When Ruston Kelly’s debut full-length, Dying Star, came out on Rounder Records in September, he was immediately pegged as an artist to watch, drawing comparisons to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt. Lauded for his vulnerable, fearless songwriting – and a masterful melodic sensibility, no doubt shaped by years of playing in a jazz fusion band – Kelly co-produced the album with songwriter/producer Jarrad K (Weezer, Kate Nash, Goo Goo Dolls).
The recording process for Dying Star heavily involved Kelly’s family; his father played steel guitar, while his sister, along with his wife, Kacey Musgraves, contributed backing vocals. Music had always been a big part of Kelly’s life, serving as a steadfast companion to ease the pains of transition and loneliness, as Kelly’s family moved frequently when he was growing up. Kelly eventually moved to Nashville in 2006, where he started a band and hit the road touring. Tirelessly developing his own songwriting craft, Kelly came to the attention of BMG Nashville, who signed him to a publishing deal in 2013.
Kelly has struggled with substance abuse, a topic he speaks openly about, and Dying Star beautifully recalls his own emergence from darkness. We caught up with Kelly – who is as candid and insightful in conversation as his songs would suggest – between shows on his headlining tour. We talked about his approach to songwriting, his diverse musical influences, and how his Olympic figure skating training led him to songwriting.
Dying Star is your debut full-length album, but you’ve had a career as a songwriter for several years. What brought you to Nashville initially?
Initially, it was a free place to stay because my sister moved here. I was out of college and working on a chicken farm in North Carolina and living in this little hunting shack. My sister moved to Nashville, and I thought, that sounds fun, I’ll just go. I went to visit her, and I stayed.
Had you been to Nashville before?
I may have visited when I was young, but it was not enough to imprint on me. But when I got there, I said, yeah, there’s some good ghosts there. The first thing I did when I got there, I went to Johnny Cash’s grave, and Mother Maybelle’s. It was a good move.
The guy I was working with on the chicken farm was a bass player, and he also moved to Nashville. We started this jam band at his house on Elmwood Street, so we called the band Elmwood. It was me, a saxophone, a jazz drummer, and this bass player. We played a gig and there happened to be someone from Paradigm – who I’m with now – there, and my current agent signed Elmwood to Paradigm in 2008. We went on the road for a few years doing the jam band circuit.
It got my feet wet, and I just kept writing and writing. I guess I always had an artist’s intent when it came to knowing what my craft was, and what my line of work was going to be, and to just constantly get better at that. Touring seemed to help that – just being on the move all the time. So that’s how I got my foot in the door.
You signed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013. How did you get on their radar?
I was out on the road with Elmwood, and these jam band songs, they’re these mixed-meter, jazz fusion songs that were fun to write, but it was more of a side project. I found myself honing my craft more on the lyrics, just keeping things a little more musically straightforward, as I’m doing now. I would find myself writing more of those songs on the road.
We played some festival – Beale Street, maybe – and I met this girl I ended up dating, and her dad, Joe Leathers, wrote for Curb Publishing. When we met, I had no idea what a published writer was – all I knew at that point was what a touring musician looked like. So, he was super nice, and we hit it off immediately. And the Nashville wheel turns, and you meet somebody, and they say, ‘Oh, you should meet this person,’ and then you meet that person. Eventually someone said, ‘You should meet John Allen,’ who was running BMG at the time. He was one of the guys that really championed what I was doing. That was also right around when my substance abuse started, so I was unsure if I could be a stable anything to any company, but I knew I needed money (laughs).
You’ve been very forthright about your substance abuse. The songwriting on Dying Star is so honest – it’s such a raw, beautiful album. You’ve said you had an epiphany about naming the record Dying Star. What led up to that?
I would say, just years of off-and-on self-abuse. A lack of self-love, I think. That’s really the root of anybody abusing themselves or abusing anything. Just off and on and off and on, and getting to a point where I felt like something needed to change in such a big way. That sounds kind of obvious, but it was more that I needed something to be eradicated out of me, like I’d been possessed by some really ugly spirit of my own creation, and I wanted to get rid of it and I just didn’t know how.
I felt like maybe the best thing I knew how to do was to write it out of myself. After I overdosed, the image of a dying star – a supernova – it’s almost paradoxical in how you’d describe it, the death of something being one of the most beautiful things you could witness in the galaxy. When stars die, in their explosion, they leave matter in the universe to create new stars again. I didn’t know any of that at the time, I just thought “dying star” felt right, and sounded cool – to brightly burst into the air. I knew that was going to be the last track on the record, and I hadn’t written it yet. It just kind of popped into my head.
You co-produced the album, which is kind of unique for a debut album. How did you and your co-producer Jarrad K originally meet, and what made you think you would work well together?
We met at one of these writing camps that publishing companies set up – which is great, because sometimes you get something out of it. This was a Carrie Underwood writing camp. I went outside to smoke a cig, and I noticed there was this guy out there, and I was like, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘Nothing, you part of this Carrie camp?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Let’s go write a song at my house.’ And that was Jarrad – that’s how we met, and it was an instant connection. I showed him some songs I was working on, and he had this tiny studio where we started scheming what Dying Star was going to look like.
Is the creative process different when you’re writing songs intended for another artist as opposed to writing for yourself?
