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Kelly Willis takes it easy

By Jeffrey B. Remz, September 2002

Last time out, Kelly Willis may have gotten what she deserved. So much so, so above and beyond expectations that now life is apparently "Easy."

Well, at least that's what she called her brand new CD on Rykodisc.

But if you think the Texas singer would hit the replay button, forget about it.

"I wanted it to be different than the last record," says Willis in a telephone interview from her Austin home. "It's more interesting for me. I wanted to go out and do something for me. You get tired of doing the same thing over and over. I wanted to change it up a little bit. I also wanted to make something that was more of a country record, a more traditional country record than the last one. It's also acoustic driven (though) there is some electric. It's mostly acoustic solos and stuff like that. I just felt like doing that this time around."

Willis also thinks her vocals changed given the musical bent of the 10 songs. "There's a different quality here because the music is more acoustic," she says. "I don't have to compete with it as much. The music was softer, so I could sing softer and have it fit in the track and match the track. If you go sing with a big electric band in a rock club and you see them do a little acoustic thing in a listening room, it's going to be a different dynamic."

"I was excited to do different things with my voice and do different falsetto stuff too. That was one of the things that was different about this record. It was also a little nerve wracking. When all was said and done, we got to nitpicking the vocals."

But Willis often nailed the song on one take. "A lot of the times, I would like to use a vocal that's all one performance. But sometimes you have to listen and see if there's stuff you can't get away with using."

And in listening to her voice, Willis realized the soft quality led to another realization. "Oh my God," she says. "They're so vulnerable. They're so out there because of the softness."

"It worked out pretty good. We ended up using one track on most of the the songs."

Willis, who had several albums out on MCA when she was in her early 20's, resurfaced on the Massachusetts-based Rykodisc with "What I Deserve" in 1999. The disc received glowing reviews and sold about 115,000 copies, far more than her MCA discs.

One would think Willis would have quickly capitalized on the commercial success of "What I Deserve."

But that was not the case thanks to Willis and husband, fellow musician Bruce Robison, having a son, Deral, in January 2001.

"I've been wanting to have a baby for a long time," says Willis, 34. "I've devoted a lot of time to wanting to be a mother and having him. That was a priority. I (wanted to have a recording) session for when he was about six months old. It didn't happen. I pushed it back a few months. I rescheduled, and it didn't happen. I rescheduled. I'm a slow worker. I don't have that multi-tasking that women are supposed to have. I just don't have it."

"I wanted to really devote myself to my family. That was my priority. I wasn't getting the songs together and all of the little details that go into recording a album. I just wasn't getting them together. I was too busy taking care of my son. I was just pushing it back rather than making a record that wasn't planned or well thought out."

Among the details: getting the right studio, producer, recording personnel, musicians, songs, etc., etc.

Willis acknowledges receiving "a little bit" of pressure from Rykodisc. "We kind of talked about as a group. It wasn't like they were angry with me. They were trying to give me that encouraging push to get it done."

Willis admits she was concerned what affect the long layoff would have on her fan base. In the music business, it seems that many artists find their sometimes fickle audience has moved on if they wait too long between albums.

"I'm sure somewhere in the back of my mind I worry about that. But, you know, I just feel lucky I get to make a record. I try not to think whether radio's going to play it, whether people are going to buy it. I just try to make it good. If I make something good, then it will find its own audience. Every time in my life I have worried about it, it hasn't done me any good. I try to figure out the secret. I just let it go."

Willis regards the title track as the centerpiece.

"That song, I worked on that one for a long time," says Willis. "I just had the first verse and then the little hook line ("easy is falling apart"). I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say or what I was trying to hit, although I knew I had hit something that was really striking a chord with me. I chipped away with that for a long time. It felt like to me that the heart of this record like the song 'What I Deserve' for the last record - that I could shape this record around that song. It's similar to 'What I Deserve' in that it doesn't have some clearcut meaning. It's open to interpretation, but generally the things that happen in life are hard, but in a way they're easy because you have no control with them."

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