In several pieces I’ve written for Slant, I’ve railed against the influence of fanboyism creeping into pop-culture criticism. It perpetuates the misconceptions that the sole purpose of professional criticism is to take popular targets and write something negative about them for sport and that the only people with valid opinions about, say, Transformers, are those who were convinced of its brilliance before ever seeing it for themselves and who immediately decried the intentions of “haters” who dared to think otherwise. It’s an attitude anathema to actual critical thought, in other words, and it assumes that popular culture doesn’t merit the kind of attention or scrutiny as opera or works of literature. Taking that into consideration, fanboyism highlights the fact that no writer is free from bias, but that there’s value to having some degree of critical objectivity.
I say all of this because my affinity for Kelly Willis and her music put a serious strain on whatever objectivity I might have had during my interview with the singer prior to her recent show at The Dame in Lexington, Kentucky in support of her latest album, Translated from Love. Willis’s first three albums, recorded for MCA in the early 1990s, were instrumental in changing the way that I listen to and think about music-particularly country music. Along with artists like BR5-49, Shelby Lynne, and Jim Lauderdale, Willis drew my attention to what I perceived as significant discrepancies between the quality of many “fringe” acts and the most popular artists on the radio. Then I started listening to the diverse artists that Willis and others cited as influences, hearing clear links to the country genre’s past and how Willis drew from those sources of inspiration in creating music that was both contemporary and progressive. That’s something I continue to look for in modern country music, and Willis played a major role in setting that precedent.
Still, there’s really no way to say, “I owe a big part of my point of view to you,” without sounding certifiable. And, obviously, I was the interviewer, not the subject of the conversation. That Willis is currently on a full national tour for the first time since 2003 and has a terrific new record out, though, made sure that we had plenty to talk about. And however enthusiastic I was about her latest album, I couldn’t match Willis’s own enthusiasm for this new material and for the chance to perform that material on the road. Willis has four kids at home, and with Translated from Love, she was ready to put on her dancing shoes and have a little fun.
It’s been a while since you really cut loose on a record the way you do on Translated from Love. It sounds like you had a blast recording it.
Kelly Willis: We did, and that’s all [producer] Chuck [Prophet]. He’s so fun. He’s just a genius, musically. He just really lives and breathes music. He played guitar on What I Deserve and Easy, but this is the first time he was in the producer’s seat, and I just love his instincts. His direction, I think, brought a lot of what you’re talking about to this project. And you know, Easy was the last record that I did, and I’ve been doing that material for the last five years. And I love it, but it’s just so laid back. I just really felt like going off and having some fun.
That was actually going to be my next question. Did you go in deliberately trying to come up with something that kicked a little bit harder, that was a little bit more uptempo?
I did. You know, I’m a parent. I take care of kids all day long. I want to go out and have a good time, so that was definitely a goal.
You tend to draw from a pretty diverse well of songwriters and make some unconventional choices with your cover tunes. I know that Chuck was the one who brought you “Teddy Boys,” but how do you typically go about deciding what songs you’re going to cover?
Well, we sent files back and forth to each other and argued over them. He had a few that he really wanted me to do, and I had a few that I really wanted to do. We negotiated, “I’ll do that if you’ll do this.” So we eventually agreed on a full album’s worth of material. I don’t like to do songs that are incredibly well known, but I just like good songs. I like great lyrics. I like to take things that people don’t really think of as a “country song” and then make it into a country song.
The Jules Shear cover [“They’re Blind”] that you recorded for What I Deserve was very effective in that regard. It doesn’t necessarily, on the surface, sound like a country song, but the way you delivered it and the production really roped it into the genre.
It’s got great lyrics, you know. You can make a country song out of any great lyric.
“Teddy Boys” and the Iggy Pop cover [“Success”] are definitely a departure from the sound of your last couple of albums. How have those songs been received by your fans?
I think the reaction has been positive. It surprises people. Some of the reviews, one or two of them have said, “Well, that’s an interesting choice.” But at the shows, it’s more insular, and after the song is over, the response is just that it’s fun, and they weren’t expecting it but it was just kind of right.
Were you at all concerned about how those songs might be received live, like when Chuck shows up with “Teddy Boys” and decides to break out the synthesizer.
I wasn’t concerned about “Teddy Boys.” I was a little concerned about “Success.” “Success” is the last song we brought in, and that was the one song that I really hesitated about because I was really afraid that people were not going to go there with me or think that I had drifted a little too far. But then Chuck showed me a picture of myself from my first album, when I’m wearing a leather jacket and had this big pompadour, and he said, “Well, that girl would do it.” And so I was like, “All right.”
Have you looked into any of Adam Green’s other work since you cut “Teddy Boys”?
I’ve looked into it since then. I wasn’t familiar with him beforehand. But I thought this song was just great because it’s a total homage to my rockabilly roots. And Bruce has really been urging me to do something from that earlier period, but I looked at this as a chance to do sort of an updated kind of rockabilly thing.
What I Deserve re-launched this second phase of your career, and it’s obviously been very successful for you, but do you find that the fans who are coming to your shows now are familiar with the girl in the leather jacket with the pompadour?
