Kelly Willis sessions
Kelly? We got together months back, sat knee to knee going through songs. She had her list and I had a longer one. We agreed on exactly one song. And she attached a "maybe" to that one. Ouch!
We got there eventually. Wrote of mess of songs. Cooked up a cool record. We got all "housewife goth" with it. Gingham aprons and bad blood. We got 60's, 70's Husbands and Wives with it. Elvis, Sammi Smith, Bobbie and Glen, If-your-child-needs-a-daddy stuff. Got everything in there but "the kid-pissed-the-bed-again" references. Cut an Iggy song. An Adam Green song, too. Pretty goddamn kinky stuff.
As for the Adam Green song: I was touring in Germany last year and kept seeing this kid on TV. I'd already had his Moldy Peaches CD - proudly purchased it at the Sidewalk Café in fact. I bought his CD at a German truck stop. It has this song "Teddy Boy's" on it. It's "Jailhouse Rock" stuff, It's PRISONER: CELLBLOCK H stuff, it's damn weird. Kelly dug it. She opted to not change the gender. She took it like a man. It goes from Sun studio to Soamn and Gommeranta and back. It's pretty interesting, just pay attention kids.
Have you ever heard Kelly and the Fireballs? Her original guitar player was Michael Hardwick who now plays with John Dee Graham. I think there was some bad blood between Kelly and Michael, but I couldn't help but drag him in to play on the song Lucky (or something like it).
Her husband Bruce's studio is retro nuevo ranchero la musica heaven. Bruce had Jack Clement's architects drawings when he built his echo chamber. Toss up a fader and it gets all "Ring Of Fire on you. He's a tall son of a bitch. Jack Clement without the old man's Marine stripes.
We did a lot of takes. Sometime as many as 30. What you hear on this record is mostly live, except for the strings and such. We got grandiose. We got regal. We were penniless royalty with nothing but intent. Pure intent. All the while we kept it down home.
We did a lot of takes. The run-downs could be really magical (as run-down's can). Then it'd get worse for a while and eventually it would come back, all relaxed and comfortable, like it had taken itself for a walk in the brush. The track, especially the vocal would get tougher and tougher and we'd come out the other end. But with intent. Besides, it was mostly all focused around the vocal settling into something. We avoid overdubs like they were trying to sell us subscriptions to the local newspaper outside the grocery store. I tried to get the band and Kelly in the same room playing off each other, waiting for those beautiful mistakes that are truly what recording is all about. I also sincerely tried to avoid the dreaded leaning over the talkback mic saying "once-more-with-feeling" at all cost.
The musicians (Greg Leisz, Michael Ramo's, Marc Pisappia, John "Lunch meat" Ludwick), all of them sensitive difficult people. But they all dig playing with Kelly and were on their best behavior. I did have some trouble with one player who wasn't exactly punctual. I had to pull him aside and tell him, "you know, you weren't Kelly's first choice." Who doesn't want to be Kelly Willis' first choice?
There's a sadness below Kelly, as if she's been touched by fire a time too many. You can hear it in her voice. What the hell do you expect? It shouldn't come as any surprise considering she used to call her father "Colonel" with no hint of irony.
When you're working on a record, you create this kind of surrogate family. Because we started this thing with no material to speak of—we just went into a room and worked it out. It can get strange. Things can get psychological. Some days you can feel the dramatic heat rising and walls closing in, the air feels staler than the day before and the claustrophobia can settle in. Personally, I dig it. It's fun making records. Kelly's got that quiet intensity. A quiet authority. We're kind of opposites in that regard. I feared we might end up canceling out each other's attributes. Ya know: how two positives make a negative.
Kelly's entirely without pretense. One day she was sporting these hopelessly outdated stone washed jeans with flip flops and I said, "Kelly when you gonna start wearing straight leg's - ya know, like the kids", and without missing a beat, she said: "Oh, about the time they make it to Old Navy, I suppose."
Kelly's life got progressively more chaotic with each kid she had from the time we did the last record until we began work on this one. She's up to four of them now. That's a lot of chaos. All of `em under the age of six. She's focused on her family when she's not in the studio or the road. When she's in the studio, she's focused on singing. You can hear it. You can feel it.
