Easier said than done
Finding success on her own terms didn’t go to Kelly Willis’ head. But becoming a mother did. Fortunately, she seems to be getting over it.
By Richard Skanse
When Kelly Willis was recording her last album, 1999’s What I Deserve, she was pretty much convinced it would be her last album, ever. Some three-and-a-half-years later, when she was recording her new album, Easy, she was pretty much convinced What I Deserve would still be her last album.
“How did it feel finishing it?” She repeats the first question with a laugh. “I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to start it, to be honest. It was scheduled twice. I think I was supposed to start it in June, and then I was supposed to start it in October and I finally started its in December. At one point I was ready to say, ‘Tell everybody there might not be a record, ever!’ So the fact that I started it, did it, and finished it, to me almost seems miraculous.”
Lest one thinks she’s being overdramatic, it’s worth nothing that the business of making records has never been a cakewalk for Willis, even back in the early ’90s when her former label tried its damnedest to push her along through the you-just-sing-and-look-pretty-and-let-us-do-the-worrying Nashville hit-making machine. The closest she’s ever come to making an easy record was probably What I Deserve, recorded and even mostly written on her own without the safety net, or pressure, of a label behind her. And the only reason making that one might have be easier than her first three, for MCA Nashville, was because she made it knowing she had nothing left to lose at that point.
“When I made that record, I remember thinking that it might be my last shot — truly my last record, but not by choice,” she says with another little laugh. “When I made it, I couldn’t find anybody that wanted to put it out, until finally Ryko came to the table and wanted to release it. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, these songs might be a little quirky because I wrote them, and I’m not Bob Dylan,’ so I was a little concerned about how it might come across.”
As things turned out, What I Deserve proved to be her best-selling (100,000 copies and counting) album to date and the one that jumpstarted her dead-on-the-highway career and kicked it into high gear. Now firmly backed by a loving fanbase, duly impressed media and a new label (Rykodisc) that offered her full creative control for the first time in her career, Willis was flush with renewed self-confidence. After all that, making Easy should have been just that. Instead it proved to be the hardest album’s ever made.
“It’s such a relaxed record. It’s got a little softer vibe about it than the ones before, so ‘Easy’ seemed appropriate to describing what the album was like,” she says. “But the title doesn’t describe how it went down at all.”
She says she simply “couldn’t get it together.” The problem wasn’t the threat of everything around her falling apart. It was the reality of everything in her life finally falling into place. The problem was in 2001 Kelly Willis became a mother first time, and overnight, making music just didn’t seem that important to her anymore.
With time — and a little getting nudging from her husband — she snapped out of it.
* * *
Photos of Kelly Willis and baby Deral Otis Robison taken for Texas Music Magazine by Wyatt McSpadden.
It goes without saying that singer-songwriter Bruce Robison is quick to rave about Easy. It goes with the territory of being Willis’ husband, and, by extension, her “biggest fan.” “I think the music that she’s making at this point and the songs she’s writing are just phenomenal,” he says unabashedly over an afternoon cup of coffee at Austin’s Flipnotics. “And she’d kill me if I said it in print, but I see her voice as original and singular as Emmylou Harris’ or Billie Holiday’s. She was just born with it. It’s gotten better of the years, but it really is a gift.”
On top of all that, he notes, anytime his wife just finishes a record is cause enough for excitement. “She does a new record in about the same length of time that Boston does,” he chuckles. It’s a ’70s-reared classic rock fan’s way of sweetly saying, she takes forever.
Of course, that’s really only fair when you look at the six-year-gap between her last album for MCA, 1993’s Kelly Willis, and What I Deserve, during which time Willis was briefly signed to the Los Angeles label A&M, which released her Fading Fast EP in 1996. But Robison just happens to move a lot faster than his wife. Willis was signed to MCA and put out her first album when she was only 20 years old. Thirteen years later, she has five albums (and that EP) to her name. Robison took a little longer getting started, picking up songwriting in his late 20s and not releasing his debut until 1996, but he’s made up for lost time with a vengeance. He released his fourth album, Country Sunshine, last summer, and would have had another ready for this year had he and Willis both not decided it was his turn to play house-dad so she could work on her own album.
“She put her career on hold while I put [Country Sunshine] out, and now I’ve got to do the same thing,” he says. “Besides, I should be staying home and writing songs, anyway.” And how. In the time between Willis’ last two albums, Robison’s songwriting career has hit pay dirt, yielding cuts by such A-list country artists as Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, the Dixie Chicks (who performed “Travelin’ Soldier” on this year’s CMA Awards and have recorded it for their next album) and most notably Tim McGraw, who turned Robison’s “Angry All the Time” into a No. 1 hit last summer. When he first heard that Tim McGraw was going to record his song, Robison politely asked his label, Sony’s Lucky Dog, to let him go. He left on good terms and started his own label, Boar’s Nest, out of his garage studio.
