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Well Traveled but Hopeful

Singer Kelly Willis has stayed true to herself despite a turbulent country career. Now, things are looking up.

April 04, 1999|MARC WEINGARTEN | Marc Weingarten is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's axiomatic in the music business that for every overnight success story, there are at least a dozen hard-luck tales involving missed opportunities, botched deals and just plain bad timing.

And talent doesn't always win out; even the most gifted artists can encounter resistance on the road toward mainstream acceptance. Just ask Kelly Willis.

Ten years ago, Willis seemed poised for stardom. The 30-year-old Oklahoma native has everything Nashville craves in its female singers: a stunning voice that combines honky-tonk sass with bruised vulnerability, a great ear for material and the kind of movie-star good looks that landed her in People magazine's annual 50 Most Beautiful People issue in 1994.

"Kelly's voice reminds me of Jerry Lee Lewis on piano--she's borderline too good," says singer Gary Louris, a former member of the Jayhawks who wrote three tracks with Willis for "What I Deserve," her recently released fourth album. "She needs to hold it in check, because she could do whatever she wanted with it. I asked her to give me some tips, because she makes everything sound so easy, and it isn't."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 11, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Jayhawks' singer--Singer Greg Louris is still a member of the band the Jayhawks. An April 4 article about Kelly Willis gave incorrect information.

Despite her obvious attributes, it didn't quite work out the way Willis anticipated. Though she got strong reviews for her three earlier albums (two of which are out of print), two major labels dropped her, and she went through a five-year stretch without making a full album before signing with Salem, Mass.-based Rykodisc for "What I Deserve."

Her new album might help. An independent project she shopped around in an attempt to land a label deal, "What I Deserve" is the work of an artist who's grown comfortable in her own skin. After two failed attempts to abide by the usual marketplace expectations, she's no longer willing to make concessions for the sake of commercial expediency.

"When I was shopping for a deal with this record, there were some major labels interested, but they wanted to change some things and remix songs, and I just wasn't interested in that," Willis says. "I want to be self-sufficient and don't want to rely on so many people for my music, or else what's the point?"

*

It's easy to see why Willis was uneasy trying to latch herself onto Nashville's hit-making assembly line. She doesn't have that inbred brassiness that seems to be a prerequisite for wannabe country music divas these days.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Sitting down for an interview at her Hollywood hotel during a hectic day in L.A.--it also includes a photo session, appearances on CNN and at a book and record store in Santa Monica, and a show at Jacks Sugar Shack in Hollywood--Willis is a soft-spoken and somewhat shy conversationalist whose cornflower-blue eyes and delicate features project a kind of endearing fragility.

A self-described Army brat who was born in Oklahoma but had seen most of the country by the time she was 20, Willis spent her formative years in various suburban enclaves. Her parents were casual country music fans at best. "They had an eight-track of a Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton album," she says.

She moved to Austin, Texas, in 1987, and for her first professional gig she sang in a rockabilly band called the Vibrato Brothers with her first husband, Mas Palermo.

Alerted by singer Nanci Griffith, who saw her perform, the MCA Nashville label soon came calling with a contract--for Willis. "We were a band and hoped to get signed as a band, but MCA just signed me," Willis says. "We treated the deal like a band, but only my name was on the album."

That album, 1990's "Well Traveled Love," attracted enough notice for MCA to give the singer a big promotional push for her next release, 1991's "Bang, Bang." But that largess came with a price: Willis had to dump her band in favor of studio musicians and start following the dictates of music-biz realpolitik.

"If I didn't do what [the label] wanted, I knew they'd drop me," she says. "I was confused. The band split up, and I was making the transition into being a solo artist, but I didn't know how to do that."

"I thought those albums weren't as country as Kelly," says Teresa Ensenat, who signed Willis to A&M Records in 1994, when she was a vice president of artists and repertoire for the label. "It seemed like they were afraid to let Kelly be a full-on country singer. But it was a process of discovery for her. She was feeling her way. She was young, and you don't know better until a couple of years down the line when you say, 'This is what I'm all about.' "

"Bang, Bang" wasn't a big seller, and Willis' superb 1993 third album, "Kelly Willis," fared little better. She had fans in high places, though, including actor-director Tim Robbins, who used her as an actress and a musician in his 1992 film "Bob Roberts." So Willis wasn't prepared for the dispatch with which MCA dropped her from its roster.

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