Singer/songwriter Kelly Willis is entirely too undead for the myth makers, persona pushers and bamboozlers of this world. Every sugarcoated dream-dose ever hatched in that fertile stretch of land that spans the gap between Nashville and L.A. has been slipped into her cocktail — at one time or another — by some hype-talking suit.
But she’s not swallowing that phoney baloney. Willis is one performer who steps neatly around the bulls••t, without ever getting so much as a speck on her shoe. Or, as the artist herself puts it in “Get Real,” a song from her self-named 1993 release:
I don’t know who we’re tryin’ to con
It’s gone, so come on …
It’s time we both put down our shields
You see we both lost in this deal
Oh, get real.
Yet that’s not to say this woman doesn’t come with a touch of glam, too. In 1994, People magazine named Willis one of “the 50 most beautiful people in the world.” And in ’96, she performed at a private wingding for President Clinton, where admission tickets went for a cool grand apiece.
“Oh, my god!” she recalls, still a little starstruck. “You had to go through all these [Secret Service] checkpoints in order to get onto the property. It was pretty amazing.” After hearing the president mention her by name in his speech, Willis posed with him for photographs. “It’s like a band photo, with the president. He’s standing next to me; it was cool,” she says with a laugh. A staunch Clinton supporter, Willis says nobody’s yet teased her about the night, despite recent revelations. (And, as far as we know, Ken Starr hasn’t tapped her phone … yet.)
After Willis made her Nashville debut on MCA Records, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came a-courtin’. She acted alongside Tim Robbins in the movie Bob Roberts and co-starred opposite Dwight Yoakum in the CBS series P.S. I Love You. Her songs have made a cinematic splash, too, appearing on the soundtracks to Thelma and Louise and, more recently, Boys. Willis even let martial-arts matinee stud Steven Segal share the stage at a show in Nepal.
“Yeah, that was so strange,” she recounts. “We were flown over to Katmandu to do this little show for all the English-speaking people over there who wanted to hear some American music, because they hadn’t been home in a long time.”
As karma would have it, the Dalai Lama was in town, with Segal among his entourage.
“And so Steven Segal — I guess he’s some sort of llama himself [she laughs] — … came and sat in with us. It was a riot. We did a couple of Dylan songs, and he played guitar. … It was a great photo opportunity. It made the papers as soon as we got home — you know, the local gossip rag.”
Willis makes her home in Austin, Texas, where the local reporters affectionately call her “the voice of Austin.” That voice is a passionate paradox: Its core is emotionally strong and intense (“I got into the hillbilly side of rockabilly,” says Willis), yet it’s dressed in a vulnerable, precarious tremolo (this, after all, is the artist who once remarked, “Performing was a way to be expressive and not be afraid.”). It’s the voice of a backsliding, renegade angel, exuding sensuality, mortality and frontier-woman spunk — the sort of voice that can rouse — and subsequently, soothe — the naked hearts of hellhounds, lovers and other desperadoes.
A regular performer on Austin City Limits, the well-regarded televised concert series, Willis has also stolen into print, as the focus of photo essays in such slicks as Vogue, Mademoiselle and Rolling Stone (a ‘zine which, by the by, Neil Young has said he now eschews because he “doesn’t like magazines that smell like perfume”).
It all started with Willis belting out Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” in a coin-operated sound booth in a beach arcade, to make a demo. But it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a listen to this rendition.
“Oh, my god! Oh man, never! I would never, ever release that; it’s sooo bad,” Willis decries. “You know, I’m not even singing in meter. ‘You’re the Star’ I think is what it says on the deal, or something like that. It’s silver –” The description abruptly stops, as Willis is overcome by laughter.
“The [prerecorded] music is there, and the harmony vocals and everything,” she continues, having regained her composure. “They had to speed it up, so it would be in a key I could actually sing in, so it’s really funny, you know. It’s all, like, chipmunky-sounding.”
“Discovered” by folksinger Nanci Griffith (herself recently decribed by a reporter as “chipmunk-cute” — hey, maybe she’d like to release Willis’ demo) at age 20, the budding performer was signed by one of the most prestigious labels in the industry — MCA. Grammy Award-winning producer Don Was (who’s collaborated with the likes of Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt) was retained to produce Willis’ debut release.
In a bizarre move, however, the label cancelled Willis’ recording contract just as the CD hit the airwaves — and a flood of positive press hit newstands around the globe.
Willis herself has joked that she didn’t last long in Nashville because the powers-that-be thought, “We can’t get her hair any bigger: She’s gotta go.”
In truth, though, it wasn’t the hair but the free-thinking brains beneath it that confounded the spin doctors.
“What tends to happen is a lot of people start thinking potential,” Willis explains. “I think they have good intentions, for the most part, but everything starts getting all convoluted, and then nothing good happens that way. You know, they think, ‘Well, this is good, but if you did this, it would be better, and we could sell more records.’ And I’m not even sure I agree with that, and I don’t understand people who approach music to try and sell a lot of records.
“First of all, it’s an incredible fluke … that you’re going to go platinum,” she continues. “So if that’s what you’re trying to do, it just seems like you’re doomed to fail. So why not be successful at just making a record that you think is good, and just going out and trying to have it be a part of your life that you really enjoy, instead of misery?”
For her latest CD (due out in February, on Rykodisc), Willis tried a different tack. “I made the record first and then shopped it, and this label just liked it and wanted to put it out. I thought that was a much better approach for me … to avoid the hassle. When this Rykodisc record comes out, I’ll be rejuvenated,” she says. “I really like everyone I’ve met [at the label], and I feel like they all have an appreciation for music and an excitement about working with it. It’s different than some of my other experiences.”
Sure, Willis enjoyed the superstar perks of her MCA era — especially when they came hand in hand with the opportunity to pursue music full time. But the experience was not without its frustrations.
“[Music] is so connected, it’s so personal,” says Willis, looking back on it all. “And that’s why, you know, you can’t be offended if somebody doesn’t like your music. … Everybody’s gonna have their opinion on it. It’s powerful.”