Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

An extended interview with Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis.

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Photograph by Todd Wolfson

Austin’s favorite musical couple have separate careers: He’s just released The New World, and after recording Translated From Love, in 2007, she’s now taking a hiatus to focus on their four children. Yet they join forces every year to play a series of holiday shows in cities across the state. They kick off this year in Austin, on December 11.

Your holiday shows have evolved into a tradition for you. How did it all get started?

KW: Well, I don’t exactly remember. I do know that we just had a chance to play a show one year with Charlie [Robison].

BR: I think it was just a chance to get together and play. It was a time when everybody was really super busy, and we just booked one gig together with Charlie, and then he said Emily [Robison] wanted to play, and then Martie [Maguire] played, and then we booked him one more show in Houston and Fort Worth. It was me and Kelly and Charlie, and we had such a good time, so we’ve just been doing it ever since. Now it’s a big part of our holiday season, and it seems like it is for other folks too.

Is it challenging for songwriters like yourselves to sink your teeth into such well-traveled material?

KW: It isn’t stuff that’s real fresh, that people haven’t heard a hundred times going to the grocery store, so it’s challenging to find material. But I love singing in that style. We don’t really get to do that a whole lot.

BR: Especially not in country music. It’s a fine line, right? The songs are traditional, and it’s wonderful to hear them every year, but you can easily become sick of them.

I’m interested in how you think it’s a different style from what you usually sing.

KW: Well, getting to sing standards, like Doris Day—we don’t get to do that. We are busy singing our little singer-songwriter stuff.

BR: Country is way more twangy, so it is different to sing those songs, with their structure.

Kelly, looking at your Web site, I came across a note from you that sounds like you are hanging it up on live appearances for the time being. Will you elaborate?

KW: I went out and toured in support of Translated From Love, and between being out on the road and coming home with the kids and Bruce being on the road, it was just too much for me. We felt like the kids were suffering, and they needed more consistency in the structure of our lives. I’m doing some private parties right now, and I’ll do an occasional gig if I feel like I can get together a good band. I played [Austin’s] Backyard last night—I thought that would just be a special gig to be a part of—and we are doing the Black Tie and Boots Ball. So I’m doing a gig here and there, but mostly I’m not doing gigs, and Bruce is out there on the road. That’s one reason why the Christmas shows are special for me. You know, I love to play with Bruce. He’s so laid-back and fun, and I’m usually all wound up and uptight, so it’s a whole different world for me.

Some of this material is a little racy. Of course, it’s been around a long time. I’m talking about “Santa Baby” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Are those fun duets to sing?

KW: They’re really fun to sing, but I don’t think we take a real racy approach to them. We do more of the Doris Day approach, which is very fun, and of course, stuff is implied, but it’s not likeI don’t know whose version I heard, Jessica Simpson’s, maybe? It makes my skin crawl because it’s just so suggestive. It crosses the line.

Who is your audience for these shows?

KW: Kids do come out to the Paramount show [in Austin]. We have to be on our better behavior there. For most of the other shows, it’s adults, and it feels like it’s becoming a tradition for a lot of the audiences. They bring their families every year.

Did you both grow up around a lot of holiday music?

BR: Yep, I heard all those songs on the radio.

KW: My mother would do a lot of singing in that style, so I have a fondness for that stuff. There’s such a nostalgic feeling to those songs. It just feels good to hear ’em and sing ’em.

Kelly, do you have any plans to record a new album?

KW: Not right now. Chuck Prophet, who produced the last one with me, e-mails me every now and then, just asking. But I need to let myself focus on the kids right now and get this time in our lives organized.

Bruce, you just released a new album a couple months ago. Are you planning on taking off on tour at the first of the year?

BR: I’m always working, that just continues. I’m always playing; I go out-of-state about once a month. I’m always working at my day job.

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