She's one of those singers that can make an ordinary sounding track come alive. She's got that kind of charisma. The musicians feel it as soon as she puts on her headphones and steps to the mic. You can feel the heat rise when she opens her mouth. You can hear the voice of a woman that is alive; heart pumping and soul suffering.
We sat down and wrote a few of those songs in one sitting. Jules Shear came and joined in for a couple of days. We did some minimal rewrites, in fact, Jules said, "yeah rewrites are okay, I guess—if you want to make the songs worse" Mostly what you hear is what we came up with right there in the moment.
Kelly and I first met on a train in Norway in 1991 or so. We were the only Americans on a train from Bergen to Stockholm. That was, as Kelly says, "three lifetimes ago"
This time around, she was originally threatening to do a record of covers. She played me some stuff, and I played her some records. Some pretty outside shit, like that Berkeley Laptop mutant coalition called: "Why?". A couple great songs off that album "Elephant Eyelash". A classic! A Captain Beefheart song called "Too Much Time". Anyway, God knows what she thought.
I think after the first day pitching 30 or 40 ideas to each other we agreed on exactly one. And, as I said before, she attached a "maybe" to that one. I was running out of ideas and eventually began running on the fumes of frustration, I just started playing songs on acoustic and singing bits of `em. She lit up when she heard that Iggy song ("Success"), not really knowing where it came from. Especially when it came to that line: "Here comes my face, it's plain bizarre." Besides, compared to Elephant Eyelash it was starting to sound pretty normal.
That first day was kind of a disaster. Her husband took me out that night and give me a little if-it ain't-broke-don't-fix-it talk. You know, Kelly does her thing and leave it be kinda stuff. Bruce Robison is a sharp guy. Like a fucking pen-knife. An artist himself. A big ol' bastard and I was sitting down. Shit, man, what do you do? I dunno. Back at the hotel that night, I was left alone to contemplate it all. What are you gonna do? Well, I wasn't about to unpack my clothes and put them in the nice mahogany drawers the hotel provides for longer stays.
There were a couple missteps. A couple songs where I thought I heard strings and later took them off. Michael Ramo's did some beautiful arrangements. It was hard taking them off. Nothing like throwing thousands of dollars out the window. Kelly just shrugged and was like, "Hell, that's what it's for".
We ended up writing songs after all. She had some ideas laying around that put the hammer down, made the flash pan explode, and we got to moving fast.
Kelly was briefly managed by Jewel's-then- manager who had arranged a San Francisco session. I got a call at the last minute to play. ( They probably couldn't get who they wanted). At the time, Kelly was in record co. limbo, no deal, nursing the mother-load of all hangover's. The kind of hangover that comes from getting tossed out by the major's—sitting on the couch for a year watching daytime TV, strung out on a two bag a day Doritos's habit. I'm not a clinical psychologist, but I got the impression she might be mildly depressed, or "dysthymic" as the DSM says. It occurred to me.
We cut a Nick Drake song that day (Time Will Tell Me). It was brilliant. Pretty powerful. I was smitten. Those sessions didn't work out in the long run, but a few songs did come together. The producer was a blow hard, and Kelly understandably bailed. Later, she took the reigns, borrowed some money from Rough Trade honcho Geoff Travis, and pulled together a session in Austin and invited me along. I went out there and ended up playing on most of the "What I Deserve" record. Since then, she's gone on to raise a family and fulfill her own dreams in her life as well as her music. Pretty cool, right?
There's chords and guitars and tones and timing, tuning, drum sounds and room sounds and analog and all that. But beyond that stuff, there's a crazy combination of personalities that make records pop. I think if you're lucky enough to get some of those psycho dynamics to stick to the tape, you've got a record that will resonate for a long time. Isn't that what recording is? A desperate need to catalog this fleeting life?
I was talking to my friend Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience about whether he felt it was harder than ever to make rock and roll that's relevant this late in the game. The good Dr. said, "Well if it's fun, it's relevant, right?" I think this record sounds like people having fun.