Although he only released his first EP last year, Ruston Kelly had been making a name for himself long before then.
Originally from South Carolina, Kelly was taught to play guitar by his father, pedal steel guitar player Tim Kelly. He moved to Nashville aged 17, where he wrote songs for several major artists. This September he released his debut album, Dying Star, to critical acclaim. He’s currently out on the road supporting The Wandering Hearts on their latest UK tour.
I spoke to Ruston following his UK live debut at London’s Slaughtered Lamb. Read on to learn more about the album, his songwriting process and what to expect from his upcoming shows…
How did you find your first UK show?
It was great! As you know it was sold out and I wasn’t expecting that. Also everyone was singing the words, which was kind of great.
Did anything about the audience’s reaction surprise you?
Yeah, it’s more that people in the UK can be at a show and understand the balance between how to really listen and enjoy the moment, but also be a highly reactive crowd. I feel like that’s a perfect combination for a performer to have.
You’re also supporting The Wandering Hearts on their UK tour. What can people who come to those shows expect?
I guess they should expect… I don’t know. I’ll probably write a few more songs between now and then, so maybe some new songs.
You released your debut album recently. It feels like you go on a journey with the characters in the songs – was that something you consciously set out to do or did it evolve that way?
No, I knew what kind of record I was gonna make. I was going through some very difficult experiences in my life, as I feel like I always do. Art seems to be a way to understand the better side of yourself out of difficult circumstances, and this one in particular seemed to deal with addiction and drug abuse. I knew when I was at the end of my rope as far as wanting to live that life any more I knew that I was gonna make a record about it. It’s more ‘what does it take for one to understand that there’s hope again in your life?’ And I’d say that’s kind of the point of the record and why I made it.
Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
They were all pretty easy to write, but when it came to the emotional aspect of letting it come out that easy – if that makes sense – there was one in particular, Anchors, that I would say was difficult emotionally. I was in a relationship that I knew I needed to let go of and, like, who’s good at breaking up with people? [laughs]
You played a couple of songs at this show that you’d written days before. Do you find it easy to write on the road?
I mean, writing typically comes pretty easy to me. Especially if I’m working, if I’m on the road and I’ve always got a guitar in my hand or if it’s just me and a guitar in a hotel room, it seems to come a lot easier to me. Whereas when I’m at home I’m trying to do stuff like change light bulbs, y’know?
Would you say you’ve got a typical writing process?
I don’t know. I never really thought about it. Like I can feel a song coming in my head and I pick up a guitar and it feels like it’s coming out all in one go, rather than sitting down and trying to come up with an idea. Generally the melody of the songs and the lyrics come out all at the same time, then I go back and edit. So it’s really more of a stream of consciousness style of writing.
The album also includes Just For The Record, which you wrote with Lucie Silvas and which she released on her latest album. Why did you decide to include the song on Dying Star as well?
I just thought it was… I mean, like I said, going through a breakup during the writing process itself, so Just For The Record was the perfect way to say to someone, ‘in spite of everything going on, what I did or you did, I can just say that no matter what occurred or happened, this is inevitably over, but I did truly give you my most honest effort in loving you and I believe that you did too’. So it’s a way to kind of move on cleanly, and I felt like that was really, really important to me to put on my own record. It’s a really pivotal part of the story.
Have you and Lucie ever thought about performing the song together?
Yeah, no we have actually, in Nashville. Lucie is a very great friend of mine and we try to perform together any chance we get.
You worked with your wife Kacey Musgraves on this record – would you want to do more of that in future?
That was really special to be able to have that – to be able to sing something together with your partner that’s reflective of your old relationship. I feel like that strengthens your current relationship. It shows you exactly where that person stands, if they can sing about heartbreak that you had and share that with you. I think it’s a really special thing.
You’ve been quite open about your own issues with addiction on this record. Is that personal approach something you think it’s important for artists to do?
Yeah. I feel like, for me, art is something that always has to be as transparent as possible and as honest as possible. That’s the point, in my particular view of creating things. I feel like it’s vital to be as honest with yourself, and that’s the type of art that you wanna make. I’m really in the business of making authentic pieces of work that are completely reflective of a specific time in my life, because I feel like art did the same for me when I grew up.
What has the transition from being a songwriter to an artist and performer been like for you?
I mean it was a long play for me. I knew I was gonna make my own record and I knew that a good way to get my foot in the door was to be a songwriter at a publishing house in Nashville.
How did you get into music, and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?
I really feel like the work chose me. I don’t feel you’re a very sane person if you choose to do this for a living. I feel like I stopped demystifying why I like being on stage a long time ago, because it doesn’t really make sense, but I just feel naturally drawn to do it. And over the years as I’ve taken better care of myself I’ve just seen that desire coming into focus for the better. So I’m just gonna go with it.
What song do you wish you’d written?
Oh, The Times They Are A-Changing, by Bob Dylan.
What’s next for you?
Yeah, I think we’re just gonna keep touring and keep going out there, keep doing headlining shows and hopefully see more people show up and move up in these rooms, and just keep making ticket sales, really.
Ruston Kelly’s debut album, Dying Star, is out now.
See Ruston live on tour in the UK this November/December with The Wandering Hearts:
24 November – Phoenix, Exeter
26 November – Arts Centre, Norwich
27 November – Ramsgate Music Hall, Ramsgate
28 November – Islington Assembly Hall, London
30 November – The Globe, Cardiff
1 December – Arts Club, Liverpool
3 December – Riverside Newcastle, Newcastle
4 December – The Caves, Edinburgh
5 December – O2 Institute 2, Birmingham