Ruston Kelly on "Dying Star"
Ruston Kelly learned how to perform on the ice. ”I used to figure skate competitively. Aggressively. I skated to Nirvana,” Kelly says, which led him to move away from home to live with a husband and wife coaching team (cue I, Tonya). It’s when he moved away to skate that his father, Tim “TK” Kelly (who often tours with the younger Kelly and played steel guitar on his album), gave him a guitar and a Jackson Browne record and predicted “You might need this”.
It turns out he did. One of his coaches was having an affair making the atmosphere tense in and out of the rink, so Kelly locked himself in his room and started learning all the songs on the record. Though Kelly still skates - “I can still do a double axel. Which is a 900 in Tony Hawk language,” he quips (watch his latest music video for proof here) - we’re glad he turned to music. His latest record, Dying Star, is a poignant recollection of addiction and recovery; Kelly is earnest without taking himself too seriously in perhaps the most serious of situations one could imagine. We sat down with Kelly at the Luck Mansion during this year’s AmericanaFest to discuss the birth of Dying Star.
Luck: Can you tell us about your writing process and inspiration for this record?
RK: “As far as writing process goes, I would consider myself in the school of ‘stream of consciousness’. So when I sit down to write, if I feel it kind of bubbling up, if I feel like something’s about to happen then I’ll sit down with an instrument - usually a guitar or piano - and it will really all come out in one big swell. Then the craft element of it comes in and I edit from there. So most of the time, it just seems to be a lot of verses, choruses will come out as a whole and I’ll be like, ‘Well that’s pretty good, I like that’. It felt right, that’s my barometer for something being good or bad, I’m like, ‘That felt really right’. So I came to this record...it was easy to make it a conceptualized piece of work where there’s so many connecting themes and there’s one overarching theme which is addiction and recovery. So, throwing yourself into the dirt and figuring out what that means...it wasn’t hard to find a wealth of inspiration to sing about that. It’s what my life was doing at the time. So, I got clean and I started to record this record and [it] was actually a way to feel like I could end that chapter of my life. Writing had always been like a way to excavate something down in here to understand myself out there, if that makes sense.
I look at records as chapters in your life and hopefully you have a long, healthy book at the end of your life. This is Chapter 1.”
Luck: What about the recording process?
RK: “Just “wham, bam, let’s get out of there.” We did it in El Paso, TX at Sonic Ranch which was sick. Sonic Ranch is very fun. We got a little trippy, literally. My dad was out there, he played steel on this whole record. We all just decided we were away and we were gonna be away. But we were gonna focus on this piece of work and I wanted it to be loose, I wanted it to be sparse. I picked players that were studio musicians in Nashville but they had so much more musicality to them than I feel like maybe they’re allowed to do in standard Nashville sessions. I just had them play as wildly and emotionally as possible. Like, if we need more than three takes we should probably just move on. A lot of songs we got in one take. We were supposed to be out there for like two weeks; we were only there for five, six days or something like that. I like to be fast when I record. It shouldn’t feel like you’re taking a test.”
Luck: Where did you first learn to perform?
RK: “I used to figure skate competitively. Aggressively. I skated to Nirvana. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”...I think I did a James Bond thing which was kinda cool but yeah, I figure skated. I moved away from home; I trained with these olympic coaches and stuff. I guess that’s where I learned to perform. But it’s also like a test of your skill and your talent and ability to be put on the spot. To go out there and be like ‘This is me. And here’s a triple lutz.’ You know?”
Luck: What about singing and playing?
RK: “I did that really young; I did that before skating. I was banging on pots and pans and I drew this album art called, “Universal Weirdness”. [laughs] That was my first record.
Then I moved away to train and [Dad] gave me a guitar and a Jackson Browne record. He was like, “You might need this.” Things got weird out there. I was living with this husband and wife coaching team and somebody started having an affair. It got strange, so I locked myself in my room and I started playing guitar and learning these Jackson Browne songs. I was like, ‘Dang, this is so much better than this weird figure skating world’.”
Luck: Since we’re here in Nashville during AmericanaFest, can you speak to the Americana community and what it means to you?
RK: “I think Americana has certainly branched out on what they consider Americana. I mean to me, Americana is American music loosely based on Roots and...whatever that means. You know, folk music. That could be Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, it could be whatever you want it to be really. As long as you mean it. I feel like I mean what I’m doing and to have recognition from an association that seems to really support that and has supported me when no one really cared at all, it means a lot to me…Commercial music in general is a pretty narrow road unfortunately. It didn’t always use to be that way and Americana is picking up the slack for that.”
Kelly’s Dying Star incorporates the Americana roots that his fans know well from his previous record, Halloween, but also paints a landscape that cannot be contained by genre lines. Kelly is simultaneously a roving troubadour, a crooner, and an experiment of sorts as he introduces modern production to songs that walk the line between feeling modern and yet still classic. Watch his acoustic take of “Just For The Record” from Dying Star Live from the Luck Mansion below and listen to the full album here.