it really reflected the title: it sounded like you were settling down. This one, though, sounds like you’re tearing it up again. It goes back to the spirit of What I Deserve, I think. Was that the intent?
With Easy, I got accused of being tired, which is probably true — I’d been touring forever with What I Deserve, and I wanted to do something kind of different from that. I just wanted to do an acoustic record. And I was probably feeling like I wanted to be a little more laid back right. But this time around, I told Chuck [Prophet] that my main criteria was I just wanted it to be fun. At first I was maybe just going to do covers, because I didn’t know how I would possibly be able be creative enough to write; I just don’t have that kind of time in my life. So I was like, I don’t want to do any kind of deep, introspective singer-songwriter stuff, I just want it to be fun. So he tried really hard to hold me to that, although I did end up with a couple of songs on there that are thoughtful songs. But for the most part, we’re just having fun. Because I have plenty of “mom,” serious time — I just want to go out on the road and have fun.
So was it fun to make?
It really was. It was a blast.
It sounds like you were pretty charged up and ready to cut loose. Almost like getting in the studio was a vacation itself.
Yeah. Well, I was very excited to be making music. Unfortunately, what I need to do now is get more organized, so that I’m not going straight from taking care of children to going to the studio or going onstage. Right now, there’s really no in-between time. So I really do feel drained most of the time and not prepared, because I’m not able to take that time to just practice the songs as much as I would like to. So that’s my big challenge. But mostly I was just thrilled to be somewhere making music and being creative and focusing on that instead of, you know …
Making peanut butter sandwiches.
Exactly. Making peanut butter sandwiches, or going grocery shopping, or going to and from school. All that stuff.
Compared to this record, why do you think making Easy was so hard?
Because Easy was the first record I made after having a child. So that adjustment was really huge for Bruce and I, because we’re both musicians and creative types who were used to being able to do whatever we want during the daytime. We didn’t have to be somewhere at 7:30 a.m. or anything like that. So we were really struggling with balancing parenthood and our careers. During the making of that record, Bruce would be taking care of the baby the whole time that I was in the studio, but when I wasn’t in the studio, I would be taking care of the baby to give him a break. So it was childcare, studio, studio, childcare. And I was the producer on that record, too, so I didn’t really have much space to make all these decisions and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have time to really think about it, and I normally take a lot of time to make decisions — I’m very slow and mull things over. But I had to make [snaps fingers] fast decisions. So that was really what was difficult — balancing all those things for the first time. And taking on the producer role for the first time.
So you definitely weren’t going to make that mistake again this time — producing it yourself.
Right. Well, I just can’t! I really didn’t even have that choice this time. I knew I had to get a producer that I really trusted, who would completely take the reins. Of course I questioned things here and there — I do have a little bit of that control freak about me. But I didn’t have a whole lot of choice about it, so I was really glad I had Chuck, someone I respected so much.
What’s your history with Chuck?
I met Chuck years ago — it wasn’t in a working capacity, but I met him on a train in Norway. We were going to different gigs; I was doing some dates with Kevin Welch, and I think he was doing some Green on Red stuff. And I was a fan of Green on Red at the time, so it was kind of cool to meet him. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I was doing the first sessions for What I Deserve — the first sessions I did in San Francisco with some producer I didn’t get along with, but he called Chuck in to be the guitar player. So when I scrapped the whole session, the one thing I kept was Chuck, and I brought him to Austin to help me. I just connected with him, and I loved the way he played and got the songs. The time and attention that he gave to my music was really impressive, considering he’s got his own deal going on.
What do you think he brought to this record?
To this record? God … well, he completely produced it. I took on the artist role in that I had my two-cents here and there, but he picked all the players and he had the way that we approached all the music. He had all these ideas for the way everyone should play, a feel for what the drummer should do … he was really in creative control. He worked so hard for me. And he brought a lot of excitement and energy. I was really impressed, and I think all the musicians were happy to get to work like that. They all had complete creative freedom because of the way we cut the record; you know, they could try something out, and if it didn’t work, it was no big deal. There was no judgment or anything.
How long did the record take to make?
I think we did maybe three separate sessions. Maybe a month and a week, but not all at once. We got half the record done in 10 days, and then the other half in 10, and then some mixing and stuff. But before we started recording, for a lot of these songs, what Chuck and I did was just sit down and play them over and over and over again. And when we recorded them, what we did differently than anything I’d ever done before was we might take a whole day to do one song. Just play it to death, take after take after take, and it would change subtlety, and my vocal delivery would change subtlety too, until finally we just hit on something that felt right. I’m used to doing as many tracks that you can get in a day, and then going back and doing the detail work afterward. So this was a whole different process, and I thought it worked really great. It’s the kind of thing that big bands would do — I don’t know, like AC/DC or somebody who might take months to make a record. People who have tons of money to burn.
