Kelly Willis has emerged with her first solo album in 11 years, dubbed ‘Back Being Blue.’ With tracks described by her as “folky-country, ‘60s-era sounding,” this album threads heartache through four cover songs and six originals.
Prior to an international tour that will take her band from Texas to the United Kingdom, Kelly offered us some time to discuss the much-anticipated album ahead of Saturday night’s Stateside at the Paramount CD release show.
Is heartbreak the common thread of this album?
It’s the genre of music that I love. Every ‘50s and ‘60s song – that’s what I really cut my teeth on – country music is just about heartbreak. It’s everybody’s story. Everybody relates to some form of heartache. It’s just what I’ve been drawn to singing and listening to. That’s country music to my ear.
iTunes described your album as “gloomy country folk.”
I just saw that, and I think they are talking about country heartache. I think there’s a lot more energy going on than gloom.
There are a lot of different instruments on this album. How many players?
There’s a fiddle, a mandolin, various types of keyboards, different electric guitars, pedal steel… And a group of seven players and me who did everything—and did it all pretty much on the spot.
The album title track, ‘Back Being Blue’—it’s sad with some great guitar work. Is that a breakup song?
Absolutely. She’s being broken up with over the phone. The cruelest kind of breakup song.
‘Only You’ follows up ‘Back Being Blue.’ Are we talking about the same guy here? He sounds like a not-so-great boyfriend.
It’s not the same guy, in my head anyway. I started writing that song in a sincere way. And it occurred to me to flip it. He says to her, “Only you would say that’s just what lovers do.”
There’s some good chicken pickin’ in there. Is that your husband Bruce on guitar?
No that’s Mark Spencer (of Son Volt). But, on ‘Fool’s Paradise,’ that is Bruce on the mandolin. Eleanor Whitmore (of The Mastersons and Steve Earle and the Dukes) is a fabulous mandolin player, but she must have been on fiddle for that track. He just picked it up and started plucking away.
What is ‘Fool’s Paradise’ about to you?
It’s a playful thing when someone is flirting with you. And they are making all these promises. And you know they are not really interested in anything long-term. So, I know this isn’t for real but I don’t care, I’ll just indulge in this fool’s paradise.
Would you describe your song ‘Freewheeling’ as Americana?
That’s a hard question. When I wrote it I was really hearing the Davis Sisters… Skeeter Davis before she went solo back in the early days. That’s what inspired me, that real old-timey two-part singing. It feels country to me, but when I perform it, I think it sounds current… It could fit right in with Americana.
Your song ‘Modern World’ is quite a theme these days. Do you think technology makes people feel lost in a sense?
[Technology] has happened so fast. I think that’s the reason everybody might be currently writing about it. We can’t even process what’s happening, it’s happening so fast. Here in Austin we see the growth every day and however we feel about it, it is stunning when a whole new building is there. I think we feel like we don’t have any control over it – that we’re being swept up in it, and it leaves you feeling a little uneasy.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else… It’s my identity, my passion and my joy.”—Kelly Willis
So how do you literally put it down and step out of that world to make it—this album—happen?
Well, intentionally. You have to set aside time and I personally have to have a deadline looming. I can parcel out my time knowing what I need to have done by a certain date. I don’t have a problem taking my time to respond to stuff – I let it sit until I am able to deal with it.
As far as distribution goes, will this album be hitting all the streaming players? And how do you feel about that distribution path?
If those people are going to go hear you play live, then there’d be an upswing to it. I do have friends that used to make money as songwriters, who don’t any more. I hope some legislation will get more money to the songwriters and performers. Clearly everybody wants it. I just hope that people can find it somehow.
What inspires you to keep going?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s all I’ve ever done since I was a teenager. It’s my identity, my passion and my joy. There’s nothing better than creating that music and going out and playing it with your friends. To find that joy, in that moment, is a really special thing.