A year after its release, Country Sunshine has already paid for itself. “It makes it easier for both uf us to say, ‘You’ve got to keep writing songs,'” he says of recent success. “She was always supportive, but we were lucky enough to have some commercial success that way at the same time that we started having kids. The way we were living before, if we had a kid, it would a have been like, ‘All right, are you going to get a job at the Whataburger? Because we’ve got to buy diapers.'”
But however timely and fortunate Robison’s cuts on Music Row are, one of his most important roles is the one he plays at home. Not writing, not being a good husband and father, but giving Willis a push when she’s stuck. “That’s one of my jobs — nudging her, pushing her along,” he says. “I’m the person who’s saying, ‘Listen, you’re not going to be happy if you’re not singing.’ I had the luxury of perspective with her career, because I saw what it was like with her two years ago when she put that last record out and it was well received and it sold. I saw her enjoy her career in a way that I had never seen her enjoy it before. So I feel like it’s my job to keep moving her along through the parts which are so hard.”
Ultimately, however, Willis writes and records when she feels like it. There was never a time, explains Robison, when he went so far as to tell her to put the baby down and pick up her guitar. “If I did do that it probably wouldn’t be as long between albums as it is, but she goes by her own clock. I’m the son of a football coach, so I’m kind of fascinated by motivation, but she’s not really the kind of person to respond to ‘Loser! You’ll never amount to anything — get out there and write!’ So it takes a different tact with her.”
* * *
This — if not exactly where the magic happens — is at least where it’s woodshedded. Literally. The small recoding studio tucked behind the Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison homestead in Hyde Park (just north of the University of Texas in central Austin) began its life as a tool shed, a dirt floor garage. Robison set to work on converting the shack into its new incarnation right after the couple moved into the house in 1996, shortly before their marriage. Six years later, it still has the feel of a space that’s closer to his heart than her’s.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Willis says of the studio apologetically, as though embarrassed over the state of a child’s play room. “Sometimes it actually looks stunning in here, but right now it looks like a storage space.”
Self-conscious apologies and appearances aside — the room has a backyard-tree-house-with-lots-of-gear kind of coolness to it — this modest studio is where two of the finest albums to come out of Austin in the last year and a half got their start. Willis admits she utilizes it mostly to rehearse and her husband uses it primarily for demos and overdubs, but it’s a good bet that most, if not all, of the songs on both Willis’ Easy and Robison’s Country Sunshine were written right here. This is where one would retreat to write while the other stayed in the house and watched over the primary inspiration for both albums, 15-month-old Deral Otis Robison, named after Willis’ father and Robison’s grandfather, Charles Otis.
When Willis talks about Deral she lights up in a way that makes her priorities patently less clear. She is charmingly dressed down in jeans and red McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Pub T-shirt, and looks like a woman who would rather be playing with her young son, or even changing a deeper, than sitting in this cold studio talking about matters as mundane as her career and new album.
Deral is the couple’s first child, and Willis admits that she she’s still learning this whole motherhood business as she goes along. But it wasn’t so much being overwhelmed by her new responsibilities that stalled the making of Easy was it was Willis giving serious thought as to whether or not making music still mattered to her at all. “I was really trying to weigh my choices there,” she says. “I really want to be the best parent I can be, and I don’t know anything about it so every day is a learning experience to me, and I’m finally getting some confidence about it. But that was the thing that mattered the most to me. I’ve been making music now since I was a teenager, and on national level since I was 20. I’m 33 now, and I kind of felt that if I wanted to stop, it might not be such a weird thing. Lots of people switch careers at that point in their life if they’ve been doing something for that long. But, every now and then I come up with that question, and other times when I try to decide if I want to keep doing it, I always do. It’s just like with any job. Sometimes it gets so overwhelming you think maybe if you just do something else it will all be easier, but it won’t. Everything’s hard. And this is the thing that I love, so I always just persevere.”
It’s that quality of perseverance, every bit as much as her honey-sweet with brass-in-pocket voice and blossoming songwriting skills, that has been Willis’ primary saving grace over the course of the last 13 years of her career, if not her whole life. To this day, she maintains that “the most defining experience” of her life was the divorce of her parents when she was 9, after which her mother moved halfway across the country. “Having a baby has been the next biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.