Or people who own their own studio.
Exactly! It’s our studio — we can do whatever we want. [Laughs]
This is the first record you made at this studio. Is the facility up to snuff?
Oh yeah! This place is alright. [Laughs] I thought, if people find out about this place, we might have a career to fall back on someday. It’s kind of a vintage studio; it’s got a lot of stuff that people might be looking for to recreate that warmth, but it’s also very hi-tech at the same time.
I know Bruce is very proud of his reverb chamber. Did you use that at all?
No. Well, they might have done some stuff on the instruments, but I do not like reverb on my vocal at all. Which is so disappointing to Bruce, who made this chamber, and every engineer that gets in there … every single one of them tries to put reverb on my voice, but I like it dry. I think there might be one or two songs on the record where I let them put something on, but I’m picky.
You’ve got a co-writing credit on half the songs on the record, all of which you wrote with either just Chuck or Chuck and Jules Shear or Greg Leisz. But the songwriter credit that’s noticeably absent from this album is Bruce’s. Is he even on the record at all?
He does some harmony vocals. But this is the least involved I’ve had him on any of my records, which feels weird, but it’s just the way it turned out.
Y’all don’t really write much together, do you?
With Bruce? No, we don’t write together. We’ve written together maybe once or twice, where I might have started a song and he finished it. But we learned a long time ago that we just don’t work that well together. We’d sit down to write, and we’d just end up fighting or something. Or getting our feelings hurt. We just would rather be married and have our careers separate. That will work the best for us, because we really do have unique perspectives and we each want to be in complete control of our situation. So we try to limit even our performing together to just our Christmas shows — and even then, I just turn into this bitchy diva onstage, arguing about the way he’s running the show. So it’s best that we don’t go there too often!
And yet, he’s still gotta be you’re No. 1 fan — I think I have him on record saying that. So is it hard for him to keep his distance when you’re writing with someone else or making a record? Do you have to hide your mixes from him until you’re ready to share them?
Not really. Although I will ask him his opinion about stuff, and he will step in and get involved sometimes if he really feels strongly about something — like if he thinks Chuck’s missing something. But we don’t step over the line unless we’re asked with each other. Like Bruce has all these songs I don’t hear until they get recorded, or I don’t know about them until he’s doing them live or something. It’s kind of bizarre sometimes. I’ll just have no idea about the stuff that he’s writing. We’ve just got so much on our plates at home that it doesn’t always come up.
I assume he did tell as soon as he heard George Strait was cutting “Wrapped,” though, right?
Oh yeah! That was something we were both really excited about. Although, from stage, I am telling people that George must not have heard my version [on What I Deserve]. He must have only heard Bruce’s version, because clearly my version is superior! [Laughs]
Out of the songs you cover on your new record, two are by your friend Damon Bramblett (“Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore” and “Sweet Sundown”), and there’s one each from Jules Shear (“The More That I’m Around You”), Stephen Yerkey (“Translated From Love”) and Adam Green (the first single, “Teddy Boys.”) But the cover that really hogs the spotlight has to be Iggy Pop’s “Success” (a co-write with David Bowie). The whole cut is a blast, but hearing you sing “Hurray! Success!” is the highlight of the record for me. That cracks me up every time I hear it.
I know! I told Chuck, “You know, all this little ad-libbing stuff is not really what I’m known for. It’s not really my strong point.” So people are going to have to go with me there. But for me, that was the challenge — I told him, “I don’t know if I can pull this off.” But then he went to my Wikipedia page, and there’s a picture of me from my first album wearing a leather jacket, and he went, “That girl could do it!” And I went, “Yeah, you’re right. That girl could do it.” I’ve just gotten too mellow! But it was fun. We played it at South by Southwest [SXSW], and it was a blast. Chuck played with us on those shows, too, so it was really loud.
Did you have any run-ins with Iggy? He was in town during SXSW with the Stooges.
No! We were hoping to. We put all kinds of feelers out there to try and get him to come down, but it didn’t happen.
You really know you’re not playing by Music Row rules anymore when you’re covering Iggy Pop. All these years after your MCA deal, what’s your relationship with Nashville these days?
Well I have a relationship in that I feel like I still do country music. You find me in the country bin. That’s where the start of my career was, and there are a lot of people in Nashville who still want to help me, like at CMT and all the promotional avenues. But that’s really where it ends, because I don’t get a lot of country airplay. But I don’t really fit in anywhere — it’s not like any one area totally embraces me, so in that regard, they embrace me more than anybody else. So I guess that would be my connection with Nashville. But I don’t go there that often; I don’t even play there that often. If I ever try to make more of my songwriting, then I would go there more; Bruce goes there all the time. But I do still have connections there, people I can call for ideas like if I need a photographer or something.