There are a few in there. Mostly, though, they’re people who found out about me with What I Deserve, but there’s always a little pocket of people in there. And a lot people went back after What I Deserve and looked into those records. But there are a few who were actually there from the beginning. A lot of people, though, will say, “I’ve been following you since your very first record,” and then actually mean my third one.
Do you incorporate any of that material into your live shows anymore?
I do, definitely. I think I have a song from each record in the set now.
I can say that I still listen to your self-titled album quite a bit, because I think that it holds up remarkably well. It still sounds contemporary, and I think a lot of what shows up in your songwriting now is reflected in those earlier records. And this is the first record that you’ve had in a while where there’s not a songwriting credit from Bruce [Robison, Willis’s husband].
That’s true. There was one song of his that I tried really hard to get on there, but Chuck would not let me do it because he was holding me to making a fun record and not as much of a singer-songwriter, thoughtful record. And there’s this one song of Bruce’s that I wanted to do, it’s called “Don’t Let It Go to Your Heart,” but Chuck just said, “No, no, no, it doesn’t fit.” So I finally just gave up, so I’m holding it for the next record.
Bruce has had quite a bit of success with mainstream artists like Tim McGraw, George Strait, and the Dixie Chicks covering his songs. In the last couple of years, his profile has definitely been on the rise. But I think that what this record shows, as well, is what a strong songwriter you are. Obviously, you were able to work with some pretty good collaborators, but where do you feel you are in finding your own voice as a songwriter?
Well, my biggest obstacle is that I don’t have any creative energy. I’m so busy taking care of these kids that I’m just exhausted all the time. Songwriting is not something that just comes super easy to me. It comes so easily to my husband. He just writes songs all the time; in the car on the way to the pool with the kids, he’s got a song going. I’m just not like that. I need to have a set space and time. That’s been my biggest challenge lately is just finding that space and time to write. But there’s just nothing better than that feeling of completing a song, of getting a story you want to tell down and realizing it. I love that. I love the challenge, and I want to do it, I just have a hard time finding time. It’s just kind of sad, really. When you don’t have the time for the things you feel passionate about, it can be painful.
In general, how are you two able to find that balance, between having the four kids, writing, and recording, and then going out on tour? How do you make that work?
Well, it’s a three-ring circus. It’s crazy. It just takes a lot of organization, and neither of us is particularly good at that. So it can get pretty chaotic at times. But, you know, we just get it done the best we can. And that’s what’s taken me so long to put out this record, really. There was just no way that I could’ve put out another record in that timeframe. But I try not to worry about that because I know that I’ll make one when I make one, so why get freaked out about it?
Right, and just making a record for the sake of making a record is obviously not anything that you’ve ever done. And I think that’s something that has definitely come across especially in your last three albums-that you’ve had a definite goal in mind for what you wanted to accomplish.
Exactly. I really want there to be some point to [each record], or [for each one to] have its own point of view.
How many takes did you actually do for the “Teddy Boys” video? Because there are only four or five edits in the whole video, so it definitely is set up to look like a single tracking shot, which makes it distinctive.
Originally, it was supposed to be a one-shot video, but it was too slow and didn’t go long enough, so we ended up intercutting with some extra shots. And that was the beauty of the original idea, that it would be one shot. It was cool. But we did it a million times. And every time when I would finally get to the table where Adam Green was sitting, he would say something different to me, just something completely random and off the wall. Just something crazy, like, “So tell me a little about the Bible,” that I would just have to completely ignore. So it was a long day, but it was really fun. But my hands were completely black by the end from crawling around on the floor so much.
Was that Bruce sitting in the background of the bar about halfway through? The camera lingers a bit on a guy who looks like he’s counting money, but I couldn’t tell if that was him.
No, he actually wasn’t there. We’ve decided we can’t do videos together anymore because we can’t act together. We’ve been in a couple of each others’ videos before, but it’s just awful. We’re so stiff. It’s terrible. I’m like, “No, you can’t be the video boy anymore.”
How did the Claritin commercial come about? It had been almost three years since your last record, so it was just kind of a surprise to look up and see you on TV one day.
The whole commercial was already set to go, but they didn’t have any talent booked. They had the crew booked, the location booked, the date set, everything. And they called us about two weeks before the date and said, “Can you all do it,” and it was already written for a country duo, so I have the feeling somebody backed out or something, so I don’t know.
I was wondering if it was a fan who had recommended you guys for that.
It was the director; he was a fan of ours. But they were scrambling for talent. They were talking to actors all over Austin beforehand.
Right, because when you’re in Austin, you need to audition actors because there aren’t enough musicians around.
Exactly. And I had just had our baby—it was six weeks to the day, actually, that we had our baby-when we filmed it. I had to strap a girdle on to keep from looking like a blimp, but one of the funny things we heard somebody say afterward was that we looked like we were doing a Krispy Kreme commercial. But it was such a laugh. The guy who directed it lived in Houston and was a fan of ours, so he was the one who said, “I think these two might be good for it.” And I hadn’t worked in three months, so I jumped at the chance to do a gig.