Since her 1990 debut LP, Well Travelled Love, Kelly Willis has populated her albums with a smart blend of twangy country, rollicking rockers and adventurous cover tunes. But one could be forgiven for needing a bit of a refresher on Willis' outstanding solo records – it's been 11 years since the release of her most recent one, 2007's Translated From Love.
The Austin-based singer-songwriter has, however, been anything but idle since that time. On the personal front, she and husband, songwriter-producer and fellow artist Bruce Robison had four children in a span of five years and also birthed a pair of exceptional duets albums. The couple has also toured together and separately, with Robison releasing his first solo effort in eight years, Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band, in April 2017. Now, with Back Being Blue, out May 18th on Thirty Tigers, Willis steps into the solo spotlight with her seventh full-length project, an enchanting collection of self-penned tunes and impeccably chosen covers. Showcasing the jagged, vulnerable vocals of a honky-tonk angel who's also freely dabbled in rockabilly, power pop, new wave and R&B, it's that last genre that informs the dazzling title tune (premiering today), which kicked off Willis' creative process for the new record.
The singer talked recently with Rolling Stone Country about writing "Back Being Blue," which led the way for the remainder of the songs she wrote or chose to cover for the project. In the latter category is her spirited take on "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)," a 1969 country hit by Grand Ole Opry legend Skeeter Davis, with Willis retaining not only its vintage AM radio feel but its now-dated reference to boxer Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. She also talks about the classic-country tune inspired by the delicate dance of being social-media savvy while not "burning out on the drama" of the 24-hour news cycle.
"Back Being Blue" has a bit of an R&B vibe to it. Was that intentional?
I had been writing some more intimate, complicated songs and they just weren't clicking. So I wrote that one, and I was like, "OK, I really want to go to a classic sound." I want to go simple and universal. I also wanted it to be kind of old-school country-influenced. I don't know exactly where in the process the songs get their full personality, but in my mind I was thinking that it reminded me of a Crystal Gayle song. I wrote it when we were between homes. We were renting this tiny, little old junky house. I was in the middle of all the piles of boxes of junk, and just had a day to myself when everyone was out of the house, and I was struck to start writing a song. I know when I think something's good because I'll play it for Bruce.
When you're talking about the approach to a song, do you reference another particular song that's out there, or a particular artist that you use as a template?
Mostly I would with artists. For this record, I gave them a playlist, to put them in the vibe that I was going for that included Nick Lowe, Skeeter Davis, Marshall Crenshaw… I had Louvin Brothers in there. I was trying to go for this meld of some old-school country and… Marshall Crenshaw, Rockpile, Nick Lowe. I was trying to find some ways in which those two things met. It might have really been about that kind of Sixties reverb sound.
How did you hit upon the Skeeter
I was playing songs for Bruce, and I love Skeeter Davis. I really discovered her through NRBQ [
"Modern World" is a timely one, of course, considering how many of us are glued to our smart phones and social media.
Yeah, that's my current struggle. I just can't put it away.
Yet it's almost a necessity these days, especially with the way the music business is right now.
It's true that you have to be plugged into that world when you're a self-employed musician. With Facebook, I decided at some point it was too time-consuming and it did end up making me feel worse at the end of the day, so I did find a way to unplug from that as much as I could. But now that I'm going to have a new record out, I find myself having to sneak back in there. Once you sneak back in, it's a dive back in. There are definite bonuses to it, the connection with people, friends, family. We're all struggling with balancing those things, and I would really rather be engaged in the real world, but I can't pull myself away most of the time. I wanted to write an old-timey-sounding song about the real world.
Do you talk to your kids about their observations of current events and social media?
I try to. I think they think I'm a little bit of a nutcase, because I was a huge Hillary supporter, and I drug them down to the Women's March. They take everything I say with a grain of salt and they try to figure out if I know what I'm talking about or if I'm a nutcase. [Laughs] ... Yet it is also my job to make sure that they're not too heavily involved in the Internet, that they know what's fake and what's not. I remember my oldest son, most of his friends are conservative Republicans, and he would bring stories to me like they were facts, but I knew they were false. It's just a different world than I grew up in, and it requires conversation.