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Kelly Willis

Presented by Zeppelin Productions

Kelly Willis is Back Being Blue, to take a color-coded cue from the  title of her seventh album. It’s a shade she wears well, though long patient fans might just say: You had us at back. They’ll take a new  Willis record in whatever hue it comes, now that it’s been 11 years

since her last solo release, 2007’s Translated from Love. The Austin based singer/songwriter has hardly been MIA in the intervening  years, having recorded and toured as part of a duo with Bruce  Robison. But she’s setting the duet Mm.Oo. aside for do-it-alone  mode, at least as far as the spotlight is concerned. (Robison hovers  just outside it this time, as producer.). Hers is a solo voice again, but  it’s not necessarily sotto voce: This is an album of songs about  lonesomeness that also happens to be a cracklingly good time.

Willis wrote six of the 10 tracks on Back Being Blue by herself, the  first time she’s penned that big a portion of one of her albums  without outside assists. That doesn’t mean she’s gone into deeply  confessional territory for her “Blue” period.

Lyrically, “it’s not an extremely personal record,” she says,  downright cheerfully. There may be profundity within, but what  Willis was really after was a sense of playfulness. “I wanted to make  a fun, interesting record that leans on the influences that first  inspired me to make music,” she says. “I don’t think of it as even  being so much about my vocals as an album about vibe.”  Explaining, “The important thing to me was to take these songs and  to get them just right musically. And in my mind, I was thinking of  where maybe Skeeter Davis meets Rockpile, or Marshall Crenshaw  meets the Louvin Brothers.”

Who wouldn’t want to hang out at either of those intersections? Not  ignoring the fact that in Willis’ world, as the album title might  augur, high times and heartache are inextricably tied, “I guess the

songs I write can be more sad than I think they are,” she admits with  a laugh. “The lyrics are always sad in country music. I mean, we  sometimes wonder why people hire us to do weddings. We’re like,  ‘Really? You wanted this? Well, okay!’ But the music, more than  ever, I think, is very fun.”

The title song, which brings a slight R&B vibe to her trademark  country, was key in setting the tone. “When I wrote ‘Back Being  Blue,’ I felt like I made a discovery,” she says. “Up until writing that  song, my songs were all feeling a little bit wordy and complicated  and personal, and they just weren’t clicking. Then I wrote that one, I  just felt like, oh!––what I need to do is try to simplify, and write  these stories in a way that feels like you’re not quite sure what era  they were written in.”

She makes it sound like a fresh epiphany, but some might say that  sending the hands of the clock spinning––in a word: timelessness–– has always been a hallmark of her career. As the New York  Times wrote, “Kelly Willis looks back to country music before  Nashville embraced power ballads and cute happily-ever-after  songs. She has an old-fashioned country voice with a twang, a  breathy quaver, a break or a throaty sob whenever she needs one…  Whether she was wishing for comfort, admitting to a bruised heart,  yielding to illicit romance or trying to say goodbye, her voice was  modest and true, illuminating the delicate tension and pain in every  line.” No Depression noted that her music transcends throwback  appeal: “There’s no point in being nostalgic for the generic  delineations of the past. We are in the present. That’s where Kelly  Willis lives. And it’s there that she sings, as keenly and movingly as  any singer in the country or pop or rock present.” Rolling  Stone zeroed in on the eternality of her tone: “Willis’ Okie soprano

still crackles like no other, and her control and phrasing make it  more devastating than ever.”

The native Okie-ness Rolling Stone noticed in her honeyed voice is  tempered by a whole lot of Texas. Romance and music brought her  to Austin while she was in her late teens, fronting a celebrated but  short-lived rockabilly band, Radio Ranch. Famed singer/songwriter  Nancy Griffith took a shine to her voice and recommended Willis to  producer Tony Brown, one of the titans of Nashville country, who  signed her to a deal with MCA. Her three major -label albums  yielded plenty of critical acclaim, with enough media attention that  she even found herself representing for Texas on People magazine’s  annual “50 most beautiful people” list. But, not for the first or last  time, mainstream radio didn’t quite know what to make of a  youthful neo-traditionalist who appeared to have been transported  from a less trendy era.

Then came the album that set the template for the second act of this  American life: the 1999 Rykodisc release What I Deserve, her debut  as an independent artist in all senses of the term.

“I feel like I’ve never really quite fit into any one group,” Willis  says. “I wasn’t really country enough to fit in with the Nashville  mainstream, and I didn’t quite fit in with that alt-country stuff,  either. But What I Deserve was a huge turning point, because that  was the first time I was able to just do my record my way, and the  first time I had really grown as an artist and was writing more songs  and aware of how to get my ideas across musically. I also looked at  that as potentially being my last record. I felt kind of washed up,  which was a really strange place to be as a 25-year-old. But to  accomplish that record and have it be so well -received gave me a  lot of confidence. From then on, I knew I could continue to be a

musician, and whatever it was going to look like, I was gonna make  it up as I go along, and there could be real satisfaction in that.”

