Her third — and final — album for MCA, the self-titled Kelly Willis, is likely her best. Produced by the respected Don Was and filled with stellar material by such songwriters as Jim Lauderdale, Marshall Crenshaw and Willis' second and current husband (and father of their four children), Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis finally shone the light on the still young singer's range — from the sprightly yet sturdy "Take It All Out On You" and "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" to the achingly poignant "Get Real" and "Up All Night." The album represents the best that country radio offers — well-written pop songs with just enough twang to keep the home folks happy.
But sometimes there is no justice. Sometimes the cream does not rise to the top. And sometimes talent does not conquer all. Shortly after the release of that self-titled gem, Willis was dropped from MCA. Six years would pass before her next album, the critical and commercial breakthrough What I Deserve. And now it has been five more since her last record, Easy.
She, though, has a good excuse for the lengthy delay. Or, rather, she has four excuses: Dodie (full name: Deral Otis), the twins (Ben and Abbie) and baby Joe. The last three of these additions to the family have arrived since Willis' last record in 2002.
"If you've got little kids," Willis says by way of explanation, "you don't have a whole lot of creative energy. There's not a whole lot of time to create."
Still, she realizes that, in her chosen profession, five years is damn near an eternity.
"People," Willis says, "think you go away."
It's early June of this year, and Willis is in Brooklyn, New York, shooting the video for the first single from that five-years-in-the-making album, Translated From Love.
On this barely summer afternoon, Willis' manager — let's call her Joan — chain-smokes on the front steps of Sam's Restaurant in the Cobble Hill section of Sandy Koufax's favorite borough. Ostensibly she's protecting the door from unwanted entry during the video shoot, but she knows and I know and everyone inside knows that she's out on the street primarily to smoke and maybe return a few phone calls — activities infinitely more interesting than sitting through multiple takes of a single-long-shot video.
I'm early, so I grab a concrete seat and join her — butt in one hand, cell phone in the other. Inside a crowded restaurant, Willis and enough crew and extras to start an indoor lacrosse league are somewhere around take 14 of the Adam Green-penned song "Teddy Boys."
I enter under Joan's escort, playing her faithful ward. We make our way through the production scrum that has taken over the front room at Sam's and squeeze into one of the restaurant's back booths, hip-to-hip, like teenagers at a drive-in. It is one of the few inside locations where we're out of camera range. But if we're willing to lean almost dangerously left — call it a 45-degree angle — we're able to see the assistant director's monitor.
In the meantime, the video crew and Willis and a scout team full of extras are only halfway finished. There will be nearly a dozen more takes. And Joan and I watch them all. After a few run-throughs, I personally see little difference between take 16 and take 18; though, admittedly, everything's a little tilted.
For each, Willis begins at the jukebox in the front room and slowly maneuvers through a maze of supposed bar patrons in search of her date (played by songwriter and local Brooklyn boy Green in a wink-inducing cameo). But, of course, she's not really putting change in the jukebox. In fact, no music plays at all. Only shouted instructions from the director can be heard: "Someone get in front of her" and "Go down, Kelly. Go down now."
It's enough to instigate a few presumably impolitic, certainly crass, definitely rude remarks. Which Joan makes. And, as faithful ward, so do I.
Out front, however, Willis does as she's told — alternately craning her neck and crawling on the floor. (I wonder, quietly this time, if it has been recently mopped.) Her movements — up and down, up and down — resemble an old-fashioned game of Whac-A-Mole. Minus the mallet, of course.
And Joan and I watch it all. Every last continuously repeated two-minute, 44-second take of a single, solitary long shot. Sans music.
Every run-through is rewound and replayed. This time, however, the playback takes longer. The director pauses thoughtfully. He looks at his watch. The shoot is already past its prearranged cutoff time, and restaurant employees are standing by, ready to set up for dinner.
Our hope briefly breathes, then is choked off in a tubercular cough.
"All right," the director says, "let's try that one more time. Quickly now."
If there was any thought of escape to, say, Smoke Island, it vanishes. We are now trapped by the lens of a video camera, unwilling to break into range, unwilling to admit, by our run for the front exit, a lack of support.
But in the front room, the final take is (finally) wrapping up. Willis once again presses buttons on the jukebox to no effect and begins her journey toward a booth-riding boyfriend. She rises up, kneels down, crosses in and crosses out.
In its final form, the magic of video will paint her actions as a two-minute and 44-second struggle against tightly packed bar patrons for, you know, something akin to love. But in reality, Green is sitting and waiting just to the left of the front door at Sam's, about 4 feet from the very same jukebox where Willis' journey began.
The truth of the matter is that Kelly Willis hasn't gone anywhere.