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Ruston Kelly Isn’t Afraid to Talk About It

Written by on September 9, 2020

“I can’t help it,” Ruston Kelly says after a pause, reflecting on being open about his struggles with substance abuse. “I don’t know if I overshare or not. We’re all really just pushing through some sort of shitstorm or living through the tornado, hoping to catch a safe ground in the eye.”Kelly, 32, has always been transparent about his struggles with addiction and maintaining his sobriety. In his sophomore album, Shape & Destroy, the Nashville-based artist doesn’t shy away from facing these experiences—he confronts them head on, with a new sense of optimism about life after addiction.

Before making a name for himself in the music industry, Kelly struggled with drug addiction, recovery, relapse, and even an overdose that left him in the hospital. Since then he’s processed his battle through his music, and his latest release brings sobriety into a more hopeful light.Days before the release of Shape & Destroy, Kelly and I caught up over the phone to discuss mental health, sobriety, and his ex-wife Kacey Musgraves’ appearance on the new album. Esquire: How are you feeling with Shape & Destroy dropping in two days?Ruston Kelly: I feel good about it. It’s been a long time coming because we recorded this record in November, it was supposed to come out in March, so I’ve had a lot of time to sit with it. My life has passed kind of through the sails. And typically you record a record and you kind of get going and like bam, it’s like album mode, like get your album cycle and you’re just busy. But there is this massive time of hurry up and wait for a variety of different things in my life. And I think that’s a big lesson to take from quarantine, which is the needed stopping of the wheel in a way, whether that’s internal, whether that’s societal, whether that’s in your work, or whatever it is. You just gotta stop and reflect and take inventory of the things that really keep you level, happy, and balanced.
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What are those things for you?RK: Self-control is a big one. I know that sounds like a broader thing, but you know I’ve always had an issue with self-control in my life. I’ve been emotionally reckless at times and I’ve definitely abused myself with copious amounts of drugs and illicit materials and doing crazy things, and being wild without purpose and that is dangerous. It could be creatively fueling, but I think what’s really helped ground me is learning the difference between creative spontaneity and emotional recklessness in everyday life. And that line had always been blurred for me and quarantine was a way for me to sit back, take inventory mentally, spiritually, physically. Like once touring was taken away for the time being, because like that’s how I make the majority of my income and what I get the most out of is being on the road and playing shows, and when that was kind of removed for the rest of the year, I was like well, who am I actually without that? Without that exciting element of the work. So it made me feel like, what do I need to enrich my life by to make my work even better, but also like, I have to be able to live a life that’s worth living even if I was never able to work again and just feel, and so yeah. Just walking, reading, learning, trying to get better at the way I interact with people, listening better, etc. What are some similarities between Dying Star and Shape & Destroy?RK: Hm. Dying Star, well they’re both intended to make yourself better. And I mean I think everything that I do, every piece of work that I do I hope comes from the belief that art can make you a better person. Expressing your creative side can make you a better person because you’re trying to make sense of the observations and find the deeper meaning and lines in between things so that you can live your life in a more full way. And Dying Star, the expression as well, I need some help, I need to figure out why I’ve allowed myself to poison myself. So it was specific to substance abuse record and had hope to it and Shape & Destroy picks up where that hope left off, which is if Dying Star floating in the abyss, not sure if you’re sinking or just rising to the top, Shape & Destroy is head’s out of water and you’re swimming to shore. And it’s touching on broader themes of okay, drug abuse, substance abuse was the thing for Dying Star, let’s zoom out a little but further, say, well that’s just abuse of self. Okay, what’s abuse of self? Like even when I want to do good to myself, well that’s a mental health issue. And so this really became more of a record of defining themes that maybe everyone could relate to and that drug abuse happened to be my lens to get there, but that it’s touching on the human condition of what it means to be healthy upstairs.
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You mentioned optimism, and I kind of noticed that, too, when I was listening to this new album. Do you think that this theme of optimism throughout this new album kind of reflects on how you’re feeling on staying sober these days?RK: Yes, I do. I think optimism has gotta be there. And I think this record was kind of sifting through, if optimism is gold in all the sediment, this gold is a lot more apparent on this record, sifting through all of it and seeing okay, there are things to be hopeful for. When you remove all the blockades of knowing who you want to be and who you are, there’s a lot of things to be hopeful for.Even with this optimism and including it in your past projects and speaking so openly about it, were you at all apprehensive to talk about your addictions and sobriety in this album?RK: That’s a great question. You know, no, I guess. No, because I can’t help it. I don’t know if I overshare or not but I just think we have so many secrets that inform who we really are. And some, yeah, you gotta keep close to your chest but you know you just never know, like we’re so quick to want to be mad at the person doing something that’s inconvenient to us and we’re all really just pushing through some sort of shit storm or living through the tornado hoping to catch a safe ground in the eye. And with that being said, I don’t know, my job here on Earth is to be as transparent and honest as possible and hopefully that will help someone else be that way, too.

