Kelly Willis Talks New Record, Collaborating With Her Husband, and Touring Again

George Brainard
Kelly Willis

On the latest solo project from Kelly WillisBack Being Blue, the Texas-based artist was produced by her husband – and frequent vocal collaborator – Bruce Robison. It’s a partnership that has worked well over the years.

“Bruce is one of these people that just has a lot of energy,” Willis tells Billboard. “When he comes into a room, people start having fun. He's got opinions on everything. He's a really interesting, fun person to be around, so he's got that going for him. But he also really has been a music fan his whole life. He knows so much about so many different types of recordings and types of music. It's hard to stump him. He's a really passionate and creative person when it comes to music. He really brings that in there, and people really respond to it.”

Because of his zest, making a record without him would be difficult. “There was one time when he had to leave the studio to go run an errand, and we really felt pretty rudderless without him. I was ashamed of that, because I thought I could just do it without him, and we really missed him when he did leave for that short time.”

But, what about those moments when the producer has to push the artist a bit? “Whoo, that's tricky, because we're married, right?” she admits with a laugh. “There’s already a little bit of a power struggle going on there. So, gently and tenderly do we approach those situations.”

The new disc offers a striking variety of sounds and moods, including the title track – which takes on a bit of a '60s R&B vibe, complete with some stirring string work. However, Willis envisioned the song in a completely different fashion.

“I didn't write that song thinking that it was R&B, blues, or anything like that. I really wrote thinking of it as a country song. But it just lent itself to that vibe so well. And it's kind of a hybrid of those styles, the same way that Crystal Gayle could do that. So it's still, to me, a real pure country song, just with a little bit of that rolled up in there.”

One of the four songs on the disc that Willis didn’t write was the gut-wrenching “We’ll Do It For Love Next Time,” which was penned by Rodney Crowell, whom she and her husband have become friends with over the last several years.

“I've always asked my friends for songs, but that really felt like I was crossing a line there, because he's Rodney Crowell, and he's so amazing. I didn't want to infringe on our friendship," Willis says. "But Bruce talked me into going ahead and asking him. And he responded right away with three or four songs. And I loved them all, naturally, but that one in particular really appealed to me. Anybody who's been in a relationship for a long time could relate to all of the things he's talking about, about just how you maintain or why you maintain. It’s just a beautiful song.”

Willis has already taken the new music on the road, with a summer full of dates on the books stateside and abroad. In addition to her solo dates, Willis will also be doing some shows with her husband, as they did overseas two summers ago.

Heading across the pond is something Willis is looking forward to, though she doesn't have a ton of experience doing it. “I have done very little touring over there. I did some stuff back in '99 with the What I Deserve record," she recalls. "I've been hearing so much about how much people appreciate this kind of music that I do -- this sort of Americana, country style of music goes over really well there. It's really exciting to go play for an audience that you know is really excited to hear you and appreciative.”

Kelly Willis Tour Dates

June 29—Columbus, OH—Natalie’s
June 30—Chicago, IL—TBD
July 1—St Louis, MO—Off Broadway
July 21—Gateshead, UK—Sage Gateshead
July 23—Bristol, UK—Redgrave Theatre
July 24—London, UK—The Lexington
July 25—Nottingham, UK—The Maze
July 27—Bury, UK—The Met 
July 28—Leeds, UK—Seven Arts
July 29—Edinburgh, UK—Voodoo Room