Sense of Self
Deserving singer finally comes into her own
By Michael McCall
APRIL 5, 1999: After nearly a decade in the music business, Kelly Willis is finally hitting her stride. The Austin, Texas-based singer has always made good records, but it's only recently that she has been able to determine her own musical identity. As she intones pointedly on the title track of her new album, What I Deserve, "I have done the best I can, but what I've done is not who I am."
Those lines pretty much sum up Willis' experience on Music Row in the early '90s, when over the course of three critically lauded albums for MCA Records, she failed to score a single country radio hit. Listening again to those albums, it's evident that Willis was an unusually capable country vocalist, and that the work she created ranks among the most interesting Nashville records of the period. But in retrospect, it's clear that she never settled into a style that was completely her own.
At their best, Willis' MCA releases displayed her knack for putting a souped-up twang into rockabilly tunes and for summoning complex emotions on certain ballads. But these albums ultimately came off as failed attempts at finding a middle ground between the songs she wanted to do and the songs that might get her airplay on country radio.
Truth is, Willis isn't the kind of singer modern country radio likes; she's far too complicated for that. Unlike straight-ahead belters Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride, she owns a vinegary, twangy voice that needs room to slur words and slide delicately through its range. Hers isn't a voice meant for putting across clear-spoken emotions or fist-pumping anthems; Willis is better at expressing hidden things.
That's why What I Deserve ranks as the first true Kelly Willis album of her career--or at least the first record that capitalizes on her strengths rather than compromising them. The new collection completes a journey that Willis started in 1993, when MCA cut her from its roster, just as it had released her third album. "It was a real blow," she says. "I was real hurt. I wasn't prepared for the timing of it. I was so attached to everyone there, and suddenly it was like we weren't family anymore."
Eventually, she saw her severance as a blessing. "I was feeling lost musically, says the soft-spoken Willis, whose youthful shyness of a decade ago has evolved into a kind of quiet, reserved strength. "So I thought the best thing to do was just start over, as if I had never had a career, hadn't put any records out, and had the freedom to be whoever I want to be."
She spent a couple of years writing songs, letting her feelings lead her to new musical ground. Signed by A&M Records, she spent time in the studio with several leaders of the mid-'90s alternative country movement, recording songs backed by Son Volt, Sixteen Horsepower, and members of the Jayhawks. "For the first time, I didn't feel any pressure in the studio," Willis says. "I experimented with different elements and got to figure out how I wanted to sound."
Those sessions led to the release of a striking four-song sampler, Fading Fast. Before she got to release a complete album, however, A&M underwent the first of many corporate shakeups. Teresa Ensenat, the executive guiding Willis' career, left the company. The singer was cut soon afterward.
"I didn't feel as scared as you might think," she says of losing her second record contract. "I had kind of dealt with it before, and I wasn't as freaked out about it. Besides, I figured I would land on my feet."
She did. Quickly snatched up by Rykodisc, a leading independent record company, Willis revisited the tapes she'd created for A&M. She retooled a few songs and recorded several more with a hand-picked group of musicians, including guitarists Mark Spencer, Chuck Prophet, John Dee Graham, and Lloyd Maines. The result is What I Deserve.
"I found out that I can be myself and still make a record," she says. "For the first time, I'm not pretending to be anything I'm not. I found out that I can be completely in control of my own recording, and I never had to do that before. Now that I know I can do that, I feel really comfortable with it."
At this point, Willis has left her early rockabilly influences behind. In search of a more mature sound, she has chosen to record songs about searching for love, for identity, for a reason for being. "I'm 30 years old now, and I feel real good about presenting these songs at this time in my life. I feel like they're songs you can grow old with."
They include an ambitious range of covers, including songs by Nick Drake ("Time Has Told Me"), Dan Penn ("Real Deep Feeling"), Paul Kelly ("Cradle of Love"), and Paul Westerberg (The Replacements' "They're Blind"). But the most memorable work comes from closer to home: Two of the best songs were written by her husband, Bruce Robison, including the wonderful "Wrapped," a sprightly mid-tempo tune about a woman's conflicting emotions as she unsuccessfully tries to put an old relationship behind her. (Interestingly enough, Robison wrote the song about Willis during a time when the couple had temporarily split up.)
Perhaps most importantly, though, Willis contributes some of the best songs herself. Besides the fine title track, there's "Talk Like That," a wistful country song about hearing her hometown in a stranger's accent, and the flood of memories that results from hearing familiar speech patterns in a place far from home.
"It occurred to me that if my music was going to be unique, it had to be from my point of view," she says. "What really inspired me to write more was thinking about Emmylou Harris. I love all the songs she's covered, but when you hear a song she's written, you feel like you're getting let in on a secret. It's so much more intimate."
Getting to this point, getting to where she feels as if she's revealing more of herself as an artist, has made the trials of the past easier to accept. "After a while, I realized that I was real unhappy in that world," she says of the mainstream country music industry. "I just didn't fit in. I was failing everybody on every front, including myself. They were spending a lot of money on me, and I just wasn't charming the right people. At conventions and stuff like that, I just didn't feel comfortable. It wasn't my world, really.... At some point I realized I didn't want to be a superstar. But I did hope I could have a career somehow."
What I Deserve suggests she has finally found the right path. By forgetting about finding hits and concentrating on finding herself, Willis may have hit upon a career formula that works for her.
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