Despite displaying such a big voice on record, Kelly Willis' telephone voice is surprisingly quiet and low-key, befitting her small physical stature. It's also soaked in her trademark Southern twang, reflecting her Oklahoma roots as well as old-fashioned courtesy.
Preparing to go on tour to support her fine new record, Translated from Love, Willis is dealing with bigger issues than her music career at the moment in her Austin, Tex., home.
I can hear the warble of kids in the background as she laughs, saying, "My 4-year-old twins just had their first soccer practice today and it didn't go well — everyone's crying."
This is the daily conundrum in the Willis household: how to juggle a flourishing career on the road with her family life.
"It's difficult balancing the two, but my kids are all very young — I've got four kids, 6 and under. It's just more than a full-time job and that's kept me from having much creative time to expend on creating music," she says. "I still play gigs and stuff, but I haven't been able to create new music. One reason I had Chuck (Prophet) come in and produce this (latest album) is because he could completely take the reins, you know, drive the load. And that was really the only way I felt I could get anything done."
This won't be the last time she mentions the dynamic Prophet's skills in this conversation. Prophet, an appreciated singer/songwriter in his own right, produced the new release and played guitar on some songs, too. But their collaboration is nothing new: Prophet also played on her breakthrough record, What I Deserve, years ago.
He also came up with one of the better quotes describing her new music, calling it "Housewife Goth." Willis chuckles when I mention his description.
"I love his instincts, his ideas and his attitude — he's just a great guy," she says. " 'Housewife Goth,' eh? Well, that's one of those terms I'm not even sure what he means. He's always saying stuff like that. He's a unique individual and very fun to be around."
I try to let her off the hook, but she continues, "But, I don't know, the fact that I am this mother is this huge defining thing about me. I am a mom and that's my main thing and I'm taking care of people all the time.
"And I'm also this Country music girl, you know, way more Country than these AltCountry people. You know, they can be super cool because they're not quite as Country as I am. Maybe that's that housewife thing he referred to."
While it's hard to know Prophet's exact intent, it's easy to appreciate the music he's describing. Ranging between the torch and twang of "Too Much to Lose," the Rockabilly of "Teddy Boys" and the Country ballad, "Losing You," Translated from Love exemplifies Willis' mastery of several genres. These songs feel loose in spirit even if they are very polished tracks.
It's a kick to hear Kelly's version of the strutting "Success," the Iggy Pop song Prophet brought to her in the studio. But she's always done this with different songs, transforming them with her own delicious spin. In the past she's covered songwriters as diverse as Steve Earle, Paul Westerberg, Nick Drake and Paul Kelly. Not your usual round-up of traditional Country suspects. Can you imagine an Iggy Pop song slithering up the Country charts?
To show how her song selection process works on this record, Willis explains how "Success" came to be included.
"I'd never heard it before," she recalls, "and the first time I did I thought 'No, I don't think so.' But then he started getting desperate because I kept saying no to everything he brought in. So he played it for me on guitar one day and I heard it in a whole new way and I found it really funny. I thought it would be almost ridiculous to hear me singing it, because I never talk like that, I'm always trying to be this super humble, extra gracious girl and I started to feel it would be fun to embrace this new attitude — the song's kind of a party."
It's clear that she doesn't care to limit her music to any specific genre, whether traditional Country or Roots Rock. She's more worried about the songs' quality rather than the images they portray. And when she discusses her influences, from the classic Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline to the more modern Lone Justice and NRBQ, it is evident how much she relishes all kinds of music.
Kelly's husband is Bruce Robison, the acclaimed singer/songwriter, so she's overly familiar with how songwriters work.
"I do like to write, but I labor over my songs and I'm not prolific," she says. "But I do love having that finished song. With the kids and everything, of course, it's been a huge distraction. But then even without the kids, I'm kind of slow. My husband writes all the time and that kind of pisses me off. Sometimes I'll give him a little thing I'm working on and he'll finish it. But we never really sit down together in a room to write; we'd just end up fighting."
Even amid Austin's many gifted local musicians, the Willis/Robison collaborative pairing is a big deal down there in Texas. The two still play an annual Christmas show together as well as an occasional private party.
"We like the way it is where we have our own careers and music," Willis says. "We get to sing harmonies with each other once in a while."
With her life-shaping identities as a mother and wife held prominently in place, Willis still can't wait to get her band out on the road. No doubt, she's got the best of both worlds — soccer mom by day and Country star by night. Not a bad way to go.
KELLY WILLIS plays the Southgate House in Newport on Friday.