As Ruston Kelly emerges from some of the most turbulent years of his life and prepares for the release of his self-examining third studio album, there’s no doubt that the Nashville-based alt-country musician has made an art form out of waging war with the man in the mirror.
At once full of intense pain and enduring hope, The Weakness is due out on Friday 7 April via Rounder Records. It sees Kelly not only facing his demons head-on, but levelling-up his singer-songwriter sound with richer textures, more ambitious soundscapes and more electric guitars than ever before.
In a tweet from January of this year, he referred to the project as signalling the “self help rock era” of his career, and before beginning work on the album, Kelly moved out of his home in bustling Nashville and into an old bungalow in Portland, Tennessee in an act of self-enforced exile.
Here, he spent three months processing the emotions he’d collected during his very public divorce from Kacey Musgraves, as well as a recent family upheaval and past battles with substance abuse.
Speaking about the new twelve-track collection, Kelly tells us that “people can expect the same quality of transparency” that he’s bled into his previous albums and EPs, but with more rich instrumentation designed specifically to enhance its lyrical meaning.
“That style of songwriting is still a huge focus on the record,” he explains to us. “But I think something exciting about this one is that I really wanted to lean into having a sense of production that was just as beautiful and had a sense of being eloquent sonically. You know, lush but something that meant a lot.”
As introspective as the album’s subject matter might be, looking and listening outwards for inspiration also remains a significant part of Kelly’s creative process. As he warns: “When you’re hungry and you have goals that you set for your career, and you’re working your art and running your business, you can kind of forget about the reason why you started doing this in the first place.”
Unlike many artists who shun listening to others’ music for fear it might infiltrate their own output, Kelly embraces doing so when he’s cooking up new material. “There’s a Southern American saying of “drinking my own bath water,” and that’s when you’re in your own stuff too much,” he laughs.
While working on The Weakness, he turned to favourites like Radiohead’s Kid A, early Nirvana, Sufjan Stevens and many more to help prevent him from stewing in the metaphorical tub of his own creative juices for too long. “Those things kind of found their way into this record way more than maybe they did with the other two records that I have,” he adds.
Ahead of the album's release, we caught up with the guitarist/singer-songwriter to hear more about ten of his most enduring well-springs of sonic inspiration.
“With this provided list,” he promises, “if you really dig into the record, you can hear every single one’s influences, and it’s fun to pick them out. Sometimes they’re flourishes, and sometimes it's a pretty main motif, but all of these albums really informed this record, and that’s what’s different from the others.”
1. Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
"I would say that the first record that completely unhoused me was Nirvana’s Nevermind. As I grew into being a giant Kurt Cobain fan from a songwriting perspective, I did learn that he and the band really didn’t love how polished and quote/unquote 'accessible' Nevermind was. But, I don’t know if In Utero had come out before Nevermind, that - as like, a fourth grader - I would have had the opportunity to be exposed to that type of music.
"There was something about the energy of it and the intent of it that made me want to hug my mom, but also punch a wall!
"It came from such heart and such pain, and I didn’t necessarily know those terms when I was a fourth grader, but it moved me in a way that stuck with me. I still listen to that record regularly."
2. Dashboard Confessional - MTV Unplugged (2002)
"Grunge kind of led into a bit of emo and pop-punk. Someone gave me a copy of Dashboard Confessional’s MTV Unplugged album, and that completely changed the game for me because it had a lot of the spirit of grunge music, but it was a little bit cleaner. It was acoustic guitar and he used open tunings, so he had a lot of breadth and a lot of body with just his voice and his guitar.
"I was in high school and figuring out what falling in love is – or thinking that I did – and those songs are relentless heartbreak and whining that I really connected with on my young emotional level. But the songwriting of it, too, was so bare-your-soul.
"Chris Carrabba – who is now a friend of mine, which is really crazy – is that guy. He wore his heart on his sleeve lyrically, and that really inspired me to do the same and recreate that feeling."
3. Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – Live At Luther College (1999)
"What came next was a little bit of a shift in a different direction. I was not a fan of Dave Matthews Band when I was growing up. Something about it kind of bothered me at first. Then, we took a beach trip as a family and I was with my older brother who always had really good taste in music, and he put on Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live At Luther College. It was just an acoustic performance of these very strange songs with very strange structures.
"He played chords that I couldn’t really even fathom when I could just play G and D. He made up his own chords. The sound of that was just such a unique sound, and I think it was coupled with wanting to do what my brother did, but also being on the beach. I don’t know, I just have this perfect memory of remembering hearing that record and being like, 'Dang! I want to do something like that!'
"From Dashboard to Dave and these live records, it really instilled in me the desire to perform. Hearing the audience singing the words and hearing Dave playing what I’d later find out would be a really deep cut, and hearing die-hard fans screaming at the top of their lungs for a song that was not even close to being on the radio, was something that made me want to do shit like that."
4. Dave Matthews Band – The Central Park Concert (2003)
"Live At Luther College would have to be followed-up very closely by Dave Matthews’ The Central Park Concert. I had a DVD of it and me and my friends would come home after school and just watch it and listen to it.
"Then, I started a Dave Matthews covers band in my high school. My high school loved Dave, so it was bridging the gap of a variety of different cliques of people that would come and listen to us play. I was like, 'Okay, there’s a bit of a unifying vibe to music that everyone digs' - and the live component of that.
"We would trade and people would burn CDs - they would go and tape a show. There was a little bit of a tape trading situation happening at my high school. It was pretty cool!"
5. Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)
I kind of transitioned into heavier stuff and started listening to doom metal, kind of out of nowhere. It did this thing to me, where I wasn’t sure what it was. Metal music does something very different to me than regular music.
