Freewheeling With the First Lady of Austin Country, Kelly Willis

Pondering her first solo album in more than a decade

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

I thought I would get to a new album sooner than I did. I'm a very slow decision maker and process kind of person, so I can let a lot of time go by and not feel it. That's really what happened.

After I made [2007's] Translated From Love, it was then that [husband] Bruce [Robison] and I started to see the possibility of making music together. That was what we wanted to do at that point, because it was working for us. It was never like I was going to stop doing solo stuff, and I still did occasional solo tours here and there.

There were plenty of times I tried to force the issue, thinking I needed to make a solo record and I'm going to make it happen. Then you start trying to make it happen and it just isn't working. For whatever reason, certain pathways aren't opening up to you. So I would have to regroup and take stock.

Really, it wasn't until I wrote "Back Being Blue" that I felt like I had a vision. That's when I knew what I wanted to do and the record I wanted to make. Then it happened quickly.

It was different than past albums. With your first record, you know what you want to do. You're playing all the time, building towards this goal. No one's ever heard of you, but you've got all this excitement. I think the only other time I've felt this driven was with [1999 indie debut] What I Deserve, where I had something to prove – to myself and to the rest of the world.

And maybe I feel like I have something to prove with this album. It's always good to feel like you have something to prove. But that wasn't the driving force. I was just excited about it and it felt fun, and I felt good about it. Sometimes you can feel so insecure or worried in the creative process. You worry, "Am I going to be able to find that again, or is that it for me?"

So mostly I was happy I had an idea.

I will take a really long time to write a song. I will let something lie for a long time and then come back and noodle with it. "Freewheeling" took me a long time, because I had that melody but I wasn't sure what I wanted to say.

Time will go by if you’re not paying attention. I’m really good at distracting myself and getting busy doing other things.

Time will go by if you're not paying attention. I'm really good at distracting myself and getting busy doing other things. It was a little bit frustrating because it wasn't just coming to me. I'd been trying to write stuff for years, and some of that stuff would be on my list for an album and then go away. I had songs that I liked and I saw some potential in, but they just weren't firing me up.

I have to have faith that even though you feel frustrated, even though you don't know if you'll ever write another song, that you will. I'm one of those people that likes to have a deadline, to have some reason that I have to do it. I want to avoid like anything that feeling of not being able to write a song. It's the worst feeling in the world, so I will just not attempt it. I will just go organize the kitchen pantry and distract myself with other stuff. [Editor's note: including four children in their teens.]

I was trying to delve into the music that made me really happy, made me want to become a musician, and was so inspiring to me to begin with. It was about finding what made me fall in love with Austin when I moved here [in 1987] – when everything was discovery and all kinds of music were really new. There was so much to get excited about.

I was a little worried because I hadn't taken the reins in a long time. I've been part of a duo for a couple of albums, so figuring out what I sound like if I'm not part of Bruce & Kelly was a bit of a mystery. We just blend it all so well.

To go out with this new album, we're both realizing what we're missing from the other one when we're on our own. So it's different. As much as you want to go out and prove that you can do it on your own, you also come to appreciate what the other offered.

I did some pre-production without Bruce, and that was really terrifying for me. I was really out of my element and uncomfortable, and just not in the flow of remembering how to communicate musical ideas. I learned a lot about what did and didn't work, which is what you're supposed to do in pre-production.

Then when I was talking with Bruce about it, he was getting everything I was trying to communicate. He would understand what I wanted. So as much as we're trying to do our separate things sometimes, it was just obvious that there was no better person to help me through the process than him.

I don't think I have a bigger fan than him, and no one would care as much how my record turned out than him, so it was perfect.

Whenever I left Nashville, or when Nashville left me, I made a decision to do something different, and at that point I wasn't sure I would ever get to make another record. Making What I Deserve was possibly my swan song, so at that point I made a shift to thinking I would just be lucky to get to make music, and make music for the art of it and the personal joy of it.

Anything after that is just gravy.

Kelly Willis Through the Pages

2016: "Laughing it Up With Kelly Willis"

2014: "Our Year"

2013: "The Bandera Way"

2007: "Translated From Love"

2002: "Redemption Song" and "Easy"

1999: "The Wisdom of Years"

Kelly Willis appears at the Bastrop Music Festival on Friday, May 18. The release show for Back Being Blue takes place Saturday, June 2, in Austin at the Stateside Theatre.

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Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison

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