You know, I think that it is for other people, but I can safely say that I’ve been able to protect my craft when I’m in the room with other people. I write with a stream-of-consciousness intent, and it kind of comes out in a burst, you know? So, if that’s the mode that I’m working from – even when I get in the room with someone else – that’s the thing that I do. I don’t really have to think about writing it for someone else. I’ll just kind of burst, and if someone else in the room does write that way and wants to write what they think Jason Aldean wants to cut, sometimes they’ll tailor it, and I’ll kind of jump in with that.
If you told me to sit down and write a song for Jason Aldean, I don’t think that I could. But with someone else, I can just throw out existing subconscious thought and let it sit in the room, and kind of start the session that way. And they’ll take tidbits from that and we’ll work on it from there.
Dying Star was a bit of a family affair. Your father, who also plays in your band, played on the album, and your wife and sister sang on it. Was music a big part of your life growing up?
Absolutely. Dad was the first musical inspiration I ever had. He wrote songs when he was younger, and he ended up winning this national songwriting competition, and he was offered record deals, publishing deals, and a booking contract. And he turned it all down because he didn’t think that was the way to raise a family. But he’d always played for our family, he was always playing steel guitar. Music was always an unspoken intimate bond between me and my dad, and my family. My sister was always writing songs, we’d write songs together, we’d sing together. Music was always a sense of intimate connection with another person.
You mentioned Johnny Cash and Mother Maybelle earlier. Who are your other musical influences?
I would say, Mother Maybelle’s right thumb, which basically invented bluegrass and country music, her fingerstyle picking. That was something I got into later, though. She was a large influence. Kurt Cobain and Jackson Browne were the biggest influences, musically and songwriting-wise. Dave Matthews, I just ate all of that up – songwriting, the rhythm, everything. Then I started to get into punk – the Misfits and stuff like that, and then went through a very black metal phase … that was probably at the height of the drug use. And I still love metal, I love Death, I love Slayer. I was always into Green Day and Blink 182 as well, and Dashboard Confessional.
So, all over the map, influence-wise!
Yeah, all over the map! I think what made me feel the most were those.
You moved around a lot as a kid. How did that shape your development as an artist?
I think it naturally pushed me to feel one with the margins of whatever was going on, and to have more of the ability to observe. I have a tendency to feel comfortable being ubiquitous and bouncing around to all different types of people because I got to observe all different types of people. But I kind of felt like an outcast all the time, because we moved so much. There were a lot of times when it just wouldn’t click, and there would be a year or so where I’d feel like I had only my own thoughts to hang out with, as depressing as that sounds. But moving so much was just tiring – being the new kid in the cafeteria all the time.
Your fans were introduced to your figure skating talents through the video for “Son of a Highway Daughter” that came out last year. You’ve said that your Olympic figure skating training led you to your discovery of songwriting. Can you share a little about that?
So, for some reason, I put on a pair of skates because my sister was really into it, and they didn’t have hockey skates at the rink one time when I went. I put on figure skates and went out on the ice, and, weirdly, I felt very natural at it. I got good at it really quickly. I started going with my sister all the time, then started taking lessons instead of playing baseball or football – both of which I played, but I just didn’t feel like it was my thing, I guess. With skating, it felt like such a challenge, but it was so physically rewarding.
I ended up moving away from home when I was 14, to not only train with these Olympic coaches, but to go to the biggest high school in the state at the time, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was Pioneer High School. So, I was a loner there, big time. I didn’t know anybody, and it was so big. My dad had given me a guitar and a Jackson Browne record when I left. Out of my lonesomeness, I would play guitar and create stories for myself to deal with what I didn’t know was a youth depression at the time. It had always been this cathartic release. And, given the fact that music seemed to be such a familial, intimate connection, it made me feel closer to my family as well.
Your wife, Kacey Musgraves, is also an artist. How much of your personal life do you bring into your songwriting?
Knowing her, as my wife and as a creative entity, she writes what she knows. I think that’s part of how we fell in love with each other; I write what I know. I can’t really go from a co-write where someone is writing about something they didn’t experience. It’s just not really something I can do. I’ve just always felt that, for me, art inherently should be raw and transparent from the artist. I know a lot of people don’t think that way, but I’ve never been able to separate myself from what is artwork. Art is like the regurgitation of life from my observations, my beliefs, my hopes, and my fears. And it’s meant to be shared, and I feel like maybe that’s what human element can exist in art, rather than being a subjective form of, do you like this or do you not like this? Or, there’s something about this that I like, because it’s human.
I’m not saying all art should be that way, but that’s the only way that I know how to create. I would say that Kacey does the same thing. We’ve talked about it before, but it would be hard to be with someone if you didn’t necessarily respect their artwork.
It’s a good thing you guys don’t have that problem!
No, we don’t! There’s a high level of respect in our household.
So, you’re on the road right now, but are you thinking about the next album?
Yeah, definitely. The next album is, from a writing standpoint, taking shape. I can’t help but to write constantly, so there’s around 15 new songs that are already done, and I’m still working on some more. I just can’t help it, especially when there’s this new sense of rebirth. It’s like I’m experiencing everything for the first time – a lot of emotions for the first time. I didn’t realize how numb I had made myself for such a long time, so naturally that’s going to lend itself to a whole other sense of artistry and creativity, which I’m really thankful for.
How did you start working with BMI, and how has that relationship impacted you as a songwriter and artist?
BMI has really been a champion for me since I walked into their offices. They were huge champions of what I was doing. They took me under their wings, talking to me about the business and how things worked. They gave me a Music Business 101. I’ve got nothing but love for BMI, for sure.