Kelly Willis is Back Being Blue, to take a color-coded cue from the title of her seventh album. It’s a shade she wears well, though long-patient fans might just say: You had us at back. They’ll take a new Willis record in whatever hue it comes, now that it’s been 11 years since her last solo release, 2007’s Translated from Love. The Austin-based singer/songwriter has hardly been MIA in the intervening years, having recorded and toured as part of a duo with Bruce Robison. But she’s setting the duet Mm.Oo. aside for do-it-alone mode, at least as far as the spotlight is concerned. (Robison hovers just outside it this time, as producer.). Hers is a solo voice again, but it’s not necessarily sotto voce: This is an album of songs about lonesomeness that also happens to be a cracklingly good time.
Willis wrote six of the 10 tracks on Back Being Blue by herself, the first time she’s penned that big a portion of one of her albums without outside assists. That doesn’t mean she’s gone into deeply confessional territory for her “Blue” period.
Lyrically, “it’s not an extremely personal record,” she says, downright cheerfully. There may be profundity within, but what Willis was really after was a sense of playfulness. “I wanted to make a fun, interesting record that leans on the influences that first inspired me to make music,” she says. “I don’t think of it as even being so much about my vocals as an album about vibe.” Explaining, “The important thing to me was to take these songs and to get them just right musically. And in my mind, I was thinking of where maybe Skeeter Davis meets Rockpile, or Marshall Crenshaw meets the Louvin Brothers.”
Who wouldn’t want to hang out at either of those intersections? Not ignoring the fact that in Willis’ world, as the album title might augur, high times and heartache are inextricably tied, “I guess the songs I write can be more sad than I think they are,” she admits with a laugh. “The lyrics are always sad in country music. I mean, we sometimes wonder why people hire us to do weddings. We’re like, ‘Really? You wanted this? Well, okay!’ But the music, more than ever, I think, is very fun.”
The title song, which brings a slight R&B vibe to her trademark country, was key in setting the tone. “When I wrote ‘Back Being Blue,’ I felt like I made a discovery,” she says. “Up until writing that song, my songs were all feeling a little bit wordy and complicated and personal, and they just weren’t clicking. Then I wrote that one, I just felt like, oh!––what I need to do is try to simplify, and write these stories in a way that feels like you’re not quite sure what era they were written in.”
She makes it sound like a fresh epiphany, but some might say that sending the hands of the clock spinning––in a word: timelessness––has always been a hallmark of her career. As the New York Times wrote, “Kelly Willis looks back to country music before Nashville embraced power ballads and cute happily-ever-after songs. She has an old-fashioned country voice with a twang, a breathy quaver, a break or a throaty sob whenever she needs one… Whether she was wishing for comfort, admitting to a bruised heart, yielding to illicit romance or trying to say goodbye, her voice was modest and true, illuminating the delicate tension and pain in every line.” No Depression noted that her music transcends throwback appeal: “There’s no point in being nostalgic for the generic delineations of the past. We are in the present. That’s where Kelly Willis lives. And it’s there that she sings, as keenly and movingly as any singer in the country or pop or rock present.” Rolling Stone zeroed in on the eternality of her tone: “Willis’ Okie soprano still crackles like no other, and her control and phrasing make it more devastating than ever.”
The native Okie-ness Rolling Stone noticed in her honeyed voice is tempered by a whole lot of Texas. Romance and music brought her to Austin while she was in her late teens, fronting a celebrated but short-lived rockabilly band, Radio Ranch. Famed singer/songwriter Nancy Griffith took a shine to her voice and recommended Willis to producer Tony Brown, one of the titans of Nashville country, who signed her to a deal with MCA. Her three major -label albums yielded plenty of critical acclaim, with enough media attention that she even found herself representing for Texas on People magazine’s annual “50 most beautiful people” list. But, not for the first or last time, mainstream radio didn’t quite know what to make of a youthful neo-traditionalist who appeared to have been transported from a less trendy era.
Then came the album that set the template for the second act of this American life: the 1999 Rykodisc release What I Deserve, her debut as an independent artist in all senses of the term.
“I feel like I’ve never really quite fit into any one group,” Willis says. “I wasn’t really country enough to fit in with the Nashville mainstream, and I didn’t quite fit in with that alt-country stuff, either. But What I Deserve was a huge turning point, because that was the first time I was able to just do my record my way, and the first time I had really grown as an artist and was writing more songs and aware of how to get my ideas across musically. I also looked at that as potentially being my last record. I felt kind of washed up, which was a really strange place to be as a 25-year-old. But to accomplish that record and have it be so well -received gave me a lot of confidence. From then on, I knew I could continue to be a musician, and whatever it was going to look like, I was gonna make it up as I go along, and there could be real satisfaction in that.”
