There are a few lines on Ruston Kelly’s new album that practically tell the whole story: “My marriage ended and I moved up north to mend,” he sings on “Mending Song.” “Was then I heard the words of my father/Have faith, there’s no storm that doesn’t pass.”
On a recent spring afternoon, Kelly is wandering around Manhattan sharing some of his favorite early social media feedback about his new work, including “Mending Song.” “This one guy commented the other day, ‘Words from my father/Don’t be a pussy,’” Kelly says, erupting into laughter.
The Weakness, Kelly’s third full-length album, is an emotionally daring statement from the 34-year-old singer-songwriter. And that’s not because it addresses his divorce from Kacey Musgraves — whom Kelly refers to as “her” throughout this interview — although it certainly does that. Rather, it is so intensely self-examining that its lessons and emotional processing occasionally risk becoming trite truisms or having close-minded listeners call him “pussy.”
“That’s what this record is — to risk,” Kelly says. “To say what I needed to say, risks included.”
Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Nate Mercereau (The Weeknd, Lizzo), the LP was made while Kelly juggled production duties for debut albums by his father, Tim “TK” Kelly, and Tommy Prine (John’s son). Its backstory, Kelly is well aware, follows a fairly romanticized singer-songwriter premise: A month after he and Musgraves announced their breakup, Kelly moved to an old house in Portland, Tennessee, an hour north of Nashville. His plan was to spend some time with himself, write his way through the difficult period, and to restore the house while he did the same with his own life.
By then, Kelly was familiar with feelings of upheaval and chaos. In his early Nashville days, he was in a jam band called Elmwood and accidentally got addicted to amphetamines, accidentally co-wrote a song for Tim McGraw, and not so accidentally began secretly living in the publishing office of Curb Records on Music Row when he was in the depths of his pill addiction.
Today his concerns are different. He’s preparing to sell his restored house. He’s grieving the recent death of his friend Kyle Jacobs, with whom he co-wrote that Tim McGraw song and others. He’s trying to figure out how to achieve his career goals (like selling out Colorado’s Red Rocks) and how to balance the pressure of having attracted a sizable sober fanbase due to his vulnerable songs about addiction, despite the fact Kelly still drinks socially, even if he doesn’t talk about that much in public.
Even with his challenging past few years, Kelly says the time in his old house was full of necessary self-reflection, growth, and something almost resembling inner peace.
“I love myself, but I’ve had a hard time liking myself,” he says. “But dude, I’ve had some good times in that house by myself. I’ve walked into that house and thought of something and could not stop laughing, and I can’t tell you the last time I did that, where there’s this immediate joy for no reason.”
It feels like you’re really naming the emotions you’re writing about on this record, which you’ve also described as “self-help rock.” What do you mean by that?
When you can name something, you can own it. When you can sum something up, singularly, and then put it against the whole and see the bigger picture, you really can understand your sense of direction, sense of purpose, and also your sense of peace. When you can put order in a moment of chaos in your life, that is self-actualization.
Did writing this record feel like an altogether different emotional process?
Yeah, I grew up. And there was some stunted growth. I’m 34 now, and in my 20s I was so steeped in the school of living this poetic lifestyle that had outlines of tragedy to it. My intention was always just to be as good and free as possible, and when you’re young and confused and maybe have some imbalances here or there in your genetic makeup, you tend to look for bliss in the wrong places. I ended up befriending my own madness. Doing so many drugs for such a long time, constantly. I was trying to mend together some crack that I had felt my entire life.
Was that myth of having to live a certain way to be an artist appealing to you at that time?
You think it’s freedom, and momentarily, especially the first times I got high, that is, unfortunately, the most neurologically free someone can be. It’s like picking the apple off the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s a biblical misfortune, in a way, to accidentally do that.
To fast forward a bit, how did you end up settling in Portland, Tennessee?
It was the house. I wanted an old house in good condition. It was in the spirit of trying to remember what it was like to be that kid that was in awe of everything and found wonder in very simple things. The house had a good structure but it needed a lot of updating, and, I didn’t mean to live in this kind of poetic way, but I was fixing up an old house while I was trying to reconfigure and fix up what was going on inside of myself.
