Wherever Inspiration Strikes: A Conversation with Ruston Kelly

By Brent Thompson


Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Ruston Kelly’s self-defined musical style “Dirt Emo” is catchy and fitting at the same time. Earlier this year, Kelly released Weakness, Etc., a companion EP to his 2023 release The Weakness. On Tuesday, April 30, the singer/songwriter will return to Birmingham for a performance at Workplay. Recently, he spoke with us by phone.

Southern Stages: Ruston, thanks for your time. We are really enjoying Weakness, Etc. – if you will, talk about the creation of the album.

Ruston Kelly: Some of [the songs] were recorded six or seven months ago and some of them – like “The Watcher,” for example – was the first song that we recorded for the original Weakness album. It was the same with “Nothing Out There” and “Heaven Made The Darkness.” On “Cold Black Mile – Hotel Version,” I recorded that myself on a little battery-operated recorder in my hotel room in Pasadena. It’s kind of all over the place, but it’s still a part of the narrative of that album. The album is an epilogue, if you will, from The Weakness to Weakness, Etc. It’s supposed to be a companion – it doesn’t really tell a new story, but it just carries that story over into further context.

Southern Stages: Your Birmingham show will be a solo acoustic performance. Have you toured solo very often in your career?

Kelly: I’ve never done an “official” acoustic tour like this. I started touring just doing acoustic out of necessity – I’d drive myself and I didn’t have a band and didn’t have fans [laughs]. I did that a lot and it was because I had to and this one is in actual venues and it’s a show that fans haven’t seen before. I’m really excited about it. I’ve seen Jackson Browne do it and I’ve seen Dave Matthews do it and it’s become a big part of their touring business and this is a first step in that direction because I’d like to do both whenever I want to. I love playing with my band and being on the bus with the crew, but I also love making up the set list as I go and having a very relaxed rapport with the audience.

Southern Stages: With several albums in your catalog, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Kelly: I’m really bad at streamlining promotion when it comes to releasing a song because I tend to do whatever feels the most creatively natural in that moment. I might play some of the songs on the EP that’s coming out and I might not. I’m going to play whatever I’m feeling like spanning across all of my recordings. That’s exciting to me because I can change it up every night depending on the vibe of the room and I’ll take requests.

Southern Stages: How do songs stay fresh to you after you’ve performed them hundreds or thousands of times?

Kelly: It has to do with the gratitude of being able to do what I do for a living. To pay my bills from expressing myself and people actually giving a fuck about that – I feel so lucky. Something like “Mockingbird” – a song I’ve played like three million times – hasn’t gotten old yet because I see the reaction on people’s faces when they’ve heard that for the first time or another song when I can tell that it’s “their” song that they really wanted to hear. Having that perspective of gratitude keeps things fresh because I stay excited that way.

Southern Stages: Some artists say this is a great time to be in your position given you can reach listeners via Spotify, iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other outlets. Others say, for that same reason, this is a difficult time to be found among the crowd. How do you view the current climate in the music industry?

Kelly: I think we’ve opened Pandora’s Box with the Internet. Anyone who wants to imagine themselves as an artist will then have the tools to do so whether or not they’re really meant to do it and whether or not it’s in their DNA to be a performer, to write and give themselves to the craft. I think it’s wonderful we have that wide open door – there’s a lot of inclusivity that comes with that. The biggest takeaway is how it will affect art’s place in culture and the way that we consume art. Some of these artists that are blowing up overnight are skipping the developmental phase and skipping the cutting-your-teeth phase of playing in clubs for people that don’t give a shit. There’s a sacrifice involved in giving yourself to the craft and something to be said for how important it is for someone to develop their craft. In most cases, we’re seeing that step being completely skipped so it concerns me. It’ll change inevitably – we just have to keep doing the things that are good for us and for art and culture.

Southern Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you schedule times to write or do you do it when inspiration strikes?

Kelly: Wherever inspiration strikes. The song “Belly Of The Beast” that’s on Weakness, Etc. was a lucky one. I was doing the dishes and the entire verse, chorus and second verse just popped into my head. I dropped the dishes into the sink recklessly and I literally ran to my piano and edited it from there – that’s how I would like for it work all the time [laughs]. If you want to get good at it, like anything it’s 80% perspiration. There are times when I sit down and beat my head against the wall, so my process is all over the place and I tend to write more on the road. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because you’re really in your element and you aren’t trying to repaint your kitchen – you’re just out there doing it.

On Tuesday, April 30, Code-R Productions presents Ruston Kelly at Workplay. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $27.50 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.