There are little reminders woven all across the songs of Shape & Destroy, the forthcoming album from Ruston Kelly, due Aug. 28 on Rounder Records. Reminders to have grace, to be forgiving to yourself and others, and to stay sober when your brain is screaming for reprieve. Profound reminders that life itself can be beautiful, even when the walls around us are caving in.
“Sometimes I have to declare it,” says Kelly, calling from the roadside near the Nashville home he shares with wife Kacey Musgraves, where the service is so weak that he sometimes has to take a walk down the curve just to make a phone call. “It’s not easy to declare who you want to be, and some days all I have is the attempt to try.”
Kelly’s first album, Dying Star, was about finding renewal in ruin — it traced him as he picked up pieces of himself that were torn apart by addiction, and put them back together in a transformative order that included room for both love and sobriety. It also cemented him as one of the sharpest, most empathetic songwriters working today, able to craft his own corner, well outside of Nashville’s traditional genre walls (a corner he’s come to call “dirt emo”). Shape & Destroy looks at how the growth doesn’t end there — there’s an evolution to recoveries and rebirths of all kinds, and mental health is never a straight line to anywhere. It’s a message that resounds as so many are struggling through the pain, loss, and isolation of one of the most tumultuous times in modern history.
“That’s what this record is about to me,” Kelly says of Shape & Destroy, from which a new song, “Rubber,” was released today. “Trying to reestablish yourself as yourself. By taking care of yourself, you are in turn taking care of the people who love you. And being a better person in the world.”
The seeds for Shape & Destroy came to Kelly not long after he got sober, in Dec. 2018, arriving home from the Dominican Republic from John Prine’s All the Best Festival and his own headlining run. On paper, his life checked all the boxes: a critically acclaimed album, a happy home life, and an ever-growing, devoted fanbase. Instead, he was at a breaking point.
“I felt like something was unraveling, or something was changing and it was really painful,” Kelly says. “I felt like I was losing and gaining at the same time, and letting a sense of who I had been slip away. A red cloud was hanging over me.” The struggle to stay sober and figure out who he was if he did was stifling and consuming; nothing seemed to help, except writing.
At one point, he grabbed a sharpie and jotted down, in bold letters, “shape the life you want to live by destroying what obstructs the soul.” Kelly thought, “well, s--t, alright. That’s some pretty simple instructions.”
Kelly went on to record the album with producer and longtime creative partner Jarrad K at Dreamland Recording Studios, a former church in upstate New York. The setting lent itself perfectly to the album’s themes of finding faith in whatever way makes sense. For Kelly, that’s always been in angels: both the mythological and earthbound people who grab a hand when you’re falling or quietly show the safe way home.
Alongside his father Tim “TK” Kelly, sister Abby Kelly, Musgraves, and his band, Kelly laid down most of the album in a two-day flurry of creativity. That included songs like “Jubilee,” which he wrote at the Carter Family home, and the stunning closer, “Hallelujah Anyway,” about finding the strength to be thankful for the gift of life, or love, even when it might not flow easily at all.
It was also the first time Kelly recorded sober. “It was a challenge,” he says, “and I was scared, but at the same time, I was fearless.”
Kelly had been long working to reshape his view on the role that intoxication plays in creativity: that sobriety is the enemy of art. “That’s a paradigm in the industry that needs to be broken immediately,” he says. These days, he worries particularly about those struggling to stay clean in isolation, waiting out the pandemic.
“It’s a dangerous time for addicts and those in recovery,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think this is a really tempting time.”
Without any tour dates on the horizon, Kelly’s been keeping busy at home on the typewriter, working on his handyman skills, live-streaming with Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, and daydreaming about the future when he can return to the road or perhaps throw a “dirt emo” festival (it will happen, he promises). And though it’s not a simple time to release an album, he’s hopeful that the words of Shape & Destroy can provide some relief to those struggling to help themselves or cast away their own obstructions.
“When there is a sense of suffering, I feel like there is a duty to find something positive out of it,” Kelly says. “That’s always been my mantra.”