Published May 26, 2014Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison have been collaborating on each other's country records for the better part of 20 years, but it wasn't until relatively recently that this married couple finally decided to "go all in" and record an album as a duo. The result, 2013's Cheater's Game, was a knockout. The follow-up, the just-released Our Year, plays to many of the same strengths as its predecessor: Willis's aching vocals, Robison's thoughtful guitar work, the pair's tight, luscious harmonies. At its best it's as good as anything we've heard this year. Exclaim! reached an ebullient Kelly Willis at her home in Texas.
Your last record Cheater's Game felt like the start of a new story. Now that you're getting deeper into this chapter, and focusing on the Bruce and Kelly Show, how's it all going?
It's going great! We both really have so much fun making this music, and I think we've created a sound that's ours. Doing so much playing and singing together out there on the road has been really fun. There have been moments like this in both of our solo projects, too. But there's something about the way the weight is lifted a little bit when we're playing together that means we're both free to just enjoy it more. It also just feels like we've tapped into something special.
You've always played on each others' records in the past…
I've sung on his records. And I've always recorded his songs. On some records it might be two or three, and on others just one, but I've often recorded his songs.
So this is a culmination of years of collaboration. Professionally, that is. You've been married a long time now, too.
Yeah, you know? I don't think this would've worked as well if we'd done it earlier in our relationship. I think at this point in time — we're both such big fans of each other! We've worked together so much, seen each other grow, and know each other so well, that it just works now. We can really appreciate each other's strengths. We don't feel in competition with each other or anything. We know what the other person is going to do. I know just by looking at him that he's gonna cut the note off right here and I need to cut mine off too. There's a connection here.
This record feels looser and more homespun than the last. Do you feel more relaxed about working as a duo these days?
You know, I do think we feel more relaxed. We had done all this pre-production before Cheater's Game. Touring, trying the songs out on the road, trying to figure out what our sound was. And then putting that out there and not knowing how it was going to be received, was… Yeah, I think that because [the response to Cheater's Game] was all so positive, and it all worked so well, we could relax a bit. We had a lot of time between finishing that record and releasing and promoting it. We had a lot of time to think about [the next record]. And during that time songs kept popping up that we'd want to try out. We were eager to get back into the studio, and we worked with our touring band on this record. So, Our Year really was a natural extension of what we'd been doing. It was! It was very easy.
You guys have written some of my favourite country songs of the past 15 years or more. Yet, on this record, you cover most of the material. What brought that about?
You know, one thing with us is that it doesn't feel so much like we have to write these songs. I think maybe on our solo records we have a stronger desire to be the songwriter and be creative in this real singular personal way, where you express this stuff for yourself. But, when Bruce and I are doing this stuff together it's really more about the magic of finding the right chemistry, the right combination of songs, harmony potential, mutual enthusiasm. There's a process. Where the song comes from doesn't matter so much. Because it's more of a band. It's something that we're creating as a group. That's very unusual for Bruce. He's always recorded his own songs. I've had a lot more experience covering other people's songs. It's just freed us up to make the best music possible (that we feel capable of). I think it's really fun and free. You really never know what's going to work.
I love the way you take "This Will Be Our Year", a Zombies song from 1968, and turn it from pop to country. What suggested to you that it would work in this context?
Well, now, I can't remember when or how we discovered that one… But, Bruce and I — before we ever decided to go "all in" and make these records and tour together and stuff — one way that we kind of got it out of our system was we'd play these holiday shows here in Texas. They were just for die-hard fans who wanted to come out and see us. Well, they became an annual thing for us. And have been for, now, 15 years. So I don't know who found it, but that song was brought in for one of the holiday shows because it felt like a New Year's song. It felt like a new beginning. And we've done it every way over the years: he sings lead, I sing lead, we've done it really rocking before… And when we got into the studio we decided that I would sing the lead, and our producer Brad Jones changed Bruce's harmony part. It was a fun collaboration. I just love that song. I think that's the fun thing about country music is that you can strip a song down, wherever it came from, and show the song, and showcase the craft of that song, in a way that other styles can't because they have so much… style about them!
A lot of artists these days are trying to access this live feel you've captured here. What do you think is driving this turn toward classic country in the scene?
You know what? I have no idea what's going on in the country scene. [laughs] You know, at some point you have to decide. Am I going to follow the trend, do I have a place in this musical world at all? But you just have to follow your own instincts. We decided to make the music that we… well, that we like. I do think that we are kind of unique in that we're making, to my ears, straight-ahead country. It's not retro, and it's not modern radio country. It just feels country. I don't know why that is, but part of it is Bruce. His songwriting has always been such genuine country music, no matter what's going on around him. He's not one of these hipster alternative guys, but he's not super mainstream either. He just writes true country music, and he's not ashamed to be making it. That's a big part of what drives us, you know?