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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #40 July-Aug 2002

Kelly Willis

Nothing to fearKelly Willis releases herself to the moment and finds freedom

Willis also included a song she’d had in her head for a long time, but could never get right. “I had the melody and title lyric for ‘Not What I Had In Mind’ for awhile,” she explains, “but I never could get the lyrics to come. Bruce and I used to go for long drives and try to think of the words to match the melody, but we never could force it out. Finally, I was alone in a hotel room and it just came to me out of nowhere. That song just wrote itself; it all just fell into place.”

The musings of a woman who is most certain of loving her man once he is gone, Willis says the song comes from personal experience. “Bruce and I have been there many times. Before we got married, we used to break up every other month, only to realize how much we cared for each other,” she says with a little laugh. “Yeah, I’ve experienced that song for sure.”

On Easy, Willis is backed by a stellar cast of players, including keyboardist Ian McLagan, guitarists Chuck Prophet and Mark Spencer, and drummer Rafael Gayol. Background vocals were contributed by a startling cast of high-profile country and bluegrass artists, including Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Chris Thile. Co-producer Gary Paczosa had worked with many of the singers, and asked them to participate.

“I would have never had the nerve to approach them,” Willis says. “I was thrilled to work with them. I shy away from using the big stars because I want it to be all about the songs, all about the music, and not about the images that go along. But with these guests, it just made the songs stronger because they were all so talented.”

Willis produced the record with Paczosa, who has engineered and worked behind the scenes on albums by such artists as Krauss, Dolly Parton and Patty Griffin. Former Rough Trade Records chief Geoff Travis reprised his role as executive producer (he had done the same on What I Deserve).

“I love it that Geoff just says ‘Go with your instincts,’” Willis says. “And Gary and I only talked a couple of minutes about the record before deciding to do it together. He hadn’t had many producing experiences and I had never produced a record at all, so we learned together. Gary is such a kind man. He made me feel very safe about the record.”

The feeling is mutual. “Kelly is such a joy to work with,” Paczosa says. “This go-round she really seems to have found her voice and vision. Her unassuming style, honest approach and easy nature really kept the energy level nice and steady. She’s one of those singers that while you’re hanging with her, you forget what a talent she is, then she goes to the mike and knocks you out, every time.”

It’s also easy to forget that talent while Willis sits in her own back yard, cloaked in darkness. She chatters on as if we are old friends, her voice quiet and soothing, not giving a hint of its ability to belt out in song. Even when she speaks passionately on a subject, her words are carefully chosen and her tone is subdued.

She stretches her legs straight out from her wrought-iron chair and looks up into the branches of the mimosa, listening as I quote from a journalist who calls her a “perfectionist.” She laughs, bringing her feet back down to the ground quickly. “I am definitely not that. I hate to rehearse. I hate to practice — not exactly traits of a perfectionist. After a show, I won’t even be aware of what went wrong.”

She pauses for a long moment, her face golden in the light from the long, rectangular windows of her house. “I do want to be prepared for anything that can happen, though. I’m not very good at winging it.”

Willis says she wrote most of the songs for Easy while on the road and hasn’t been writing anything lately. “I write best under pressure,” she says. “Sometimes around the house, I’ll catch a melody or a phrase. But as far as songs, I only write those on the road. Like in a motel room, where I have absolutely no distractions.”

Willis won’t be spending too much time in motel rooms with the release of Easy. She is planning a short tour, most likely only going out on three 10-or-12-day runs. “Because of the baby,” she says, looking sad at the mere thought of leaving home. “I’ve only been away from him for four days and that just about broke my heart.”

It is past the baby’s bedtime now, and Willis is anxious to get inside and see if he has fallen asleep. Still, she takes the time to walk me out front. When she sees that my taxi still hasn’t arrived, she peeks in the front door to see what Deral is up to, and snaps on the porch light.

The scent of the mimosa has followed us out front. Either that or the smell has settled on our clothes. Willis crosses her arms against the fragrant night air and stands on the front stoop. A baby carriage is parked haphazardly in front of her on the sidewalk, and daylilies — neatly planted on either side of the steps — glow in the faint moonlight. “I can’t let you wait out here alone,” she says.

Robison appears at the door again, all smiles. “You want me to order a pizza?” he asks.

“Yeah, we should have ordered it before so I could have done the interview in my true form…with pizza sauce all over my face,” she says.

The taxi driver’s son is with him when he arrives, clad in a perpetual grin and a Willie Nelson T-shirt that makes him look like a member of the Austin Welcome Wagon. He leans against the window and squints at the gray shadows of the stoop as Willis and Robison stand there, waving goodbye. “Aw, man. Is that Kelly Willis?” he says. “I heard her down at the Continental one night, and she was just awesome. She’s got it all together.”

Silas House is currently looking for a mimosa tree to plant in his own back yard. House’s second novel, A Parchment of Leaves, will be published by Algonquin Books in October 2002.

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Originally Featured in Issue #40 July-Aug 2002

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