When you speak with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, two things are clear. They have a deep love for one another and a profound respect for each other’s talents — hers as a rip-your-heart-out songstress, his as a hit songwriter.
After 16 years of marriage, managing two separate careers and raising four children, the first couple of Texas country music released their first full-length country music collaboration, Cheater's Game, earlier this month — an album that has already reached No. 1 on the Americana charts.
“We’re so excited about it. It’s just so reaffirming,” Willis says of the project’s quick climb to the top. “It’s incredibly positive and a great way to kick off this whole project. We’re thrilled.”
“I really learned, as far as the music goes, she’s got this amazing B.S. detector,” Robison says of Willis.
Cheater's Game includes a collection of 13 true country songs, seven of which Robison wrote or co-wrote. “When we decided to do this project I decided to look wherever I needed to to find the best songs I could,” Robison says. “We’d sit down and play them with acoustic guitar ... and we just went with the ones that worked that we both liked.”
For 20 years the two have collaborated on shows and songs, but they say it just recently felt right to record a full-length album together. “When we first met we were solo artists,” Willis says. “We were pursuing our own goals, and we [were] really not interested in being in a band together. It wasn’t even something we even thought about.
“Playing together was a slow build. When it finally got to a point where we decided to focus some energy on it, what we got was open doors and yeses. It was just real easy and natural and fun.”
You can sense that “easy, natural and fun” with every song on Cheater’s Game, even the ballads. Robison attributes that great vibe to Willis’ innate abilities as a singer, something he says he developed an even greater appreciation for while recording this record.
“I really learned, as far as the music goes, she’s got this amazing B.S. detector,” he says. “She has an amazing kind of vision about her identity I wish I had. ... She is instinctively a singer, and I really don’t know what that means except I can see it while she’s doing it, and she knows how to take a song and present it.”
Fans contributed to the project’s creative process by influencing the final 13 tracks that wound up on Cheater’s Game.
And, in return, Willis gives a lot of the credit to her husband’s songwriting abilities. “I love Bruce’s songs. I think he’s just amazing. He has this way of writing choruses that you cannot keep from singing along to. They’re really catchy, and yet the lyrics are deep."
Robison says Cheater’s Game is a project unlike any he’s ever worked on — in part because it was created without a record label and with the help of fan-funding through KickStarter.
“It felt like 1993 again when everything was brand new, and you were putting it all together, and there was that excitement of doing it for the first time,” he says. “It was really a great feeling to open that communication with some of our most motivated fans. ... It was such a big kind of ego boost to have people out there kind of rooting for you and encouraging you.”
In addition to providing financial and emotional support, fans also contributed to the project’s creative process by influencing the final 13 tracks that wound up on the release. Robison and Willis played stripped-down versions of the material they were considering for small audiences and took peoples’ reactions to heart.
“I love singing that way, but without a big band, it’s like being out there kinda naked,” Robison says. “It is different, but I really enjoy doing this ... and most of the time that’s the best way to present them, where people can really hear every little part of them.”
Willis says with the release of the album, they have gigs lined up most weekends (including a March 1 stop at The Kessler) through the summer to promote the new music. We ask her how difficult it is for both of them to travel with four children at home, ranging in age from 7 to 12.
“You’ve got to map out every moment, because there’s so many kids with so many different things, so it is a challenge,” she explains. “But I think at this point we kind of have a system worked out, and we have some people that we really trust that watch the kids, so it’s gotten a little easier now that they are not babies."
Robison agrees. “Getting back out there and singing is a lot easier now that we don’t have infants at home, and so we’ve really been able to add a lot of fun back into this thing.”
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis share tunes from their latest release at The Kessler on March 1.