“Things are good now,” she continues, noting that her mother recently retired to Bedford, allowing them to see each other on a regular basis. “But it was a real, real strange time. I was the youngest, and I missed her a lot. I got to see her about once a year, and it wasn’t like I was mad at her, but I was heartbroken about it. But I think as with all children, you just get through it. You know things are bad, but it’s not like you wallow in it. You move on and you make life keeping happening. But it was really pretty devastating to grow up without a mother. My dad did the best he could, but he was a military man — a product of the ’50s — so he wasn’t exactly nurturing. That probably had something to do with me being so shy.”
Willis smiles sadly when she talks about her father, who passed away two years ago. He was never comfortable with the path she chose in her life, but he always supported her against his better judgment, and made no secret of his pride when she succeeded. “People always talked about it if he was in the crowd, because he would just be beaming with this big smile on his face,” she says. “But he never stopped being scared. As he was dying, he was saying to my sister, ‘I’m just worried about Kelly … she wants to have a baby, and I don’t know how you can have a baby and travel all the time.’ He just worried about this profession, but he was always very proud.”
Willis, who was born in Oklahoma, where most of her family roots remain, overcame her shyness — to a certain extent, at least — when she joined her older boyfriend Mas Palermo’s Washington, D.C.-area rockabilly band the Vibrato Brothers at the age of 16. After her graduation in 1987, she bypassed college and moved to Austin with the band, rechristened Kelly and the Fireballs. Willis quickly fell in love with the town and entrenched herself in the rockabilly scene, but she and Palermo had already moved to a more country sound (and a new band, Radio Ranch) by the time she was “discovered” by singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in 1989, the same year she married Palermo.
Landing her first major label deal was a piece of cake. Griffith walked into an Austin bar one night, caught part of Willis’ set, phoned her chum Tony Brown at MCA Nashville, and boom — faster than you can say “A Star is Born,” the then 20-year-old Willis was recording her debut album, Well Traveled Love, with her own band. Brown himself, the hottest producer and talent scout in Nashville (his credits included signing Steve Earle, Griffith, and Lyle Lovett) produced, and the band confidently hammered out a batch of songs they already knew by heart. But after that seemingly promising start, nothing was ever easy for Willis again. The record failed to produce a hit single, and eight months after its release MCA rushed Willis back into the studio to record the follow-up, 1991’s Bang Bang. Things rapidly went from bad to worse.
“There was a lot of pressure on that record,” Willis recalls. “Even before we started making it the band disintegrated, so at that point I knew things were not going well. It was kind of … unpleasant.” Not helping matters was the fact that by then her marriage was also on the rocks, though she and Palermo— who drummed in her band and wrote many of her early songs — continued to work together. “We just separated, and it took us forever to actually get the divorce just because we were lazy,” Willis laughs.
The growing rift with her producer was more severe. When Willis began to toy with the idea of writing her own songs, Tony Brown wasn’t especially receptive to the idea. “I was trying to develop into more of an artist,” says Willis, citing Steve Earle as one of her role models. “But Tony was trying to make me be a Nashville entertainer. The more I started to want to write songs, the more we started to butt heads and realize that it wasn’t going to work out.”
The friction came to a head with her third album for MCA, 1993’s Don Was-produced Kelly Willis. “That was the record where it was kind of me against the record company,” she smiles. “But I had Don Was at my side; I would suggest something and he would go ‘Yeah!’ where before they would go, ‘No.’ So that one was really personal.”
It was also the last straw. Shortly after the album’s release, MCA unceremoniously dropped her. Nine years later, Willis reports that she and Brown are on friendly terms again. “It feels like he’s proud of me in sort of a father-daughter kind of way, since I was just 19 when he met me and he really kind of started my career,” she says. “I think he’s proud of where I’ve ended up.” But even though she knew things weren’t working out in Nashville, she still took the parting hard.
“She did go through a lot of heartbreak over that,” recalls Robison, who started dating Willis in ’91. “I can relate to those points in her career, where you’re pushing and everybody’s pulling different ways, and what you’re giving doesn’t line up with what they want. Those are just really frustrating times. But, Austin’s a great place to kind of be isolated from that.”
Willis’ stint with A&M, the label that signed her after MCA, was a brief one, little more than a rebound fling in the big picture. She parted ways with the label shortly after her A&R contact left the company, figuring the only way she’d ever have a shot at being the kind of artist she aspired to become would be to make an album completely on her own — even if nobody ever wanted to hear it. The fact that What I Deserve subsequently proved to be her breakthrough was a matter of extreme personal vindication.
“It made me feel incredible, made my confidence soar,” she says, still noticeably overwhelmed by the album’s success. “So it was a surprise. But it’s funny, because it’s not like I can go, ‘Now all the people in Nashville [will be sorry] …’ [Laughs] It still hasn’t registered on their radar. So it’s not like it means a lot to me because they have to see I did something good. It’s for me.”