How did things end as far as you working with [producer and former MCA Nashville honcho] Tony Brown? Are you still on good terms?
Yeah. We’re still on very friendly terms. I mean, when my deal with MCA ended, it was kind of weird for a little while, because I was told through a third party — I never got the call straight from Tony, and that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. But Tony was nothing but my champion. He gave me a career. I have so much respect for him, and he’s always rooted me on and cheered for me. So I don’t really have the bitter relationship with Nashville that people are always wanting to talk about. I tried it, it didn’t work, it was uncomfortable, and I was definitely complaining there toward the end. But it was just about my circumstance and what I was trying to achieve in my own career, and not really fitting into the scene that I was being put in.
What about the music you were making then? Did that feel true to you then?
It did. It felt true to me. I was really … I was a young artist. I was 20 when I signed to MCA. I was really trying to feel my way and figure out a way to express myself the way that I wanted to. So, you know, I think that that shows on some of those records. There’s some stuff that I really love and still play, and other stuff that I’m not as proud of. But basically, at the time, I was really doing my best to make records that I really loved, and I was proud of them.
My favorite song from that era is your cover of Steve Earle’s “Hole in My Heart,” on your 1990 debut, Well Traveled Love .
Oh yeah. I love that song. It’s Steve Earle, so you can’t go wrong. But it’s a deceptively hard to sing though! That’s why it’s not always on my set list.
Do you still play many songs from those records?
I have a few that I always play. Like “River of Love.” And for years and years I’d play “I Don’t Want to Love You (But I Do),” and now I do “Looking for Someone Like You” instead. But I just do a couple from that era, because a lot of people that come to see me only know me from What I Deserve on. So I just do a couple for the people who have been aware of my music since that day and age. But I’m not sure how many people still know about that stuff.
You did a mean cover of Joe Ely’s “Settle for Love,” too — on your second album, Bang Bang.
That one I felt embarrassed about, like I couldn’t pull off. I mean, it was Joe Ely, and I lived in Austin! I really got talked into doing that. It was around that time also that they were trying to get me to do a bunch of Lucinda Williams songs, and I was like, “You guys don’t understand, I live in Austin! I really want her to be my contemporary, my peer — I just don’t feel it’s necessary for me to cover her songs since she’s doing them just great.” So, I just always found that funny.
Obviously you didn’t feel funny about covering Bruce’s “Wrapped,” though, a few years later.
No, but that’s different. That’s my husband. I can totally steal from his material!
How old were you when you moved to Austin? Does that feel like a lifetime ago.
I was 18 or 19. It feels like a couple of lifetimes ago.
You came down from D.C., right? With your first husband Mas Palermo’s band?
Yeah. We were just doing rockabilly music. We were throwing in our originals, too, and they had more of a gritty, country feel. But that definitely was a whole lifetime ago. I was so shy! I suffered from social phobia. It was pretty intense.
So you were never the wild child, Teddy Boy type?
Oh no. I mean, I loved that stuff, and I dressed the part and I had all the furniture, and the posters, the pompadour — everything. I loved it. I really wanted to be that. I think that’s why I loved Wanda Jackson so much, because I really wanted to be her, to be that aggressive and confident. But I wasn’t. I was just kind of like role-playing. You can ask anybody. I was very shy and quiet. So singing was really life-changing for me. To get to be onstage and sing these aggressive songs — to be able to be expressive and emotional, and to realize that anybody would suddenly look at me and listen to what I had to say. That was really phenomenal for me. But still, I never talked; all I ever said between songs was “thank you.” I wasn’t what you’d call super-fun rockabilly.
When did you start writing?
I have a co-write on my first record. That was the first song I ever tried to write. And little by little … I always credit Lucinda Williams for making me feel like I could do it. Because she was so brilliant at it, and her songs were so unique and different, that I thought, “You know, I can write songs that are unique to me. They don’t have to be Bob Dylan songs. They don’t have to be … I can have my own little unique style. And maybe everyone hates it, but it’s my deal, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to attempt it.” Because I just thought that’s what she did. She just wrote these songs that were unlike anything I’d heard before; they were so personal. They were just uniquely her. So she really inspired me to try and do that, just as I’m sure she’s inspired a lot of people to try to write.
Was she still living here at the time?
