Bruce Springsteen said of being an artist, “You’re always in a box, and you’re an escape artist if you do what I do. You build your box, and then you escape from it.”
Ruston Kelly isn’t a huge Springsteen fan, he says, but that quote stuck with him. The Nashville-based artist is used to his music being categorized as Americana, country and folk rock, and his last few projects very much fit that bill.
But Kelly’s new album, The Weakness, was a new box.
“I feel like part of my job is to stay inspired,” Kelly says in a phone interview with Eugene Weekly. “You know, I’d be doing the fan base a disservice in the long run if I was only trying to copy/paste from what I’ve done before.”
Kelly’s inspirations extend beyond country and folk, like the bands City in Colour and Dashboard Confessional, which he names as some of his biggest inspirations for his early records. Chris Carrabba of Dashboard actually ended up working with Kelly on his Dirt Emo Vol. 1 album.
“It’s interesting that that scene seems to gravitate a bit towards my music, which is kind of cool because I listened to all of these people growing up,” Kelly says.
Kelly wrote the songs on The Weakness during his Shape and Destroy tour. The writing came quickly, Kelly says, but he knew he wanted to push himself to make this album sound unique.
He brought on Nate Mercereau, a multi-instrumentalist who’s produced and played on records with Jay-Z, Lizzo and The Weeknd, to help produce.
“It was the first time that I let someone take the reins, or be kind of like the leader in the studio,” Kelly says. “I wanted to be able to have stuff on there that I couldn’t necessarily come up with myself.” Kelly was listening to Radiohead’s Kid A, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell and The National while he was touring to immerse himself in production-heavy projects for inspiration.
“All these bands have a lot to say production-wise, it isn’t just about someone with a guitar singing a song and there’s production around it,” Kelly says.
Kelly says he wanted to approach producing this album in a different way.
He thought one of his tracks, “Wicked Hands,” was going to be “a kind of acoustic — like Dying Star — kind of thing. Moody.”
Mercereau would send him pre-production recording ideas to Kelly during his tour, and he sent Kelly a full-production version of “Wicked Hands.”
“We ended up doing like 40 different versions of that song,” Kelly says. “I’m glad we did that, because it pushed me in my understanding of what I’m capable of doing.”
Kelly describes the music he makes as belonging to a new genre he calls “dirt emo.”
Kelly says he thinks of his music as being a descendant of emo from the start, and he describes dirt emo as “confessional songwriting, confessional lyrics, emotional vulnerability to the max, with Americana or folk instrumentation on the periphery.”
By that definition, The Weakness is dirt emo through and through.
This is Kelly’s longest tour schedule to date, going from mid-April through most of September. It’s also Kelly’s first time stopping in Eugene.
The musician says he isn’t planning to work on another record for a while, and that his main focus is going to be pouring his energy into touring and gaining traction for The Weakness.
“My plan for this one was to kind of put everything that I currently have, artistically and personally, into this,” Kelly says, adding that you can expect to hear songs from every record on the tour.
Ruston Kelly will be performing with the Bozeman, Montana, folk-rock band Richy Mitch & The Coal Miners at the WOW Hall on May 9. Tickets are $25-30.