Ruston Kelly Is Trying to Be Brave

Spencer Dukoff
·6 mins read

From Men's Health

Ruston Kelly has always had trouble standing still. Without that restless spirit, it’s difficult to imagine the 32-year-old singer-songwriter logging countless hours on the road, paying his dues as a modern troubadour. Over the past several years, Kelly has slowly but surely built an increasingly fervent fanbase who've been drawn to his "dirt emo" sound, which is as indebted to Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance (two artists he covered on last year's Dirt Emo Vol. 1 EP) as it is to anything happening in the modern Nashville country music scene. But it’s that same spirit, that itch to be in a perpetual state of motion, that’s gotten Kelly into trouble before.

He’s kept those demons at bay—substance abuse, narcissism, fallibility at-large—by writing about them extensively with blistering candor. “Creating is how I understand myself and my place in the world a little bit better, through that creative lens,” Kelly says during a recent phone conversation.

In 2020, Kelly has needed to embrace stillness in order to keep on “the path of being a good man.” On Friday, he’ll release Shape & Destroy, the follow-up to his 2018 debut full-length, Dying Star. If Dying Star served as an honest reckoning with the flawed man Kelly once was, Shape & Destroy is a hopeful, forward-looking testament to that good man Kelly is trying to become.

“I really think that one of the most qualifying principles of a man is to have courage and grace under pressure—I think Hemingway said that, actually,” Kelly says. “To really be able to just fucking dance with it when you’re stumbling all around.”

Those past stumbles have prepared him for a turbulent year. First, a global pandemic transformed the concept of quarantine from a sci-fi horror plot device to a lived reality, in effect forcing Kelly to be still. Then, in July, Kelly and the Grammy-winning country artist Kacey Musgraves announced they had filed for divorce after two-and-a-half years of marriage.

Photo credit: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin - Getty Images

“It took me some hard nights to figure [out how to cope],” Kelly says. Two of the cornerstones of his coping strategy have been faith and family.

Kelly was raised Methodist and influenced by his mother’s “Christ-centered” Mormonism. But he’s a true believer in what he calls “the source.” Regardless of the differences between faiths, Kelly says, “they all lead back to the source.” The principle of “judge less and love more” resonated with Kelly from a young age and prayer, a gateway to meditation, became a way for him to seek stillness.

“In my recovery, I feel like I’ve always been able to heal through a source and the Maker and that sense of divinity,” Kelly says. “I don’t necessarily believe that angels have robes and wings, but the idea that there could be even vibrational forces or forces of life and things we don’t understand what they look like as a being. But as a concept, I guess it doesn’t matter how ‘real’ they are. If the concept is real to you, it’s doing its work.”

Photo credit: Jason Kempin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jason Kempin - Getty Images

He’s also leaned on his parents, who have been helpful and supportive whenever Kelly hit a rough patch.

“You need to be better because you believe you can be better because you were raised to be as great as you can be,” Kelly says. “That you don’t just owe that to yourself—you owe that to other people.”

Tim “TK” Kelly, Ruston’s father, plays pedal steel in Kelly’s band and was part of the S.A.D. recording process. Kelly credits his father as a hugely influential figure in his life.

“His strength was expressed through being gentle,” Kelly says. “That taught me a lot about what it means to be a man. You know, like a man. He valued strength, he valued honesty, he valued integrity, but he didn’t go around telling people that he did that. He just lived it. He was that.”

But the center of Kelly’s life has always been music, whether making it himself or blasting it at high volumes to allow his mind to reset.

“One thing that I do is I drive and I listen to very heavy metal,” Kelly says with a laugh. “I love Hatebreed, I love Crowbar. And these are also very positive, if you listen to the lyrics. ‘What I walk away from is not my master.’ It’s like, alright, let’s fucking go.”

Kelly refers to S.A.D. as a "capstone" when it comes to his sonic and thematic exploration of dirt emo. “If you were to see it in a dictionary, it would be ‘highly confessional, emotional music over top folk instrumentation,’” Kelly says. But Kelly doesn't lay claim to dirt emo. “I was listening to another band the other day: Pinegrove,” Kelly says. “I love that band so fucking much, and I feel like they’re even more dirt emo than I am.”

Much of what separates Shape & Destroy from past Ruston Kelly records is a prevailing sense of optimism buoyed by a deep gratitude for being able to claw back from rock bottom. Songs like “Alive” (“You could call it blind luck, call it divine/However it happened, I made it out to the other side”) and “Under the Sun” (“There are brighter days still to come”). But the record’s anchor is “Brave,” a song Kelly reluctantly released as the album’s lead single in April.

Kelly says that his initial plans were to release one the album’s more upbeat, intricately produced songs to kick off the S.A.D. rollout. But a month into quarantine, one of his managers convinced him that “Brave” should be the song hear fans first. “The more I thought about it, the more I was like, ‘This song is what this record is,’” Kelly says.

The song is simple and sparse, just Kelly’s vocals accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and lyrics that lay out how Kelly hopes he’s remembered when he dies.

“I’m really hard on myself when I fail. So climbing back up, failing is an inevitable element of it. I just had to learn how to fail a little better.” Kelly says. “It means that I had a personal mission statement defining what it was simply that I felt would make me a good human being. That song is a call to that. It’s not a belief that I am that. It’s that if I wake up every day and I try to be those things in spite of the many difficulties of substance abuse, of domestic issues, of relational issues, of just pain and suffering in general, I would at least have a mark to aim at.”

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