There were personal and creative detours to come. Easy (2002) and Translated by Love (2007) generated equal love from fans, the press, and fellow musicians. Meanwhile, motherhood competed for her attention, to put it mildly. “I had four babies in the space of five years. As challenging as work/family balance became, it led to a pleasing mid-career wrinkle when she backed into a side career with Robison, who conveniently happened to be not just her spouse but her creative and popular equal in the Americana world. A series of annual Christmas shows led to a holiday album, which led to two non-seasonal duo projects, Cheater’s Game (2013) and Our Year (2014).
“We could feel this excitement and electricity at our performances together,” Willis says, “and so we finally just started doing that, even though we’d been keeping it at arm’s length, professionally. We just couldn’t deny it, and so we just decided to take a chance that it wouldn’t destroy our marriage,” she laughs. “But now it’s really important to both of us to get out there and do our own thing.”
So what did Willis do when it came time to reassert her artistic independence with Back Being Blue? Hire Robison as producer. “As I was going through the process, I realized he understood what I was trying to do, and that nobody cared more about how it turned out than he did. I didn’t have a bigger fan out there in the world.”
Choosing Robison as her producer, ironically, made for a long commute to work each day as she was recording the album, since Robison’s studio, the Bunker, is on a rustic five-acre plot with a fishing hole 40 minutes south of Austin. But it was worth the daily drive, she figures: “It’s kind of its own vibe out there, and you can hear it, I think, in the recordings. It feels old school to me. It’s got a real reverb chamber, and we did it on analog tape with an old board;” — old enough that “ the tape machine broke down six times while we were recording, but he’s got a guy he talks to up in Nashville that walks him through fixing it every time.”
That analog mentality filters into “Modern World,” one of the few songs on the album less about single-gal dilemmas and more about where Willis is now. “I can’t put my phone down,” she admits. “I’m trying to keep it away from my kids, but I’m not able to keep it away from myself. When we used to not have the stuff, we were forced to be more engaged. I was thinking I wanted to write about that, but I wanted to write about that in maybe the Louvin Brothers would have written about it.” “Freewheeling” is about how “everybody wishes they could let go of their anxiety or some of those old, comfortable pains that won’t go away. And I think we always look around and see other people that seem to be able to handle everything much easier.”
Sources for the four outside songs range from Rodney Crowell, who recommended that Willis cut “We’ll Do It for Love Next Time” (from his 2003 album “Fate’s Right Hand”),. to Skeeter Davis, whose “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” is the one pick you could pinpoint as being tied to a place in time, thanks to its lyrical reference to Cassius Clay. “We were trying to come up with other, more contemporary rhymes that might work there, like ‘Sugar Ray,’ but ultimately I liked the dated reference.”
Willis is hardly ashamed of looking backward for touchstones. “With this record I was trying to go with the styles of music that have really impacted my life, especially when I moved to Austin as a teenager, and make it country-sounding like Austin used to sound,” she says.
“Nick Lowe was a real north star for me on this record. ––Llike, ‘What would do Nick Lowe do?’ He was able to write modern songs that were like old songs—––that had a cool soul/R&B/Buddy Holly kind of a thing that had sounds from that early rock and roll era—––but that felt really fresh and exciting and now. I just love the A-B-C’s of rock and roll. Before everybody had to start piling on different things to make it sound different, it had all been done. With this record I was trying to go with the styles of music that have really impacted my life, especially when I moved to Austin as a teenager, and make it country-sounding like Austin used to sound.”
Nick Lowe may be Willis’ north star, but she’s been around just long enough to be a beacon for some acolytes of her own. That’s true even with appreciative fans from upstream in the generational river, like outlaw-era legend Ray Wylie Hubbard, who recently tweeted, “Kelly, you are the gold standard that I compare other artists to,” tTo which Kelly replied that she would put that in her bio.
“I know I’ve been around through many different phases of my genre of music. Whether it was the New Traditionalist, or Alt. Country or Americana. I ought to be able to write a book about it all. But in spite of my long career, I still think of myself as a teenager! I still feel like the underdog who’s trying to find her way”
That Willis still feels like that scrappy young comer, six albums and four kids later, is good news for anyone about to take a shine to the only slightly broken-hearted-feeling spunk of the new album. Blue definitely continues to be her color, but more than anything, she’s back feeling new.