It’s well-trodden territory: “Man moves to the woods after breakup.”
My friends kept me from doing it, but early on, I almost hung a picture of her in the house, just because I was so lost that I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision. I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision about anything: Was it right to leave this marriage? Was it right to move far away? I had only been clean for a year and a half when I moved out there, and the irony is that both the world and my life seemed like it fell apart when I got clean.
Are you still living in Portland?
Yes, but I’m moving soon. I’m about halfway done redoing the house. There isn’t an end to that road of figuring out who it is that you want to be, and who you believe that you were, and are becoming, but that’s the beauty of it: it should be an open-ended question, and that’s OK. You don’t have to feel rooted to know that you are rooted, if that makes sense. I rediscovered that sentiment in that house, rediscovered who I want to be as a human, as a man, as an artist. The purpose has been served.
A few years ago, when people mistakenly assumed that Shape + Destroy was about your divorce, you tweeted, “trust me you’d fucking know it.” I imagine many people will try to hear this record through that lens.
There could’ve been a breakup record; it just wasn’t in the cards. Spite is one of the most useless emotions, and I had no basis for feeling that way. You’ll see, in a lot of breakup records, emotions that make for good songs, but they don’t really make for much peace between the two people, or with yourself. It’s also case dependent: Some people are just the worst, and it can be great to say “Fuck you” to someone, but that didn’t exist in my case.
Did you feel like you needed a song like “Let Only Love Remain” on this record? To say something direct about your relationship?
I’m a Leo, so if I feel a sense of challenge, I typically let pride kind of speak for myself. But I just felt like this situation was way more delicate, and that the best option, to be protective of her in the long run, and of myself, was to not say anything. Until it was time to record and then I would just tell the story of my life, that being a huge aspect of it, and I wanted to make sure I got that aspect very right. That required time and patience and it required holding my tongue.
It took me a really long time to be able to write about my divorce, to write about Kacey. To write about this great love in my life that, unfortunately, what was hardest about that situation was that, you know, how could you really love someone that much and at the same time internally know that it wasn’t right anymore? So I’d sit down to write about that, and I just couldn’t. That was the first time in my life that I had trouble being vulnerable to myself. I was like, what the fuck is this, this should be a goldmine right now! I should literally get 16 records out of this with the amount of emotion I feel behind it.
You couldn’t write a word?
I couldn’t write a word. Or if a word came out and it was strong, and right, it would hurt too much. That’s never happened to me before. And I’ve been through some pretty painful places in my life.
It’s not like your earlier records were dealing with easy emotions.
“Let Only Love Remain” was the only song that was touching on it for a while. There was pressure on me, like: “You’re missing a song,” and what pissed me off is that I knew they were right. But, no joke, the night before I flew out to L.A. to finish recording, I went to bed and shot up out of bed, and I wrote “Cold Black Mile.” The album was missing that element of the impetus for me becoming who I am now: leaving a situation. And that it was fucking hard. I had needed a song that went in, in a gritty way, to a detailed explanation of a bit of that pain. After that I was like, “OK, I’ve said all I want to say about that situation with her.” Everything else can just be left in the ether between us.
It sounds like it took you a while to realize you needed to write about the thing that was right in front of you?
It’s like day to day life: the things you avoid just need to be directly done. It’s really just waking up, and you make your bed, and you put the dishes away. It took me a really long time to figure out how to do that, and I have a sense of grace for people that have lived with me. Goddamn, I’m sure I was difficult to live with: “Mr. Bukowski over here can’t do the dishes because he can’t take it.” The truth is, I really couldn’t take that at times. I would start getting high instead, and I would write some songs and be like, “That’s my contribution.” But I don’t want to live that way. I want to be a good partner. Maybe this is how I was raised, but I want to be great, with a capital “G.” Not in the sense of, “This guy’s a quadrillionaire.” No, but “great” in the sense of measuring my success by how joyful the journey towards those things are, how solid I am as a person, and how there I am for my friends and my family, that I can revolve around them and not get it twisted and [think] that everyone else is revolving around me and my artwork. Because that’s ridiculous.