“This was the first time I ever recorded completely sober”, Ruston Kelly explains, “and I wanted to take the intensity of whatever it took to get me here and leave that splattered all over the wall”.
Following on from his previous album Dying Star and its themes of dealing with drug and substance abuse, Ruston Kelly’s new album is a document to maintaining that sobriety and the spiritual journey that it’s taken him on as he deals with what he describes as that endless “cycle of frustration and temptation after getting clean”. Kelly turned to the ritual of free writing, a practice that led him to the album’s title, Shape And Destroy. “This phrase just came to me one day: ‘Shape the life you want by destroying what obstructs the soul’. I realized that was the ticket to healing myself and healing my mind: figuring out what kind of person I want to become, and then getting rid of everything that keeps me from being that person” he explains.
Recorded at Dreamland, a space converted from a 19th century church in Upstate New York, Shape And Destroy was co-produced with his longtime producer Jarrad K. enlisting Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick, bassist Eli Beaird and his own family members, including his father Tim “TK” Kelly on steel guitar, and his sister Abby Kelly and his then wife Kacey Musgraves contributing background vocals. Nine days were booked in at Dreamland to make the album, but the sessions flowed so kinetically that they recorded almost the entire album in the first 48 hours.
Influenced by Jackson Browne, Dashboard Confessional, Kurt Cobain and the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ruston Kelly has always been a paradoxical star - a natural in the limelight that he appeared to shy away from - breaking through as an Americana artist but taking influences from the alternative rock and emo records he grew up listening to.
BEST FIT: Where are you right now?
RUSTON KELLY: I am outside right now. I'm taking a walk. I am in Nashville, Tennessee. It is seven minutes past three in the afternoon and it’s getting pretty hot down here.
Have you been in Nashville the whole time you've been in lockdown?
My parents and my sister and my nephew, they live down the street from me. I have started to see a friend here and there, while remaining socially distant and that has been really nice. One of the many things I’ve taken from this pandemic - and I know there's a lot of tragedy, suffering and maddening circumstances surrounding it - but my whole ethos about any type of suffering is to try to find some sort of silver lining. Not just to feel better about the scenario, but to try to understand what it is that suffering has to teach me about who I am and my perspective on the world and the things that maybe I take for granted. So I try to keep that mentality.
What lessons have you learned from it?
That I can be too absorbed by my work. I can be absorbed by the art of becoming myself at the expense of being emotionally available for other people sometimes. And it's really easy to do that in this industry, especially when you're gone all the time. And you're just really focused and I can get a little bit too lost sometimes and miss the bigger picture on things. So everything kind of slowing down it's given me an opportunity to really take into account how I can be a better brother, how I can be a better grandson, a son, a husband, a friend, how I can be more service to my community. Because in the end those are the things that are most important. I mean, what would your life's work be if you didn't really have a full and vibrant life?
What should you have been doing at this moment if everything had been going to plan?
We've just been able to kind of elongate the release (of the album). It was going to come out in June and now it's going to come out August 28. So we're going to just roll with it. I think now is a time for more art, not less art. And I think maybe sometimes people forget that, other than just making us feel good and want to hang out with our friends and party or or be relieved by music, it can also get you in touch with a deeper part of yourself.
Are you glad in any way that you don’t have to do some of the things that you would usually have to do to promote a record?
[laughs] I would have to say no actually, because there's this hunger to be on the road, there's this hunger to put this out there and to accomplish something and to have all the focus on that and to see the results of that. A lot of times doing something like a late night show or stopping by a radio station, those are all examples of there being progress. But everything happens in its own time, and I think to take account of that in the proper way is to not expect anything other than what's happening in this moment. And with everything that is happening in the world right now, it could be this way or it could be that way, but this is the way it is right here right now and we just have to make the best of it. I think all those things will come. It will just be a slightly different kind of timeline from what is normally expected.
What was different about the way you made this album?
We made the first one at Sonic ranch in El Paso. It was like a desert landscape kind of thing. Out in the middle of nowhere on a pecan farm. Then for this record I wanted to go to a snowy, wooded, enclosed type of environment. And that's exactly what Dreamland provided around that time of year.
What made you want to record this album in that sort of environment?
I guess with Dying Star the atmosphere in the environment is really reflective of the themes on that record, that feeling of being kind of floating in the ether, having a solemn moment for the things that were and confusion as to what things are going to be, but knowing that there's a beauty in that. Taking that mantra on for the new record it’s more like my head's out of the water and headed straight for the shore. I know where I'm going. I think to be able to achieve that it made sense to go out and to be kind of secluded and sequestered. To need to share the warmth with people in a room where it was cold in the control room - and no one likes to record with winter clothes on - that it was kind of up to us to create this heated environment to really give energy to the songs and I think that actually played out on the record quite a bit.
