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Kelly Willis takes it easy

By Jeffrey B. Remz, September 2002

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The songs came from different periods of Willis' writing. "Wait Until Dark" was from way back in 1991. "That song was always just a favorite of mine," she says. "But it didn't feel right for that record (a self-titled disc out on MCA in 1993), and then I didn't have another record ' for five years. And it wasn't right for 'What I Deserve.' I was chomping at the bit to record it for this record. I just love the feel of it."

"I just thought it was too country with the last record," Willis says.

Willis co-wrote the song with John Leventhal, a writer, producer and husband of Rosanne Cash. "I just always felt so lucky that he was going to give me that music," says Willis. "It was so beautiful to work with. It is probably one of my favorites on this record."

The closing track, "Reason to Believe," is a lullaby to Deral. "I was trying to write it as a love song that anybody could relate to," she says. "Love can transform your life anywhere you find it. I have found it with my son."

"The lyrics came out very easily one evening. I had the music months and months before I had the lyrics. I think I even had the music before the baby was born. One night it just clicked that it was going to be my love song. The lyrics poured out one evening. They both came to me very easily and very quickly."

Willis tackles several covers on the album, including Kirsty MacColl's "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sunny Jim!" Paul Kelly's "You Can't Take It With You" on which Vince Gill contributes backing vocals and Marcia Ball's "Find Another Fool."

Willis' interest in the MacColl song dates back half a lifetime.

"When I first started to get into music, I was 16, and discovered stuff that wasn't on the radio. I was into rockabilly music, but there was underground stuff that was roots music. I followed her from an early age. I loved that album 'Kite,' and that song in particular I went nuts over. I had my career going, and I wanted to cover it, but I didn't think I could pull it off because of the lyrics. It's kind of a mature, thing. I think people always saw me as real timid, not that kind of gal. I didn't think people would believe me. Time went by and my edges are a little bit roughened, and I felt I could pull it off."

The song took on a sad quality for Willis because MacColl, a British singer, was killed in a freak boating accident while vacationing in Mexico over a year ago.

"When that happened, I really loved her, it hurt to hear about that, and I didn't know if I should (cut the song). I just don't know. I wanted to do it justice or not do it at all."

"The last thing we put on it was Lloyd Maines' steel guitar, and I think that really helped it out. Me and Amy (Farris, a member of Willis' band) did harmony vocals. It's such a girl's song. It's such a great story to tell."

Willis also covered her husband's "What Did You Think," which he recorded on "Long Way Home From Anywhere."

"That was my favorite song on that record," says Willis. "I remember I was on the road a lot at the time promoting 'What I Deserve.' I just put that record in and put that song in in particular. I missed him so much, and I love his sad songs. Since he put out 'Country Sunshine,' I felt I could record it. Enough time had passed. It was just my favorite one." We did maybe a guitar lick here and there that's different, but I don't think we did too much different. I may have sang the harmony on his version."

Willis and Robison, who first started dating in 1991 and married six years ago this October, tend not to write with each other, though they have toured together and contributed time in the studio to each other's projects.

"We've written maybe two or three songs together, but we don't do it very often. Mostly what we'll end up is playing something for the other person and getting their opinion and get back to work. We want to both have our own identity musically and also in our own relationship. We want to be different people with different lives. We try to be careful about mixing too much of our work in our personal lives. I know lots and lots of people in this business who don't make it. We'll do whatever it takes to make our relationship strong."

Growing up, Willis, an Oklahoma native, was an Army brat, who eventually settled in Austin.

She acquired her musical interests from her mother, who was in community theatre. "It made it seem like more of a possibility. I didn't really get into it until I was a singer in a rockabilly band."

She formed a band Radio Ranch with drummer Mas Palermo, who later would become her husband and ex-husband (They are on good terms today).

A show at the South by Southwest music confab in Austin in 1989 brought Willis to the attention of then MCA Nashville head Tony Brown, who signed her.

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