Metal music is acrobatic. It’s aggressive in a way that releases you from maybe a troubling emotion, but in a very healthy way. Angst can turn later into a sense of displacement, or a sense of being a misfit, or a sense of not really knowing what you want to do when people are telling you what to do.
"I think Vulgar Display Of Power by Pantera was a huge moment where I was like, 'Whoah! You can make music that makes you feel!' It took a bit of the heart and emotion out of Nirvana and grunge, to me, and it was pure intensity.
"That kind of spawned a variety of listens. I got into black metal for a little while and I liked the sound of it because it took that intensity and turned it up a notch - if that was even possible. But, when I started to research some of these bands like Venom and Behemoth, I wasn’t down with the message. You know, I’m not down for evil. I’m down for letting out aggressive emotions in a positive and healthy way.
So, then I switched and I found this band called Paramaecium, and they were called 'un-black metal.' They were like, 'Oh, you guys are gonna sing about Satan? Well we’re gonna sing about an archangel that comes down and slits Satan’s throat!'
There aren’t really any other metal records that I include as life-changing, but a lot spawned from Pantera.
6. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
"Next, I went in a very opposite direction with Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens. That record changed the game – not just the sound of it, and there are a lot of tracks on The Weakness that are inspired by it – but it was more that I was in a very confusing place in my life.
"Whether it was substance abuse, whether it was the end of a marriage, whether it was getting in a fight with my sister or something like that, this record was really the first record that I could put on, and I truly felt it took me away from any sense of problems and instilled a great sense of peace in me.
"It became this therapy record. I’ve probably listened to that record more than I’ve listened to any other."
7. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
"One thing I started listening to after the metal was Bon Iver’s first record, For Emma, Forever Ago. It kind of did a similar thing that Sufjan does to me, but it was hearing the songs.
"I was in a jam band for a little while for some reason – I mean, I just wanted to be Dave Matthews – and we were touring like jam bands tour. I was 21, playing hundreds of shows, living in a van with my friends and doing that whole thing. We played very complicated music and it was fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my musical career scope-wise.
"So, I found myself after the show – when everyone would be in the motel – sitting in the corridor with my acoustic guitar, just playing these songs that I’d messed around with or written since I was a kid, and they leaned more on the introspective and folky side.
"On that tour – we were out with O.A.R - I discovered For Emma, Forever Ago from this Swedish bluegrass musician that I had fallen in love with.
"I had never heard anything like it, which really inspired me to be able to use the feel of something as a recording tactic in the room that you’re in - just that the air conditioning’s running, or someone opens a door. That actually adds to the vibe and a recording should not be perfect.
"For Emma, Forever Ago is a perfect record because it’s an imperfect record."
8. Jason Isbell - Southeastern (2013)
"A little later on, I was in Nashville. I’d left the band. I was with BMG and we were talking about doing my first record – the EP that became Halloween. They wanted me to work with this producer named Dave Cobb. He was kind of known as a rock guy and he was working with Rival Sons and stuff like that.
So, I go over to his studio – and this was before he was working in RCA – so this was in his house. I sat down and was like, 'Nice to meet you. What’s the most recent thing you’ve worked on?' He was like, 'Well, I’m working with this guy named Jason Isbell.'
I knew he was in The Drive-by Truckers, and I’d never really listened to The Truckers, but I’d heard pretty good things about him. Dave’s like, 'Check out this song,' and he played Elephant, just from the board. The record hadn’t even come out yet. I was like, 'Ho-ly shit!'
"It kind of took the place of Ryan Adams for me. Easy Tiger by Ryan Adams almost made this list in place of Southeastern, but I think Jason was able to marry a Southern instinct, and have this sense of folk that was true to this Southern-ness, but that brought out very, very global emotions.
"I remember the first time I listened to that record, I put it on in my car and I pulled my car over because, holy shit, it was moving me so much. I was an emotional danger to myself!
"I remember in 2012, I went to go see Jason at The Ryman in Nashville. It was that tour and it was one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen. Then, fast-forward to this past tour for my last record, we did two nights at The Ryman and he came out on the first night with me and played a couple songs of mine with me. It was the craziest full-circle Nashville moment. It was nuts!"
9. Coldplay - X&Y (2005)
"You know what really, really did something to me? This was later in high school and it’s hard for me to chronologically remember all of these, but there was X&Y by Coldplay.
"I wasn’t really a 'Coldplay guy’. I was like, 'Dads listen to Coldplay.' But, I heard Fix You, and I saw the video for it, and that was another thing. It wasn’t a live record, but it did this thing to me, where I was like, 'I want to do that for that many people.'
"I was living in Belgium at the time – weirdly enough – and I went to Ancienne Belgique, and they were playing. It was the X&Y tour, and it was one of the most incredible performances – marrying artistry with entertainment and being an entertainer, but also being this real artistic figure. Chris Martin is one of the best to ever do it."
10. Jackson Browne – For Everyman (1973)
"Jackson Browne and I got to hang out. He took me to his studio and his office, where we sat for about three or four hours and just talked about songs, music and the importance of the craft. It was such an incredible moment.
"My Dad listened to Jackson Browne so much when I was growing up, and I kind of got into him – or I started to appreciate him – around the same time that I started listening to Dashboard. Both were baring their souls – very transparent and very authentic – but in two different ways.
"I think that Jackson Browne is probably one of the greatest rock lyricists of all time. I also saw him live and it was a life-changing moment, so I have to include that!"
- The Weakness is released on 7 April via Rounder Records. Ruston Kelly tours the US in April and May. For more information visit rustonkelly.com