You kind of mentioned earlier mental health being a theme, and I saw somewhere that you called Shape & Destroy a mental health record. What exactly do you mean by that?RK: I mean that, kind of like I was saying earlier, it’s just about thinning out and not being like okay, let’s go and be very particular about the things I need to remove. This was like, what are the thought patterns that I need to remove? Where are the behavioral patterns that I need to change and alter? Those things take effort and they take time, they take patience, they take a better human than what you are in that moment. But also to know that you have the capacity, because you have the capacity to be a better human, that means that you are a better human, you’re just in the way of yourself.Was that the intention when you first started on this album was that it would kind of focus on mental health or did that take shape throughout the writing and recording process?RK: I knew that that was what it would be about. I was in the Dominican Republic playing a festival with John Prine and I was in my hotel room and I don’t know what it was, but something just felt like it was about to snap and about to, I don’t know if relapse is even the word, but it was just like this mental shift that was occurring and I was like this is either good, really good or really bad. And I went to my notebook and I was like okay, well I’ve talked so much about how art is this tool, you know, that can kind of configure you to be better and I just wrote, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote until I got to this page and I wrote very big in one go: shape the life you want by destroying what obstructs the soul. And I knew that that’s what this record was and what it was gonna be about. And I flew the next day to New York and we cut the record.
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How do you think you’ve changed since you released Dying Star?RK: As an artist, definitely become more short. Definitely see a clearer vision for how I want to conduct myself artistically, creatively, like where I’m trying to pull from, I think my lens is just a little clearer, I’d say that.What do you think changed that for you?RK: It wasn’t just sobriety. I mean it’s not like sobriety is a cure-all, in fact sobriety can make things a little harder for people around you that know you a specific way, and then all the sudden, bam, you’re like, I’m this way now. But it was really a series of events of feeling like I was pulling myself out of a lack of shape, of an uncertainty, you know. And it wasn’t just like oh my own creative gusto, it’s like, if you’re trying to take form, you pull from the things that matter most around you and those happen to be the loves in my life that really, the ones I was saying earlier, that allow you to fail, they allow you to be whatever you are because they love your essence, they love your soul. Kind of going back to the recording process for this album, I read that this was your first time recording completely sober. How do you think that recording sober differed from previous sessions?RK: I mean I remember more, that’s for sure. Recording sober is weird. Scary. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s way more rewarding. I’ll just say that. And you know, not everyone’s meant to be that way. I have so many friends that work in the studio, they can just sip on one drink all night. And that just wasn’t me. It’s either like I’m fuckin blacked out or I am gonna choir boy this because, and that’s something that I’ve gotta figure out how to deal with my extremes. But for this record, I was like, I’m gonna go in there and be as dry as possible because I want to make at least one record in my career, and hopefully all of them, where I can clearly, clearly see the vision, I can feel scared, I can feel nervous in the studio. I can feel like I’ve gotta be put on my toes with something that I’ve always been so incredibly comfortable with.

Jason Kempin

How do you think that recording sober changed the final product as opposed to your other albums?RK: It taught me more. I mean it taught me essentially how to let go a little bit because if I wasn’t sober, I was gonna be, my OCD kicked in, my controlling element kicked in, the selfishness of like it’s gotta sound this way and no one else knows it other than me, and I had to realize again to make a complete product, you’ve gotta utilize the people around you and you have to be grateful for their energy that they put in. So once that happened, it kind of unlocked the door and I could just let go and see the vision a lot clearer.What is it like releasing an album after announcing the divorce with Kacey’s vocals on it and having her tied to this project?RK: I mean I think it’s fucking wonderful. I think you get lucky if you know, you meet someone in your life that creates this sense of love for yourself and then turn to them along your path. And if you lead that, then you carry love with you. That’s an amazingly lucky thing, and we have that, I have that, and that’s on this record. Her voice on this record is true to that to me.

Kevin Mazur/ACMA2017

What were your goals of creating this album?RK: Goals of this record, professionally, were to sell more tickets because that is what I want to do with my work, is to create it, record it, move people with it so that people that feel really moved by it can come to see it in even higher definition and set. And to go, to take this from point A to point B and reach a broader audience of people that I feel like would really get something out of this, because once you create something, you put it into the world, it’s not yours anymore. And I was lucky to do the same thing that some of my favorite artists have done for me. And when I go to those shows, it’s an experience that I never forget and I take it with me in everything that I do from then on. That’s the beauty of music and it’s reciprocative because without them, there wouldn’t be me, and without me, there wouldn’t be them. Like without the artist and the consumer or the listener, like we need each other and we have to be really thankful to each other.Did you have personal goals as well?RK: Yeah, and I accomplished a personal goal already with this record, which was when we made it. I made it sober, I made it clear-eyed. I was going through some hard shit in my life, and I made a record that I felt like was a personal level-up, thematically, sonically, from a vision standpoint than my previous record. I wanted to level myself up and set a bar for myself and I feel like I reached that bar. And it was when we finished recording everything and I was just like, it doesn’t matter what happens professionally or whatever, I had to say this. This is the death of an era of my life and I mean, it made me, like I’m not a big crier, but it made me cry because there’s so many years of abuse. Like so many years prior to even anyone knowing anything about my music, years away from that even. So many nights alone, so many struggles, so many things that I put myself through unnecessarily, and this record gets to say all of that was not for naught, but it’s also over. And personally, I felt like I had made it to the finish line.

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