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Kelly Willis Wants Success--on Her Own Terms : Pop music: The country singer-songwriter hopes to bring the Austin sound into the mainstream.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kelly Willis talks softly, her hand resting on a paperback of her current reading material, "The Fountainhead."

A hit on country radio is long overdue. But like an Ayn Rand hero, Willis chooses first to be true to herself--with music saturated by the songs and attitude of her Austin, Tex., home.

Willis wants to win, but on her own terms.

"That (selling) factor is pretty big, because I haven't been very commercial," Willis said.

She's hoping her third album, "Kelly Willis," will do the trick. "Whatever Way the Wind Blows," written by Marshall Crenshaw, is the first single, just getting started on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album introduces Willis, 24, as a bravely revealing, introspective songwriter. She co-wrote three songs on it, after having just one co-writing credit between the "Well-Traveled Love" and "Bang Bang" albums.

In her trademark slurred enunciation, she sings songs written mostly by Austin writers, including ex-husband Mas Palermo.

"I don't know where I got that," Willis said of her vocal style. "I think it probably happened because that was the only way I could get off of a note. I guess I should have more control over that if I was gonna be a really good singer, but it's just the way it comes out."

Her freckle-faced good looks (she has posed in Vogue) once again will ensure prominent play for the videos. She's been in the film "Bob Roberts," and movie offers continue to roll in.

But she considers herself a singer foremost, and if country music is booming, her singing career should be booming, too.

But she's resisting the path of least resistance: using assembly-line songs and pat Nashville arrangements.

"I don't find anything really wrong with being really popular--there's just a certain way that I want to get there," Willis said. "And it's a difficult way."

With that outlook, you might think she was trying to market Gregorian chants. Instead, "Kelly Willis" is highly accessible, hip country music that includes an update of "Heaven's Just a Sin Away," by the Kendalls.

Willis' own compositions hint at a formidable songwriter maturing. "Shadows of Love" and the heart-rending "Get Real" tell of a barely secret affair and a dying relationship. Both were written in partnership with John Leventhal.

"World Without You," with music by Paul Kennerly, springs from a painful childhood memory.

"It seems like a boyfriend-girlfriend type of song, but it was really about my mother moving away when I was 9 years old," Willis said.

Occasionally the bad feeling from that memory will recur, she said, adding, "and that had happened the night before I went over to Paul's to write with him, and so the song just came out of that."

Willis grew up a shy child in Annandale, Va.

Back when Palermo was her boyfriend, he made cassette tapes of music by the Blasters, NRBQ, Patsy Cline and T Bone Burnett for her to listen to during the daily 45-minute drives to work at a video store. She sang along.

"It was just something inside of me that wanted people to know that I have something in there," she said, "because I was so quiet that people didn't even see me."

Willis and Palermo moved to Austin when she was 18, and they formed the rockabilly band Kelly and the Fireballs, then Radio Ranch, which played on her debut.

Although it was recorded in Nashville and produced by MCA chief Tony Brown and California-based Don Was, "Kelly Willis" has the sound that Willis found in Texas.

"The Austin sound--it really doesn't fall under a heading," Willis said. "That's really kind of Austin's curse. We're so proud of what we do and that we don't fit under any label--so we're sort of born to struggle. But everybody really enjoys the struggle at the same time as hating it."

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