Yes. But I didn’t know her and I had never seen her play. But when that album with “Big Red Sun Blues” [Lucinda Williams] came out, I was floored by it. My manager got a copy of it at one of the first SXSWs, and I listened to it all the time. It really inspired me to try and write. Now days … I’m still not prolific, but at least now I consider myself a songwriter. I feel like I can get an idea down on paper and complete it and be happy with it.
Do you look back on your early days in Austin with fond nostalgia, or a shudder?
I think it’s mostly fond nostalgia. I’ve blocked out most of the bad memories and most of the embarrassing things. I just think I had a really exciting, lucky run in my career at that time: the fact that I would move here as a teenager, and at 20 get signed to this major label and start working with phenomenally talented people, with plenty of money to spend to do it right. And just get to go out and create a career that has sustained me this far without a major label. It was just amazing and fun. I mean, there were plenty of things that were difficult about it, too, things that maybe I didn’t do right, but for the most part, I’m just grateful.
You say you try to block this stuff out, but is there one nightmare moment on stage that still haunts you?
No. No. But there was … it was difficult maintaining a band. I have so much respect for people who are in bands, because there’s just so many peoples’ needs to be met there. I do remember one night being in some club, it might have been Taos or Santa Fe. And I’d lost my voice, and the band was so mad at me. I’m sure we’d been in a van, and we’d been doing these crappy gigs, and everybody was getting paid so little — it was for the Well Travelled Love tour. Anyway, I had no voice, but I got up onstage and tried to sing, and after the second song I just had to say I can’t do it. And everybody was so mad at me! But I couldn’t sing, it wasn’t like I had any choice in the matter. And I remember cussing, and I never used to cuss, but I was cussing at Mas even, who was my husband and usually on my side. It was just this ugly, ugly moment. And I remember that very clearly, that things were so stressful that they were all just pissed off at me for losing my voice. Good times! [Laughs] I’m sure that they would have lots of really crappy things to say about me, but of course I remember the time that they were crappy to me. So please don’t ask them!
How’s touring these days? Or more to the point, how much touring are you able to do?
I have to be a little creative about how I hit the road, because I can’t be away for too long, and I can’t bring the kids with me. So I’m going to go out for like five days at a time, and then come back for a week, and then go back out again for another five days. It’s going to take me a while to hit the whole country, but I think I should be able to do it in maybe three and a half months, get everywhere once, and then maybe go back to the places where I have the biggest following a second time.
You and Bruce usually share the same band, don’t you?
Yeah. Well, basically it was Bruce’s band, and I stole them, so now he’s got to find a new band. Which is really how it works, without fail! He finds musicians, and I steal them. But usually, when neither of us has a record coming out, Bruce and I together make up one good gig for musicians.
Between records, you seem to have found pretty good work on the side doing commercials lately. You were both in a national Claritin ad last year, and before that, you were the celebrity jingle singer for Austin’s Henna Chevrolet. Though it seems you’ve lost that gig recently to Trish Murphy. Do you change the channel when her Chevy commercials come on?
[Laughs] No, I don’t. In fact, I’m impressed with her. I think, “Wow, she looks much happier! She can do what they wanted!” I remember recording the jingle, and they were like, “Smile! Look happy!” And I was like, “I don’t understand — in country music, we try to sound sad.” But I’m very impressed. I think she did a great job.
And what about the Claritin commercial? Was that hard for you to watch?
Claritin D. There’s a big difference! And no, it wasn’t. I know it came on tons and tons, but we only saw it a few times during the Final Four. And I tried to keep it on so I could see it. But it was a little embarrassing in that I had just had a baby six weeks before, and I had a girdle on, and I was trying to cinch myself up to do this public appearance. But it was funny. I mean, imagine people all over the country who are aware of us, going, “I think I just saw Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis in a commercial…” I don’t know why we got it. I think it was all set up to go, and they didn’t have any talent booked, and the director was from Houston and a fan of ours, and it was written for a duo, and we were able to do it. I had no bones about it. People were like, “Do you want to do this? Do you think it will be OK?” Even Bruce was kind of worried about how people would respond and what they would think. I was like, “Hell yeah I want to do that!” I hadn’t worked in three months because I had taken time off to have a baby. I had bills to pay, so I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s a gig!” And it was truth in advertising, because we both suffer from allergies, so I had no problem there.
What’s really funny about that commercial is, one time Bruce and I were sitting down with all the kids having dinner at Threadgill’s. And some lady came over to us, and she said to Bruce, “I’ve seen you on TV.” And her daughter said, “Oh, he’s in that commercial!” And they went “That’s it! You’re in that Claritin commercial!” And I’m sitting there thinking, “You know, I was the sufferer! I was the main person in that commercial!” But they didn’t recognize me or anything. It was all about Bruce. And he always gloats!