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For Kelly Willis, absence proves the proverb right

By Joel Bernstein, March 1999

Is Kelly Willis this year's Lucinda Williams? Both seem to have reaped the benefits of the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" proverb.

Willis' new Rykodisc album, "What I Deserve" (like Williams' 1998 "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road") arrives after a seemingly endless array of frustrating delays that seem to have left most critics' in a worshipful state.

The adulation that has already greeted Willis' latest, in every major musical and general entertainment publication, belies the fact that her only three previous albums were not only commercial failures, but didn't get much attention from most of these publications.

"People seem to be excited that I have a record out," Willis saysfrom her Austin home. "I didn't know if anyone would even care."

There are differences between the two women, of course. For one, Williams is known primarily as a songwriter. Willis has developed her following mainly via her voice, though she has always written songs too. She's responsible in whole or in part for six songs on the new album, but Willis emphasizes that "I'm not a prolific writer. I write in spurts."

Another difference is in the sources of their respective albums' delays. Williams' was due mainly to her own now legendary ultra-perfectionism.

In Willis' case, her album was put off by more typical record industry machinations. After three albums on MCA failed to significantly dent the targeted commercial country market. Willis was dropped. She found herself on A&M, a label which (like her current label Rykodisc) would by necessity have had to go after a different audience. An EP, "Fading Fast," was released, sort of (in Texas only pretty much anyway), but the promised album never appeared.

"I was there (A&M) for about a year and a half, and I was just getting to make a record when they did a housecleaning. My A&R person was one of those let go." With no one left at the label to support her, Willis soon made her own exit.

"It didn't devastate me like the MCA deal. It ate up a lot of time, and then I had to figure out how to make a record. I couldn't find a label that would take a chance to let me do what I wanted to do and not be a co-creator. A guy from England named Geoff Travis, who used to run Rough Trade, put up the money."

The finished product impressed Rykodisc enough that they took it on as is.

As for the devastation of leaving MCA, Willis says "It's not that they dumped me because I knew they were going to at the end of the record. But they did it right after the record came out. And (label head) Tony Brown didn't call to tell me about it. I considered him a close friend. They were like my family. I was so young when I started working there. I liken it to a divorce."

Willis adds that she and Brown eventually mended their fences.

Willis, 30, has commented frequently about how Nashville is very good at pressuring artists to do things the Nashville way, while convincing them it was their own decision. After allowing an artist to do it their own way on a first album, when it fails, they've got you.

"It's amazing how intense that pressure feels. You know it's not exactly what you want, but they're going to drop me. Maybe I can work with this, and make it okay." (It worked for Sara Evans).

After a well-received show at Austin's South By Southwest music festival in 1989, Willis signed with MCA. She released "Well-Traveled Love" in 1990.

When Willis' second album, "Bang Bang," also failed, she had less pressure on the third. "The third album ("Kelly Willis," co-produced by Don Was and Brown) was more my record than the others," says Willis, which may explain why the label had no interest in promoting it. Of her MCA output, Willis adds "I'm really proud of most of it."

The title of the latest album has led some people to call it a comment on her lack of commercial success.

"That's not what it's about," Willis says. "That song to me is the backbone of the album. (The title) comes across as arrogant, but that's not what I'm trying to say with the song. It's more spiritual than that. It's an unanswered question. There's been an emptiness. There has to be more, and I'm missing it somehow. The bridge (of the song) is the feeling of knowing that somehow you're not doing what you should be doing with your life. I've come to realize it's a woman's song. Women really understand what I'm trying to say in this song. They come up and tell me what it's about. Men haven't figured it out."

The album also includes two songs written by Willis' husband, Bruce Robison, including the title song from his most recent album "wrapped."

Even on his own album, many of Robison's songs seem tailor-made for Willis to sing.

"I feel really connected to Bruce's songwriting. I feel like I completely understand what he's been doing. I really love singing and playing his songs. We lived almost the same life. We both came from divorced families, at about the same age and lived with our father. He did come from a small town in Texas, and I was an army brat."

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