This month’s installment of Sings Like Hell sees its two participants sharing the headlining slate. And given that the two pending inductees into the roots-based series’ distinguished alumni are Chuck Prophet and Kelly Willis, it seems only fitting that they should share the Lobero spotlight. Both have long been shining stars in the traditionalist genre, and both have not only shared a stage, but also the studio. Having lent an instrumental hand to previous Willis recording, Prophet also produced her last recording, Translated from Love. And with the touring cycle for that record having now wound down, there couldn’t be a more fitting culmination of the achievement than gracing the Sings Like Hell stage together. Kelly Willis recently phoned in from her hometown of Austin, Texas.
Your music has been subjected to quite an array of labels-alternative country, new traditionalist, contemporary country-how does the idea of people trying to define your sound sit with you? It is a little frustrating. It would be so much easier if my work just fit within one pleasant category. But that just makes it all the more interesting, because it doesn’t fit into any little category. I’m honored that people take the time to try and figure what kind of music I make-the fact that they’re paying some attention to it at all is great news.
You hail from Oklahoma and are now living in Texas. Why do you think music is so important to Midwestern culture? That’s a really good question. I just think music is such an important part of our lives-it’s how we define ourselves, it’s how we express ourselves, it’s how we deal with the things happening in our lives that are difficult or wonderful. To me, it’s like eating. You eat, you drink, and you have music. I know I wouldn’t be living a full or complete life without it. Even if I wasn’t doing it for a living, I would still be craving those kinds of experiences from it.
And that has inspired an amazing grass-roots legacy : Music here has always been for the everyday person as opposed to the more elite forms of well-trained musicians. It has been popular music that has driven American life-that tradition of picking up an instrument and teaching yourself how to play-and it doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be homemade, and you don’t have to go to school [for it]. There is accessibility to it.
Do you enjoying taking your work on the road? Every show is an adventure. Even when you play somewhere 10 times, you never really do know who’s going to show up or how people are going to react. It’s fun in that regard, because you don’t know what you’re going to expect. But I like playing to people who have never heard me before-I feel like I have a little something to prove, maybe. And hopefully I will be bringing them my A-game.
How does that 90 minutes on stage match up against all the other things that come with touring-the travel, the hotels, the interviews? Playing is the really big payoff for all the other stuff you do. Getting to play music every night-especially with a group of players that you are excited to be playing with-is amazing. I often find myself standing up there onstage and looking at the people I’m playing with, and just thinking that I can’t believe I get to do this.
Do you find releasing an album is the end of the adventure or the start of one? That’s interesting. There is so much work that goes into making a record that you think you’re done when it’s made. That’s the part I really love to do. But once you’ve done it, you’ve got to figure out how to present it live, and that’s a whole new can of worms. Sometimes you can’t re-create what’s on the record and you have to do something different, so you’re still kind of creating and evolving the music.
Do the songs ever surprise you when they move from the recorded version into a live performance? All the time. There are often songs that you think are going to be the cornerstone of your set, and they never sound as good, and something else will sneak in there and be much more successful for you. Sometimes it’s a little heartbreaking, because there will be the special song and it doesn’t fulfill itself. You just never know. But that’s the beauty of it.
Kelly Willis shares the Sings Like Hell stage with Chuck Prophet on Saturday, February 16, at the Lobero Theatre at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com for info.