You had seven days set aside to make the record but you ended up recording it in 48 hours. What happened? Were you just really cold?
I think a combination of just a human necessity to keep warm [laughs], and then Jarrad K and I really relaying to the band and the engineer and assistant engineer what this was going to be like. The intent behind the record was let's-play-it-this-way and let's-play-from-what-the-mantra-is, which is where the title of the record came from. Shake the life you want to live by destroying what obstructs the soul. We wanted them to really mean it, to really understand what that feels like for you as a bass player or for you as a drummer or for you as an engineer. What do those things mean? To create regardless of the obstacles in your life, whatever that cross to bear may be, it doesn't matter because the freedom of creating that together is more powerful than any tragedy that you face in your lifetime and that you'll always be able to access it because we'll have it on record. That was kind of the spoken and somewhat unspoken intent behind it. We played towards that for sure. I would tell them this was their record as much as it is my record. And sure, these are particular things that I've gone through, but it's reflective of the human condition. I want this record to be someone else's record. I mean, that's what I'm trying to do as an artist, and in my life as a recording artist and as a touring artist. In this industry, you can get lost in being an artist or a caricature of yourself or to try to be the holder of the glory that maybe you bring. We do glorify that celebrity culture. That goes hand in hand with the entertainment industry, but I think the point is to give it away, because it wasn't something that you ever really owned. I want to have responsibility for it, but I also don't want to take pride in the ownership of it. So if I can do that then my song is your song, and your song is mine and vice versa. That was established when we got into the room to press record.
Are you comfortable being a celebrity or a star now?
There are some things in this industry that you can't help, and there are some things that make you feel good. If a bunch of people are saying they love your shit, it's not wrong to say that that feels good. But I think at the same time as you may get empowered or lustre yourself, there may be a responsibility to your artwork to make sure that nothing pulls you away from it. I don't think there's anything wrong with people that like being in the public eye but that's never been my aim. It's never something that I want. I want to sell tickets and I want to make quality art. And if there are things that go along with that, that are just the nature of the beast, then so be it. But I'd like to keep my family private. I like to keep the parts of my life private that I choose to, I'd like to have a choice over the matter if that makes sense. Being a star? I don't know what that is. I don't want to do that. I just want to do what I'm meant to do, which is to perform and share artwork that means something to me.
You probably won’t be able to sing these songs live as soon as you’d want to. A lot of these songs are about coming out of addiction is performing them live part of that catharsis?
It is. I stopped trying to demystify the reason why I feel most natural on a six foot raised platform in front of a thousand people. It is part of it, but I think that with Dying Star it was this particular experiment on how to pull yourself out of a specific circumstance of substance abuse and drug abuse. The goal of this record was to put an end to that chapter in my life to really shape and destroy. To really put the final nail in the coffin by zooming out even further and saying, “okay, well, that was drug abuse, but what is really drug abuse itself?” Let's zoom out even further. Why would I choose to abuse myself subconsciously or consciously? And then you ask yourself these bigger questions and then all of a sudden you feel a lot more connected to other people. Before that I feel like I was in danger of becoming a recluse and I think that the nature of drug culture can make you that way as well. If you're deep diving down into your soul but you don't really know what you're searching for you're only going to end up with these handfuls of dirt. There’s no fruit from the labour and I really believe the fruit from the labour is understanding how you can see yourself through another's eyes. The more particular you get with yourself the more you can understand in someone else's situation. So the aim of this record was to broaden it. It’s essentially a mental health record.
How does the song “Brave” fit in with that?
The song was never supposed to be as stripped down as it ended up being. The version that you’re hearing is what I thought was just a test recording just to get my levels. It was the weirdest thing though. As you know, my dad is in my band and it's hard to put into words in a few sentences just how important and how special that is. Just because of the way that the shadow of the way I used to live would get in the way of my relationship with my dad. He taught me everything I know about music. He taught me everything I know about work ethics and discipline, and for a long time, we were at odds. You know, I was just living a life that wasn't conducive to valuing family and slowly through music - and he actually won Bob Hope’s National Songwriting Competition in 1971 and was offered a record deal and he turned it down because he believed you have a family to raise and that he needed to really make some money to do that. So in a weird turn of events, he's been able to tour the world. It’s been so special. When we went to go and record "Brave" it was supposed to be that Dad was going to play steel guitar or baritone guitar on it, and it was late at night and I don’t drink anymore, but we did this thing in the studio with the guys where it was wine and candles night, and we would record in a kind of free form way. If we’d get a take we’d get a take, but it kind of worked in our favour as we recorded most of the songs that night. But then with "Brave", Dad went in there and I'll never forget it. Dreamland is just an old church and we’re in there and Dad and I are just facing each other in this control room. Candles were everywhere and also with me being in a sober recording environment my senses are very heightened. I'm very raw emotionally. And Dad is looking at me and he was going to play on it, but as soon as they push record I have no idea why he just clasped his hands in his lap and he just watched me. That recording is just all of these principles that my Dad taught me of how to be the best human possible and to try and live your life towards that, and he's in the room in the air on that recording. That’s why that's probably the most special recording on the record.
