For Kelly Willis, following up 1999's universally adored What I Deserve was not as "easy" as you'd guess.
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"I felt a little pressure because I had a successful record - I thought people might expect the same thing," the Austin-based chanteuse admits. "Whereas the last one, it was like, last ditch-effort, who cares what anyone thinks?"
"I tried to have fun, put together songs I liked and not worry about how it was going to be received. Just do it and enjoy it."
That spirit shines right through on Easy (RCD 10622), ten gorgeously bittersweet songs that range from bluegrass to barroom to blue-eyed balladry, centered as ever around Willis' amazing voice, which delivers both the honey and the sting. Languid and more acoustic than its predecessor, Easy trods a different path without abandoning the qualities that earned What I Deserve countless best-of honors, including raves from the likes of Greil Marcus ("the sort of record you can play all afternoon without getting tired of itů") and TIME's Richard Corliss ("this cowgirl can sing the blues as if she'd grown up inside them...").
"The whole album is more relaxed than anything I've done," Willis says, adding, apropos the title, "it has a real easy way about it." The title track took her a long time to come up with, but "once it was finished, I just felt like, this is the heart and meaning, this is a deeper song that could hold the weight of the rest of the record. Sometimes the hardest stuff is the stuff you have no control over - you don't have to do anything, it just happens. The moment you accept what's happening is the moment you're able to move past it."
You can chalk that attitude up to an artist at the peak of her ability, or you can chalk it up to real-life growth - Willis and her singer-songwriter husband Bruce Robison became parents in January 2001. As a result, young Deral's formerly reserved mother has become more self-assured and mellow. "I have to be a good example, showing him how great the world can be, and what you can do with it," she says.
Willis has made a half-dozen records since 1990, including three albums for MCA Nashville and the cult-fave "Fading Fast" EP for A&M. Her involvement in each aspect of the creative process has expanded over time. What I Deserve, her Rykodisc debut, was the first time she made something exactly as she wanted, with producer Dave McNair and a cavalcade of like-minded players from Austin and beyond. Now Easy finds her in the co-producer's chair, as well as writing more songs on her own. The two co-writes on the record are both from old collaborations: "Wait Until Dark," written with John Leventhal, dates back to the early '90s, while "Getting To Me" is from Willis' sessions with The Jayhawks' Gary Louris last time around.
"On What I Deserve, I think I ended up co-writing because I lacked the confidence to finish my own songs," Willis says. "This time through I was much more protective of my ideas, much more comfortable just letting my songs be what they are. And producing was a great experience. I think all artists are co-producers or co-creators, but I never realized how much weight is on your shoulders when you're actually doing it. I learned a lot."
Willis shared the load with Gary Paczosa, whose credentials range from Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Dixie Chicks, and Dolly Parton's recent discs to Alan Jackson and Ricky Van Shelton. Also providing a comfort zone were the core musicians from What I Deserve - guitarists Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges) and Chuck Prophet, bassist John Ludwick (Charlie Robison) and drummer Rafael Gayol (Jon Dee Graham, The Flatlanders).
"We were all just throwing ideas out there together," Willis says. "It was a great situation, because all those people are so talented." The original concept was to take an offbeat approach towards "a real hardcore country record. But what we were doing was feeling really good and right, so we just let it happen."
Besides, what good are labels like "hardcore country (or "alt-country," or "adult-alternative")? "I don't really fit into any category," Willis agrees. "I think that people associate me with country music, so they know to look for me in the country section. Beyond that, who knows?"
Once upon a time, MCA knew. Willis, an Army brat who was born in Oklahoma and spent chunks of her childhood and teen years around Fort Bragg, NC and Washington, DC, was plucked from the clubs of Austin in 1989. She had the looks, the voice, the hype, and label boss Tony Brown surrounded her with heavy hitters, both commercial and artistic. The records, though polished, had great songs and greater heart.
The mainstream never really noticed. It was a long trip from Music City to What I Deserve. But Willis is more philosophical than bitter. "A lot of people ask me, 'What's wrong with Nashville,' but overall I had a good experience," she says. "It just didn't work, for a variety of reasons. I'm still on good terms with people there, and I learned so much from it. When you're in it you don't know there's anything else, and when you're out of it you realize you don't even register on the radar. I'm glad to be on the outside. It's a broader, fuller life."
A life, needless to say, that couldn't happen anywhere but Texas. "Austin's been everything to me," Willis says. "It's given me a life of music. It's always been a place I could play and get better at what I do. When What I Deserve came out it was just amazing to me that it would do so well, and get played on the radio so much. I felt so embraced."
Most of Easy was recorded at Austin's Bismeaux Studios, where steel guitarist (and Dixie Chicks producer) Lloyd Maines and keyboardist Ian McLagan were among the drop-bys. "He came in with that same organ he played 'Maggie Mae,' on," Willis says of the former Small Face, who lives in Austin. "Mark and Chuck didn't have to work that day, but they showed up anyway."
The record also features backing vocals by Alison Krauss, her Union Station bandmate (and Soggy Bottom Boy) Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill, though those parts were all done afterwards in Nashville. "Now I have a great excuse to go backstage with my record at their next show," Willis says. "I got to meet Marshall Crenshaw that way."
Ditto Paul Kelly, a longtime Willis favorite. She played a gig with him Down Under in 1999, when the Aussie songsmith was touring with bluegrassers Uncle Bill. The wise, witty "You Can't Take It With You" was their signature song. Easy also features a tough-but-tender version of Austin boogie queen Marcia Ball's "Find Another Fool," a staple of Kelly's live show, and "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim" by Kirsty MacColl - another female artist who was equally spot-on as an interpretive singer and a songwriter.
"I always wanted to perform it and never did for two reasons," Willis says of "ůSonny Jim," which is from MacColl's 1989 record Kite. "One was that the chords were too hard for me to play, and the other was I didn't think I could pull those lyrics off convincingly. They were a little too mature for me at the time." 13 years later, she can do it, but when MacColl passed away in December of 2000, Willis hesitated. "I didn't know if it would be appropriate," she says. "It's not like I could make it better."
But songwriters live on through their songs - Kelly stuck to the plan, and the track stands as a memorial.
Closer to home - literally - is Robison's "What Did You Think," originally on his Long Way Home album. "It was just my favorite one," Willis says. "I wanted to hear it over and over again. I just love Bruce's sad songs. One of these days I'll probably do a record that's all his." Husband and wife do share a club stage on occasion, "but we try and stay separate enough that we don't want to kill each other," Willis jokes. "Whenever we can play together, it's something special." Of course, now that Deral's in the picture, touring could be more a family affair. "I get really jealous when I come home from a gig and my husband and son have really bonded. I'm gonna have to take him with me."
Deral inspired the record's final track, the ruefully optimistic "Reason to Believe." "I had that melody rolling around in my head for a long time, but it wasn't 'til after my son was born that the lyrics came to me," Willis says. "They kind of poured right out one night. It's basically a lullaby to him, but I was hoping it would come across as a love song everyone could relate to. Love makes you feel that transformed wherever you find it."
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