The full-length debut from singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly, Dying Star is a document of self-destruction and salvation. With a storytelling sensibility that constantly shifts from candid to poetic, the Nashville-based artist details his experience with addiction, which included time in rehab and an overdose in early 2016. Rooted in a delicately sculpted sound that shows every nuance of his vocal delivery, Dying Star quietly captures all the chaos and heartbreak on the way to finding redemption.
Kelly’s debut for Rounder Records, Dying Star follows his acclaimed EP Halloween—a 2017 release produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, Jenny Lewis) and praised by Rolling Stone (who described Kelly as a "scruffier-voiced Ryan Adams obsessed with both Merle and the Misfits”). Kelly co-produced Dying Star with Jarrad K (a songwriter/producer who’s previously worked with Kate Nash and Weezer), enlisting local musicians like singer/songwriter Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams of the Civil Wars to bring the album’s gracefully melodic, guitar-driven arrangements to life. And while Dying Star has its share of sonic flourishes—the elegant electronic effects, the all-female background vocals provided by singers like Kelly’s sister, Abby Sevigny, and his wife, singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves—each track centers on Kelly’s soul-baring lyrics.
Despite the lucid self-examination at the heart of the album, Dying Star was conceptualized while Kelly’s life was still in total disarray. "I’d been making a lot of poor choices, using substances to alleviate the sense of something being wrong with me upstairs,” he says. "I decided I was going to quit doing all that, and the moment I made that decision I had this epiphany: I was going to make a record called Dying Star, and the last song would be called ‘Brightly Burst into the Air.’”
Opening with the wistful reflection of "Cover My Tracks,” Dying Star finds Kelly shaping his narrative with equal parts singer/songwriter confessionalism and punk-rock irreverence. Songs like "Blackout” telegraph unbearable despair, while "Mercury” makes rock-bottom desperation feel anthemic and "Faceplant” recounts Kelly’s transgressions in a tongue-in-cheek sing-song ("Took too many pills again/Blacked out for a week/Didn’t eat, didn’t sleep/Came to, did it all again”). Elsewhere on the album, his lyrics drift from moments of sweetly twisted humor ("Feels like a curse ’cause the drugs don’t work/So I bought a statue of Jesus,” on "Paratrooper’s Battlecry”) to hopeless romanticism ("I’m gonna write a book and put your name on every page,” on "Mockingbird”) to the sharing of hard-won wisdom ("Learn how to die for something/So you don’t live your life for nothing,” on "Jericho”). And on the slow-burning title track to Dying Star, Kelly offers up a heavy-hearted but hopeful meditation on the possibility in rebirth.
"When stars die, it’s one of the most galactically powerful things that can happen in the universe,” Kelly says. "It’s one of the most beautiful things you could ever witness, and it also gives life to new stars—so basically that death is essential. To me that all connects back to how I knew I needed to change, and I needed to see that change as a promising thing.”
Born in South Carolina, Kelly started playing guitar under the guidance of his dad, Tim "TK” Kelly, a pedal-steel guitarist who now performs in his band. "When I was a kid my dad would play steel guitar to help me to get to sleep, so that’s the first instrument I’ve got any recollection of,” he says. Since his father worked for a paper mill and frequently changed job locations, Kelly grew up moving nearly every two years, living everywhere from Alabama to Belgium. But it was during a stint on his own in Michigan—where he went to train with an Olympic coaching team in hopes of furthering his figure-skating career—that he made his first attempt at songwriting. "The family I was living with were contractually obligated to provide me with food, rides to school and the rink, money for miscellaneous things I needed—but they didn’t do any of that,” says Kelly, who was then 14. To soothe his homesickness, Kelly holed up in his room with the Jackson Browne album and guitar his dad had passed off to him before he’d left for Michigan. "I didn’t know this then, but when I was little my dad would sneak cigarettes by taking me out for a drive,” he says. "He’d just smoke and play an entire Jackson Browne album while we drove all around the neighborhood, so when I put on For Everyman in Michigan, I felt like I was home.”
Although Kelly first dabbled in songwriting in Michigan, it wasn’t until his family moved to Brussels his senior year of high school that he began to find his voice as an artist. "Moving to Belgium completely destroyed my sense of cultural placement,” he says. "It’s populated by so many different types of people, and it gave me this new understanding of all the possibilities there are in terms of what you can do with your life.” While in Belgium, Kelly also discovered the music of the Carter Family, which turned out to be another milestone in his growth as a songwriter. "Before then I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash, other than that he was a fucking thug,” he says. "I ended up going all the way back to the Carter Family, and becoming so mesmerized by the way Mother Maybelle played guitar. Being enchanted by that music ended up changing my life.”
At 17, Kelly left Belgium and took off for Nashville to live with his sister, but had no firm intentions of launching a music career. "I had no idea what I was going to do in Nashville, but I knew it was going to be different from how everyone else had done it,” he says. "Everything kind of started out of necessity—like, ‘I need to pay rent, how am I gonna do that? Well, I’m pretty good at writing songs, so I guess I should get a publishing deal.’” That deal arrived several years later, in 2013, when Kelly signed with BMG Nashville. Along with penning songs for artists like Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott Band, he continued working on his own material, releasing Halloween in April 2017.
When it came time to record Dying Star, Kelly headed to Sonic Ranch in El Paso (a studio set in the desert near the Mexican border), with an ensemble of musicians that included his father. "My dad’s unlike any steel player I’ve ever heard—it definitely sounds like stars when he’s playing, so I knew I needed him to be on the album,” says Kelly. "When we got the mixes back he told me, ‘I just wanted you to know that I played from a place of real emotion. And it was hard for me, because I was your father when you were going through all that—but it was also really cathartic.’ So that was pretty heavy for me to hear.”
During the production process, Kelly and Jarrad K deepened the texture of Dying Star with certain subtle adornments: the shimmering tones of "Anchors”; the gorgeously sprawling, pedal-steel-and-piano-led outro of "Big Brown Bus”; the Vocoder-enhanced a cappella intro to "Son of a Highway Daughter.” "I wanted to reflect that feeling of when the sun’s setting and the sky’s lavender and it’s so breathtaking and unreal,” Kelly notes. "There’s something like dying about it, but there’s also so much life in all the color.” That ethereal element is even more intensified by Dying Star’s spellbinding background vocals. "I’ve always been drawn to the creative energy of women, way more so than men, so I had all these female voices come in on the record and be my angels,” says Kelly.
Throughout Dying Star, Kelly never shies away from revealing the depths of the self-inflicted damage he’s endured in recent years, but ultimately delivers an album that’s undeniably life-affirming. "A lot of my music is focused on suffering, or trying to understand the human condition through the lens of suffering,” he says. "Which probably sounds totally depressing, but it’s actually the flipside of that. Sometimes you’ve gotta go into that darkness—you need to get lost and then figure out for yourself how to find your way back. That’s the only way we can find pure joy, and really be thankful for the life we’ve been given.”