You wrote another of the songs “Jubilee” at Mother Maybelle Carter’s dining room table. How did that come about?
So I met John Carter Cash a long time ago, probably around 2013 through his dad’s publisher and his publisher who then became my publisher, John Allen. He was vice president of BMG at the time, but he was the head of Bug, which owned all Johnny Cash’s and the House Of Cash recordings publishing rights. So they he took me out to this cabin and John Carter and I really hit it off, and the interesting thing about that was I didn't know that I was abusing the same drug as his father was. I didn't know that amphetamines were a thing for Johnny Cash until I started reading his biography and the more I read it the more I found solace in the fact that this man that was considered great was greatly broken at some point. It just gave me all this inspiration. I had this book about Johnny Cash and there's this picture of him sitting on the steps of this cabin in the woods, smoking a cigarette and singing out into the trees, and for some reason that image gave me solace. That must have been 2010, then fast forward a few years and I go to meet John Carter. And we're sitting in the kitchen in this old rustic looking cabin and I say, “hey, can I step outside to smoke?” and he tells me to just go out the front, and I open the door and I sit down and I light a cigarette and I look up and I'm sitting in the exact same spot as that picture. You can't make this shit up. Fast forward again and John Carter calls me and he knows that I'm sober and he wants to check in to see how things are going. He just said that if I ever needed a place to write - to get away for a while - that his grandmother's house was still up there and they keep it up and his cousin takes care of it. I was just putting two and two together and I'm a giant Carter family fan so he knew he must be talking about Mother Maybelle’s house. So basically he gave me the keys for a week and I went out there by myself. It was like being in a museum without any glass. There were just little notes that Johnny had written to June, or just some of Maybelle’s stuff, or June's stuff from when she was a little girl. These things were just there like they would be in anybody's home.
So you have all this history with country music and with so many of the important characters form Country music history, but I associate you just as much with Mike Moggis and Bright Eyes or the emo album you put out. When do you get into country music and where does it fit in with that?
I've never considered myself a country artist whatsoever. Americana I guess, but that's a catch-all anyway. I've definitely been more on the side of Bright Eyes, Belle and Sebastian or Elliott Smith, but what brought me to country music was the Carter family. It wasn't so much as the sound - the sound was eerie enough, it sounds like ghosts are in the walls - but it was more of the fact that the more I got into them the more I understood what was coming out of those speakers. That these were people were just products of their environment. Creativity was something that was understood as a God given talent that they would use and they would sing joyfully, but not just because, everything was fine. Everything wasn't fine, but I think that's why they had so much appeal because they focused on what one author said was “the hard art of living”. I really resonate with that. It doesn't matter if you grew up at the turn of the 20th century or you're growing up in the mid 90s, whatever you experience, whatever your thorn in your side or your figurative cross to bear your life, just seeing through that and to have joy and gratitude for that. Just to arrive at that is an incredible feat that I'm still trying to do. Which is part of this record, which is part of why I ended it on “Hallelujah Anyway”.
Which you ended up closing the record with. But it almost feels like the beginning of a next record as well in a way?
You’re right. It is the statement I make to myself as the smoke clears and I step into whatever this next journey of my life is. To me it’s the most important song I've ever written, because in a lot of ways I didn't really know what the point of it all was. But to be able to humble yourself before something greater in spite of the abuse that you put yourself through, or the sadness or the suffering that you've experienced, regardless of who you are, or what you do or what that suffering is. To be able to still at the end of the day say that goodness will prevail, that I have hope in the source, in the maker and in that divine energy that can lift us and move us and empower us all. To say that to yourself, even if you don't feel it is a courageous thing. I want to make the next step in my life fearlessly. I may not know what that looks like. I may not know [sighs]. I hope that I remain sober. I hope that I remain a good brother and husband and son. You have these hopes for these things, and there are possibilities for those things the more you grow yourself, but that's the statement. It’s to say, “okay, finally in my raw state of emotion, and perception of myself in the world, I can step forward with bravery and say that I don't have all the answers, but I know that goodness can prevail”.