As difficult as it was for Willis to get her act together in the wake of her son’s birth and recommit herself to music, Easy is as telling a document of her current state of maternal bliss as What I Deserve was of her then state of frustration-born determination. The last album was a bold and defiant, electric-guitar-driven battle cry. “What I deserve is comfort for my shaken soul,” she sang on the title track. Easy is what that hard-won comfort feels like: gentle, reflective, and predominately acoustic. It’s telling that the easiest song for her to write was the closing “Reason to Believe,” a thinly veiled lullaby to her son: “Now my dreams can all come true / And now my life can follow through / Suddenly it’s all so clear / There’s not a thing that I should fear.”
“I wanted it to sound like a song that could be just a love song and hopefully wouldn’t be too obvious that it was about my son, but I knew that it would be obvious,” she says. “I started the song before the baby was born – it was a melody that was floating around in my head for a long time, and after he was born, the words just filled in one night.”
Although Willis wrote or co-wrote six of the 10 songs on the album, not all of the lyrics touch on her personal life and present contentedness so intimately as “Reason to Believe.” The bulk of them, in fact, are downright sad, songs of heartbreak that speak more of her past (she still points to her parents’ divorce as a major influence on both her writing and singing) than her present. But it’s the relaxed, wistful, and unapologetically country sound of the album that most reveals where Willis was coming from.
“I intended to make a very country record — that was my ambition, because I hadn’t really, really done one of those yet,” she says. “It’s just where I feel like I am. This guy that put together the MCA compilation [One More Time: The MCA Recordings — her former label’s post-What I Deserve cash-in bid] asked me for my input on the songs I wanted on it, and he said he was sort of disappointed [with my picks] because he wanted to put some more of the rockabilly stuff on there. Over time I seem to be getting further and further away from the rockin’ stuff, and I guess this record is just further proof. I’m just not rockin’ anymore as much as I used to.”
Not surprisingly, Willis’ Easy makes a perfect match for her husband’s Don Williams-inspired Country Sunshine. “How did that happen?” Robison laughs. “Did we just make these records because we were tired? I’m not sure. But we both wrote songs that touched on our experiences since our baby was born. I listen to her new album a lot, because it’s soothing to our kid right now. Both of our last records — I think we should market them that way. I don’t know if it’s just our voices and he’s familiar with them, but they stop him from crying, and he’ll be OK as long as those records are on. I think that they’re very soothing things. Maybe we’re at a very easy-going point in our lives and careers.
“We’ve had as much drama as anybody else has, I’m sure,” Robison continues, reflecting on their 11-year relationship. “But it’s one of those things where you look back on your story and you wouldn’t change a minute of it. You kind of feel field-tested by flame. I wrote half the songs that she’s recorded of mine about her, during times when were broken up — like ‘Wrapped’ and ‘Not Forgotten You.’ But I can’t argue a bit with the way it all turned out. I’m still trying to make sense of the last couple of years. Between the kid and the people who have recorded my songs and how well Kelly’s last record did, I don’t know … we did something right I guess, but I’m not sure what that is.”
Although there’s no doubting their sincerity when Willis one Robison each cite the birth of their son as a humbling experience, neither has ever been in danger of letting their egos run away from them. Robison is keenly aware that even though his songs seem to be en vogue on Music Row at the moment, it’s the nature of that game that they could fall out of fashion just as quickly. He only hopes that when or if they do, his turn will come around again somewhere later down the line. And as for Willis, had she ever truly wanted superstardom once her naiveté wore off in Nashville, it was certainly within her reach. She had the voice, the looks, and the youth to be every inch the mainstream entertainer Tony Brown wanted her to be. All she had to do was dutifully stay on the conveyor belt. Instead, she hopped off and chose a less certain path — her own. And if that means never selling “more” than 100,000 records or rising to a level fo fame above that of half of “Austin’s favorite couple,” or “the Henna Chevrolet girl,” or even just “Mom,” you’re not going to hear her complain.
Besides, if either of them ever wants a glimpse at real fame, they don’t have to look far. Willis recounts an experience at a Willie Nelson concert one Halloween at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes that she and Robison attended with his brother and wife: Texas songwriter Charlie Robison and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks. “People were coming over for autographs, and they were either first going to Charlie or Emily, and then they’d go to the other. And then they’d come to me and Bruce and they’d go, ‘Well, y’all can sign it too …’
“We were like, ‘Gee, thanks … you’re making us feel really good,'” she laughs. “Once in a while something like that will happen, where they’re just throwing us a bone, and we just feel pathetic. It’s better if they don’t do that at all, because it’s kind of fun to sit on the side and just watch the mayhem.”