Singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly is no stranger to hardship. Like many of us in 2020, he dealt with feelings of loneliness, heartbreak, and even a severe case of writer’s block. “Everything I was trying to write was crap. I didn’t feel inspired,” he admits. After pouring himself into remodeling his newly purchased home, the outcome was a collection of vulnerable songs that eventually turned into his third studio album — The Weakness. We caught up with Ruston to learn more about the making of the album, his songwriting process, and more.
What was your upbringing like? Was music something you always wanted to pursue?
Music was always in the house … so it was a very accessible form of entertainment when I was a kid. We always came together as a family, regardless of what was going on or the prominent emotion we were feeling together … Whether it was joy or sadness, we would usually cap the day with singing. My mom and dad would just sing, and that was always part of the fabric of how I understood to process emotions. I was so lucky to have that.
You released The Weakness earlier this year. What was your songwriting process like for the album?
I moved about 30 miles north outside of Nashville during the pandemic and bought an old house. With the pandemic and stuff going on with my family — my sister was going through a pretty gnarly divorce, my mom had a bit of a cancer scare, and I was going through a divorce — you’d think that would be very fertile ground for writing, but it wasn’t.
I ended up putting my mind, body, and spirit into working on my house … I found a new sense of self-worth. You get a lot of ownership out of putting yourself into something like remodeling a house. The moment that became this routine thing that I would do, it felt like therapy for me. It seemed that when I would sit down to write, words would come a lot more fluidly.
I wrote a lot from the place of, ‘What is weakness? Can that be a … tool for the betterment of yourself?’ When you acknowledge the things that weigh you down to a degree, you can sometimes instantaneously become lighter from just that acknowledgment.
I went down the list of things I needed to do to work on myself and how that pertained to how I was feeling … I wrote all these songs in that house as I was working on it, so there is definitely this very large theme of rebuilding from a strong foundation. I have a good family, and I feel like I have a good sense of self. I felt like the missing component was to really dive into things … and the overarching theme of what keeps me weak and what has kept me weak. I know that if I acknowledge that, I can be stronger in those situations and maybe not make the same mistakes again.
You recently wrapped up a headlining tour with a show at Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville, TN. Is it ever nerve-wracking to play a hometown show?
Hometown shows are tough sometimes. You’ve got all your friends that come (and friends of friends), but then there are 150 label people, your publishers, your agent, and everyone’s there. I didn’t really have enough time to do what I typically like to do to take it all in, but the moment I stepped on stage, I was like, “Damn. That’s a lot of people.”
It was really special opening the show with “Cold Black Mile” and the horn and strings sections. My dad and sister were also on stage with me, which is always special.
I’ve been at this a while, and I plan on continuing on stage until I die, I guess. I moved to [Nashville] with the intention of playing not just “as many shows as I can” but also building my career, so it’s evident that I’m at least doing something right.
In terms of music and songwriting, what energizes you to be creative?
Working on my house and making myself do [things] that I don’t like necessarily feel like doing has actually been a creative energizer … When I make myself do something that’s not necessarily creative and put my mind to that, it seems to clear the cobwebs out a bit. Even in the creative sector, like when I’m doing something mechanical, my brain will spin around subconscious style, and I’ll come up with a song idea without really trying.
Can you tell us anything about future projects?
There are more songs that we recorded [for The Weakness] that we’re planning on releasing for a deluxe edition. There are also live tracks that we recorded on the tour. I could also see Dirt Emo Vol. 2 on the horizon. There are a million things that I could do. I’m just excited to get my hands on all of that stuff and get something out there soon.
What are some of your favorite places around Nashville?
Dino’s has the best cheeseburger in Nashville, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I honestly love going to Opry Mills Mall and doing the loop.
If there’s a show going on, the front-of-house guy in my crew also works at The Basement East and does sound there, so I’ll pop in if there’s a cool show going on.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
[Advice] that feels very apt right now in my life is something I got from a mentor of mine. He was one of my best friends and a little older than me. His name was Kyle Jacobs, and we wrote many songs together … His advice to me was, “The best thing about you is your heart, and you need to do everything you can to protect it.” To be honest with you, I didn’t quite know what that meant then … As I got older, I had to sift through heartbreaks — breaking someone else’s heart and my own heart being broken. It’s an easy thing, if you’re a heart-forward person, to take that for granted and allow others to do the same.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Playing guitar, Trace mineral drops, and my Nintendo Switch.
Thank you, Ruston! All photography by Alysse Gafkjen.
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