Kelly Willis Premieres 'Don't Step Away' From First Solo Album In 11 Years

George Brainard
Kelly Willis

It wasn't Kelly Willis' intention to take 11 years between solo albums. And as she prepares for the May 18 release of her new Back Being Blue -- whose "Don't Step Away" is premiering exclusively below -- she still isn't sure why the gap occurred.

"I didn't notice the time going by," Willis, who released two albums with husband Bruce Robison during the interim, tells Billboard. "But I did let a lot of time go by, and I look up and go, 'Really?!' I'm really excited about this. It feels like a real accomplishment for me. I am such a slow decision-maker, so it's like, 'I did it!'"

Until she wrote Back Being Blue's title track, in fact, Willis suffered from a lack of urgency. "I always feel a lot of pressure to hurry up and make another record all the time, and I really wasn't feeling inspired," she says. "I really wanted to have a focus and a vision and something I was excited about doing, and I was really enjoying the records I was making with Bruce; I was learning so much and having so much fun that it really did take a lot of my energy. But all the time in the background I was thinking, 'I need to make another record...'"

Willis wrote six of Back Being Blue's 10 tracks, but "Don't Step Away" was penned by Randy Weeks and Jeff Rymes, and came to Willis from a hairdresser friend in Austin, Texas. "I told her I still needed one or two more songs for the album," Willis recalls, "and she said she was at the Continental Club and heard this song Randy was playing that made everybody stop and turn their heads and say, 'This is a good song!' So she sent it to me and I completely agreed. I really loved that it sounded like an Austin kind of song. It was so much fun to record. We’ve played it a few times live, and it has this kind of magical thing about it. It really lifts the audience and everyone gets happy and starts dancing. It's really exciting to have a song like that."

Willis -- who celebrates the album's release date at the Bastrop Music Festival in Texas to begin her spring and summer dates -- also made the "big decision" to tap Robison to produce Back Being Blue, which features guests Eleanor Whitmore (the Mastersons, Steve Earle & the Dukes), Son Volt's Mark Spencer and Trevor Nealon of Band of Heathens. "We're really trying to take the opportunity to not have to solve more problems together whenever we can," she says with a laugh. "So we were like, 'Ok, we'll do solo projects...' But he really gets what I do and I communicate so great with him; What we create together is so rewarding for us and we love and respect it. I completely recognize what he's contributing and what he's missing when he's not there. So it would be silly NOT to have him be part of this."