There were personal and creative detours to come. Easy (2002)  and Translated by Love (2007) generated equal love from fans, the  press, and fellow musicians. Meanwhile, motherhood competed for  her attention, to put it mildly. “I had four babies in the space of five  years. As challenging as work/family balance became, it led to a  pleasing mid-career wrinkle when she backed into a side career with  Robison, who conveniently happened to be not just her spouse but  her creative and popular equal in the Americana world. A series of  annual Christmas shows led to a holiday album, which led to two  non-seasonal duo projects, Cheater’s Game (2013) and Our  Year (2014).

“We could feel this excitement and electricity at our performances  together,” Willis says, “and so we finally just started doing that,  even though we’d been keeping it at arm’s length, professionally.  We just couldn’t deny it, and so we just decided to take a chance  that it wouldn’t destroy our marriage,” she laughs. “But now it’s  really important to both of us to get out there and do our own thing.”

So what did Willis do when it came time to reassert her artistic  independence with Back Being Blue? Hire Robison as producer. “As  I was going through the process, I realized he understood what I was  trying to do, and that nobody cared more about how it turned out  than he did. I didn’t have a bigger fan out there in the world.”

Choosing Robison as her producer, ironically, made for a long  commute to work each day as she was recording the album, since  Robison’s studio, the Bunker, is on a rustic five-acre plot with a  fishing hole 40 minutes south of Austin. But it was worth the daily  drive, she figures: “It’s kind of its own vibe out there, and you can

hear it, I think, in the recordings. It feels old school to me. It’s got a  real reverb chamber, and we did it on analog tape with an old  board;” — old enough that “ the tape machine broke down six times  while we were recording, but he’s got a guy he talks to up in  Nashville that walks him through fixing it every time.”

That analog mentality filters into “Modern World,” one of the few  songs on the album less about single-gal dilemmas and more about  where Willis is now. “I can’t put my phone down,” she admits. “I’m  trying to keep it away from my kids, but I’m not able to keep it  away from myself. When we used to not have the stuff, we were  forced to be more engaged. I was thinking I wanted to write about  that, but I wanted to write about that in maybe the Louvin Brothers  would have written about it.” “Freewheeling” is about how  “everybody wishes they could let go of their anxiety or some of  those old, comfortable pains that won’t go away. And I think we  always look around and see other people that seem to be able to  handle everything much easier.”

Sources for the four outside songs range from Rodney Crowell, who  recommended that Willis cut “We’ll Do It for Love Next  Time” (from his 2003 album “Fate’s Right Hand”),. to Skeeter  Davis, whose “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” is the one pick you  could pinpoint as being tied to a place in time, thanks to its lyrical  reference to Cassius Clay. “We were trying to come up with other,  more contemporary rhymes that might work there, like ‘Sugar Ray,’  but ultimately I liked the dated reference.”

Willis is hardly ashamed of looking backward for touchstones.  “With this record I was trying to go with the styles of music that  have really impacted my life, especially when I moved to Austin as

a teenager, and make it country-sounding like Austin used to  sound,” she says.

“Nick Lowe was a real north star for me on this record. ––Like,  ‘What would do Nick Lowe do?’ He was able to write modern songs  that were like old songs—––that had a cool soul/R&B/Buddy Holly  kind of a thing that had sounds from that early rock and roll era—–– but that felt really fresh and exciting and now. I just love the A-B C’s of rock and roll. Before everybody had to start piling on  different things to make it sound different, it had all been done. With  this record I was trying to go with the styles of music that have  really impacted my life, especially when I moved to Austin as a  teenager, and make it country-sounding like Austin used to sound.”

Nick Lowe may be Willis’ north star, but she’s been around just long  enough to be a beacon for some acolytes of her own. That’s true  even with appreciative fans from upstream in the generational river,  like outlaw-era legend Ray Wylie Hubbard, who recently tweeted,  “Kelly, you are the gold standard that I compare other artists to,” tTo  which Kelly replied that she would put that in her bio.

“I know I’ve been around through many different phases of my  genre of music. Whether it was the New Traditionalist, or Alt.  Country or Americana. I ought to be able to write a book about it all.  But in spite of my long career, I still think of myself as a teenager! I  still feel like the underdog who’s trying to find her way”

That Willis still feels like that scrappy young comer, six albums and  four kids later, is good news for anyone about to take a shine to the  only slightly broken-hearted-feeling spunk of the new album. Blue  definitely continues to be her color, but more than anything, she’s  back feeling new.

Food & Bar: Our full food and drink menu will be available before and during the show.

Date: Sunday, September 8

Time: 7:30 pm

Doors Open: 6:30 pm