They may have been married since 1996, but Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis didn’t know if another partnership – a musical one – was going to work until a little detail got worked out.
“I think whenever that moment happened where Bruce decided that I could do the set list, I knew this could work,” laughed Willis, and Robison wasn’t about to disagree.
“Yeah, it's true,” he said. “We had to figure out some separation of labor.”
The funny thing is that this was a serious deal, and despite having successful careers apart from each other and a good family life together, recording and performing as a duo brought on several feelings of trepidation.
“We were both nervous about testing our relationship by working together,” said Willis. “I think it's hard enough to maintain a relationship without throwing in that extra element of also working with someone. (Laughs) So that's what we've always been nervous about. After we get off the road from some little tour we don't have our significant other to complain about our co-worker with. It's still just us. And that's the only thing I think we were afraid of, that whole balance of power, and that whole problem solving. Those things can really be pushed to their limit in everyday life.”
True, but after the set list thing got worked out and the two hit the studio with producer Brad Jones, not just as occasional collaborators like they had over the years, but as a full-on duo, it was magic – for them and for us.
“After the first sessions that we did, it was a great feeling to find a producer who really is someone who is a real partner,” said Robison. “When you have somebody like that, it really gives you a lot of confidence. You don't feel like the weight's on your shoulders. It's similar to when I go to a gig with Kelly and just having the weight not all be on your shoulders. It's not cut in half; it's like it goes away completely. There's somebody else up there and you can just have fun.”
2013 saw the release of the well-received Cheater’s Game , but with their second album, last month’s Our Year, Willis and Robison hit it out of the park. A warm-soun ding collection that addresses real life in a way only those who have truly lived it can, the country veterans have a chemistry that only comes from playing, touring, and living together. In the process, they make this work in a way that draws positive comparisons to the interplay between another husband / wife pairing – Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope.
“I think maybe it's because we were together for so long before we ever attempted to make a fully-fledged project together,” said Willis. “We would sing together and I would do harmonies on some of his recordings, and then I would record some of his songs, and so I think maybe we really just understood each other musically before we went in to record this duet project.
“We had many little opportunities to work together where we kind of worked out the kinks and we really appreciated and understood each other,” she continues. “I've always really loved his songs, I loved singing them, and I've been hearing him sing for so long and played at his shows and his records and had been a fan. At this point, I know how he's going to sing. If it's a new song, I can watch him and understand just from his visual clues when he's going to cut the note short. I just understand him and I think it's the same way the other way around.”
On Our Year, the mix of original songs and covers is perfect for their voices and for times that aren’t always sunny. It’s a homage to the artists Robison grew up on, hard living straight shooters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
“That music created a lot of my taste that I still go back to,” he said. “I know as a fan, those are the kind of songwriters and that's the kind of music I gravitated toward in my past and those are the type of songs that really resonate for me, whether they're the ones that I've written or the ones that we've found to sing from the great writers that are on here. That's what I tend to like singing about.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel though, particularly in their cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year.”
“It's great to have a song that's light sometimes and honestly, that's why we found that song 'This Will Be Our Year,' and we ended up calling the record Our Year because with the songs that we write and I write, it gets so heavy sometimes,” he said. “So it was really fun to have a song that had a little more hope and lightness to its outlook, and then also be able to call the record that. And that's what I love about country music. Even though sometimes the songs are real heavy, they can make you feel better.”
Our Year will make you feel better, and seeing Willis and Robison at Joe’s Pub in NYC on Sunday night will also do the trick. And not to be all doom and gloomy, but with four kids at home, this may be the last time we see them out here together for a while. So enjoy this time. They sure are.
“Making music together has always been nothing but fun and we've always enjoyed doing that,” said Willis. “And being out on the road and performing together is more fun than I've ever had playing solo just because we're sharing the load on stage. We've got this person who's our perfect foil, almost; a person to lean on and joke with, we know each other's strengths and we make sure that they get highlighted. It's just fun and that's all good for us.”
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis play Joe's Pub in New York City on Sunday, June 8. For tickets, click here