After 10 years, Kelly Willis gets what she deserves
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- Given country singer Kelly Willis' less-than-easy sojourn in the music business, she's probably earned a certain amount of bitterness.
In less than a decade, the gifted vocalist has been given the proverbial boot by her first label, MCA Nashville; lost her second recording deal; and in the last five years has had to content herself with only one promotional EP to her name.
But after years of such travail, Willis has released "What I Deserve," her critically lauded labor of love. The title might seem to be a statement of Willis' vindication. But this amazingly tranquil artist swears she's not bitter. She says she's just delighted and relieved that she's had the chance to release the record she's been hearing in her head for most of her adult life.
"A lot of it was backbreaking, hard and discouraging, to where I thought maybe I wasn't cut out for this thing, maybe it's just too hard for me," says Willis. "But I thought, I have to make this record for my own personal wellbeing. Once I make this record, I can quit if I choose."
For Willis, the album is a triumph, proof that she has what it takes to make it in country music -- while holding onto her artistic integrity.
"It's finally starting to sink in that, yeah, people like this," Willis says, laughing.
"What I Deserve" is moody, quiet, pensive -- more alt-country than much of what's coming out of Nashville. With her throaty voice and introspective lyrics, Willis most resembles a country version of Sarah McLachlan. The album, released on independent label Rykodisc in February, is already outselling her first three albums for MCA Nashville, released in the early 1990s.
"This album is a soul-searching, self-redemption album that figures out where you're going and what you want to do with your life," says Willis.
No hard feelings
The Oklahoma native started out fronting a rockabilly band, Kelly and the Fireballs, at age 16. In the late '80s, Willis moved to Austin, Texas, where the band attracted the attention of country singer Nanci Griffith, who caught a performance and immediately alerted MCA.
So at 19, the promising Willis got a deal with the same label that was home to Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. A few months later, she started working on her debut album, "Well Traveled Love."
And that's when the problems started.
In the early 1990s, the label wanted a cute country crooner, a photogenic media star, but Willis says she was just a timid, naïve, introverted kid who wanted to make music. After releasing three albums, which collectively sold fewer than 100,000 copies and registered only with critics -- MCA dropped her.
"I was young and my music sounded young, but the sound wasn't right for the time," recalls Willis. "And I was a really awkward, shy person and was not capable of being the kind of performer they really wanted. And there were other creative differences as well. I wanted to take a little time, do some different songs, and be a little more creative with it -- and that got nixed pretty early on in the recording process.
"I don't feel bad about it," she says, now 10 years wiser. "I was young and inexperienced. With the experience I have now, I would have said, 'Screw you, I'm going to take more time and do what I want.' Back then, I was really intimidated by the whole thing."
Willis decided to reinvent herself, and focused on writing her music. After signing with A&M in 1996, she released "Fading Fast," a four-song promotional EP which featured collaborations with alt-country performers Louris, Son Volt and 16 Horsepower. But again, Willis had the rug pulled out from under her when she lost the deal with A&M in 1997.
Willis says she talked to a number of labels, but most of them weren't sure what she'd sound like and didn't want to take a chance on her. So she struck out on her own, making a record and shopping the finished product around to various labels. Rykodisc released her album intact.
"That was my dream -- there was no conflict or controversy. Everyone was happy with what was happening and that was ideal," Willis says.
So far, the response has been staggeringly positive, earning Willis ink in Time, Spin and Rolling Stone. She says she's more surprised than anyone.
"I didn't think about what people's reactions would be," she says. "In a small part of my mind, I did. But mostly, I was just desperate to get the record made. I never thought what would happen beyond that. I just knew I would move forward after it."
The recognition couldn't have come at a better time for Willis, who says she was ready to abandon her lifelong dream of making music her way for a safer and steadier day job.
A decade after being dropped by MCA Nashville, a jubilant Willis is in Atlanta, following a triumphant performance at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry the night before. Before a packed crowd, which included many members of her old MCA family, Willis says she exonerated herself.
"It was wonderful, all I ever hoped for."
She denies any residual bitterness. "I wanted to be really good and at my best when we played Nashville, but I have no desire to get vindictive. People there really wanted to help me even though I never 'happened.' They liked me and my music, and my record company had good intentions," recalls Willis.
But in her own quiet way, Kelly Willis says she does finally feel some satisfaction at seeing years of disappointment and sacrifice pay off.
"Once I made the record, I felt so invigorated," she says. "Why quit now?"
Fresh Cuts mini-review: Kelly Willis' 'What I Deserve'
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