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Kelly Willis takes it easy

By Jeffrey B. Remz, September 2002

Page 3...

WIllis released "Well Traveled Love" in 1990 and "Bang Bang" the following year with both backed by the band. She received positive press, but didn't tax the cash registers.

Willis released a third, self-titled album for MCA with Brown and Don Was producing in 1993. She soon was given the axe, a bitter experience for Willis.

That same year, she also was in the Tim Robbins movie "Bob Roberts" as a folk singer.

When asked if the MCA experience left her wondering if she had a future, Willis says, "No I didn't. I had a lot of hope. I knew that I had a lot of work ahead of me. I was eager to have a break from Nashville. I was going to try and completely reinvent myself. I (thought) in my mind that Nashville had never happened. I was kind of pretending that this was my first record. I had a lot of hope, and I was pretty confident that it would."

By 1996, Willis had signed a new deal with A&M Records. The only thing that came out of that was a four-song EP, "Fading Fast."

"Initially, it was sent as a promo to radio stations letting them know I was working on a record," Willis says. "There was a little demand for it, so it was a regional release (in Texas). There was some red tape. I was excited it was out and that people liked it. They were really demos. It wasn't really the record I was working on."

But the people who signed Willis were gone, never a good sign for an artist. Willis says the label offered to keep her, but she doubted anyone there would really be her advocate.

"After a few years of trying to get it together, having a deal and then I lost it, I started to get nervous," Willis says. "I thought maybe there wasn't a place for me."

But Willis didn't throw in the towel. She made a record, which her friend Geoff Travis (of British label Rough Trade) shopped to different labels in the U.S.

"Ryko responded most positively. They're an eclectic label and (take) a grassroots approach to the people who want to hear it instead of forcing it on people."

Willis went for the indie label.

"It's not as glamorous to be on an indie label as being on a major label because (the majors) have a lot of money," says Willis. "You feel like it's smaller team, and you feel more connected with the people. I feel really appreciated. I feel like I'm making music that makes a difference. My soul feels enriched being at this place in my life. It's interesting because it ended up being much more commercially (successful) at the same time. It's interesting how that's worked out."

The sales of "What I Deserve" far exceeded the 60,000 she had sold of each of her MCA albums.

"So, it was really phenomenal to sell 100,000 in the space of a year or two years," Willis says. "It was my goal, but it was not what Ryko thought was going to happen. They had to look at that stuff realistically at what I had sold before. They were overjoyed."

Willis says she was "was very pleasantly surprised. I thought that might be my swan song to the musical community. It was my own songs. They are what they are. I was so over enjoyed that people responded so positively and were willing to support me."

"I was very nervous. Every little decision weighed on me like life and death. Should I put a harmony here or not? It needed to be perfect."

Willis says if the disc didn't work out, "I would do something else with my life. I didn't have a record label. There was a lot about it that was risky."

"I sort of tried for it, and when I started to notice, the press and every town was positive. The record sales were staying steady. It just had this really long life to it, and I realized over the course of a few months that people really liked it, and that my career wasn't over."

And now she will get the chance to hit the road to support her latest musical baby. "We've got a little deal now where Bruce is going to slow down and take care of the baby while I work. He wanted to be recording by now. He's got music he's got to be recording."

"I think what I'm going to do now is do four-day weekends. I can't be away from him (Deral) longer than three days. That's what I think I'd do."

And what about the idea of a country family values tour, which brother in law Charlie Robison has supported with the idea of the Robisons, Willis and Charlie's wife's band, aka, the Dixie Chicks, hitting the road together?

"I don't know if it'll ever happen," says Willis. "I'd love for it to happen. I'd be thrilled for it to happen. The Chicks are so successful. I would, of course, love to go out and play with all those people. Boy, I can't imagine working out the logistics."

Wills could end up getting what she deserved again. Easy.

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