One of the most engaging voices in country music, Kelly Willis has wrapped her first new album in five years, Translated From Love. Please forgive the break — she and her husband, singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, have four kids under the age of 7.
“Before I ever had kids, I felt like there was a huge part of my life that was empty, and I felt bored, quite frankly,” she says. “You’ve got to be careful what you wish for because I’m a little overwhelmed at times with what I’ve got. But there’s always something going on, and everybody’s so different, it’s just kind of fun.”
Calling from her home in Austin, Texas, she talks about George Strait singing one of her songs, harmonizing with Faith Hill and why her tours are like a video game.
CMT: I enjoyed hearing so many upbeat songs on this record. Was that something you were shooting for?
Willis: Initially, I thought I was just going to do all covers because I have so many kids that I don’t have any creative time to write. I told Chuck [Prophet], the producer, that I didn’t want to do a bunch of deep, meaningful, heavy, singer-songwriter-y songs. I just wanted to have fun, so he held me to that. It was intentional to have fun, although some of the songs are mid-tempo. But they’re still not really depressingly sad, you know what I mean? There’s nothing to cry about on this record.
You recorded Bruce’s song “Wrapped” a few albums back. What do you think about George Strait’s version?
I love his version, although I tease everybody that he obviously didn’t hear my version, because he recorded Bruce’s version. But if he’d heard mine, he would have done it because it was so good. No, I’m joking. Oh, I love it. It’s a thrill to hear him sing Bruce’s songs. That song is very well-received in my shows, even though it was never a single or anything. It’s a crowd favorite, so people who come to see me really connect with that song. Even though it’s Bruce’s song, it’s still kind of my song, too. It’s the first time that’s happened to me. Bruce’s songs get recorded, and they’re all his songs, but this time I have a George Strait cover, in a way.
You sang with Faith Hill at the CMA Awards last year. How did that come about?
I sang harmonies on two songs on Fireflies. She sent down “Fireflies,” then liked that enough to ask me to do “Stealing Kisses.” What I realized was that, in the studio, “Stealing Kisses” was really high, but I wanted to be on there so bad, I did it a million times until I got it right. Then that had to be the song she asked me to do on the CMAs, of course. It was really scary and frightening to hit those high notes live. I almost got them right. (laughs) But luckily, I’m mixed in the background, so you don’t notice it as much. It was terrifying and very exciting. I was thrilled and proud to be able to do that.
It was really fun to watch her during rehearsals. She was doing some Aretha Franklin songs, just fooling around. That girl can really sing. I had no idea, you know? I mean, I’ve heard her sing her songs, but to hear her do some of these amazing soul songs, I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know you had that in you.”
The Claritin TV commercial was everywhere. What made you say yes to doing it?
Six weeks before I had a baby, so I had not been working for about three months. This offer came in out of the blue, a week from then, to do it. I was like, “Well, hell yeah!” I jumped at it. My husband was like, “I don’t know, honey. How do you think people will receive this? Will it bad or good for our careers to be doing a commercial?” I said, “I don’t care! I haven’t worked in three months. This is an awesome gig, I’m taking it.” I didn’t think twice about it. … I don’t know why we got it but we took it.
It’s funny because it aired so often and all across the country. It was really bizarre. I know people who just have a passing awareness of us were like, “What? Did you see what I just saw?” Because of all the people on the planet … it was really a thrill. Bruce wrote the jingle for it, and he had a good time with that experience.
Can you imagine living anywhere else besides Austin?
No, I can’t. I really love this town. I feel connected to it. I think it’s because I grew up moving around so much. My dad was in the Army. If I didn’t move, my friends did. I didn’t have those connections. I really love having a place that I’m connected to.
What do you miss the most when you’re not touring?
Playing the shows. Being in different clubs. It’s like a video game where each town has these new challenges and you have to figure out how to make that room work. It’s a whole different life than the family life, which I do mostly now. Of course, I gig every month because that’s how I make a living, but I’m playing to the same rooms where I play all the time. It will be new rooms, new people that I don’t get to see very often. It’s the whole vibrancy. It’s not the real world. You’re just out there making music, and it’s not the real world. It’s make believe. It’s fantasy.
Do you like challenges like that?
I do. I like a challenge. I’m really unorganized in my life, but I get really upset if I don’t meet the challenge. It can be very hectic when you’re like that! (laughs) It’s a lot of last-second cramming but it’s fun.