Ruston Kelly tells the story of “Mending Song” ahead of May 22 Knuckleheads gig
If you were a Midwest teen who grew up listening to your parents’ country music in the car and your older brother’s copies of Dashboard Confessional CDs in your bedroom, then the music you’d end up making might sound a lot like Ruston Kelly’s. The South Carolina-born musician’s music is self-described as “dirt emo,” and there’s no better way to explain how he pairs his strong twang with anthemic, fist-pumping choruses. Throw in the occasional cover of Wheatus’ snotty pop-punk classic, “Teenage Dirtbag,” and you have all the components necessary to create his latest album, The Weakness, out now on Rounder Records.
Kelly brings his latest tour to Knuckleheads on Monday, May 22, and we spoke with him by phone about how The Weakness came to be, and the story behind the album’s achingly beautiful “Mending Song.”
The Pitch: All of the singles you’ve shared from The Weakness so far have some real emotional stuff going on there. “Mending Song” was just like, “I don’t know how he’s gonna do this one live.”
Ruston Kelly: Yeah, man, I really went there on that one for sure.
It sounds almost like a very well-produced demo in that you got in one take and were just like, “Let’s not mess with that.” What is the story behind recording “Mending Song”?
I had written a bunch of the songs for the record, and I had gone to Joshua Tree to finish writing for the record. I was like, “I’m gonna go out there and write my opus.” I needed a capstone song on the album. I went out there and had like a week at this little cottage on 22 acres.
I got there on the first day. I sat down, cracked my knuckles, and was like, “Let’s get to it,” and nothing came out. The next day, same thing. The same thing, same thing. I spent most of my time there kind of wandering around, just finding weird rocks and then, on the last day, I drove into town and I found this little music shop that had a baritone ukulele and I was like, “This would be fun. I’ve never played ukulele before.”
I bought it and went back to the Airbnb. The sun was setting. I’d just made some dinner. I was just sitting outside playing the ukulele without really thinking and the riff of “Mending Song” came out and I felt the blood rush in, and the song started to come out and I got about 80% of it done.
This was the first time in a while that I was so excited about a song that, when I drove back to Los Angeles to start recording, I could not wait to get into my hotel room and finish writing it. This was like the night before one of our first studio sessions. I finished the song and the only thing I had with me was my phone, but I also had this battery-operated recorder.
It’s a Tascam Portastudio. It’s really tiny and it doesn’t sound that great. I had like the shittiest karaoke mic–it was my sister’s that I borrowed and so I just was like, “You know what? I’m just gonna have fun with this song.” I started playing it and I was like, “Well damn, that sounds better than I thought,” so then I doubled the take.
I did another take on top of the take and then panned it, kind of similar to what Elliot Smith would do and I was like, “Oh man, now I’m having fun. I wish I had a keyboard. Maybe there’s a keyboard/synth sound for free online.”
I searched “free synth sound” and the first thing that came out was a YouTube video and it was called “Worship Synth,” and it had a picture of Jesus. It was a two-hour loop of one synth note. And so I pushed play, I held the shitty mic up to it and I layered it in and I was like, “Dang, that sounds like kind of bad, but spooky and has a feel to it.
Then I was like, “Oh, shit. I have no way to send this to the producer.” I didn’t have the ‘whatever’ cable that you needed. Also, this was a battery-operated recorder, so I was like, I don’t know how the fuck did you even begin with that? And so, I turned my headphones up and I pushed record on my phone and I set the phone inside the headphones and did a voice memo of it, and I brought it to the studio.
He was like, “Dude, I feel like this is the take,” and I was like, “I mean, I agree with you. There’s something really special.” It sounds like it had been buried and someone just uncovered it and it was just playing. We tried to recreate it in a high-fidelity way and it just didn’t match the feel. That was a really special story for that song. For the whole recording series, it just was, “I’ve never done something like that before.”
That is a very auspicious beginning, to be able to walk in on that first day with something that is essentially complete.
Yeah. Yeah. Man, it felt like that was the first song we considered done for the record. ‘Cause it was done rather and it was kind of easy from there. We just learned this was gonna be a record that wasn’t really worried about having a sense of “professional fidelity” to the recordings, even though it ended up, of course, having that. The thread we started with that was to just go with our gut.
So much of your material has that idea of rough and ready and confessional to it. Even on that Dirt Emo EP, you’re doing other people’s songs, but like you are definitely putting your own spin on it.
Yeah. I mean, I always want to do recordings that feel very real. Not that you can’t feel real listening to 90% of what you hear on the radio, but I want to make recordings that feel like they’re sitting next to you or right behind you, or it feels like you can touch them and there there’s almost a tangible quality to them.
You spent a week at Joshua Tree before you went in to start recording but also, before you even began work on the record, you spent a lot of time in, like, a bungalow in a small town. It seems like isolation was really important to getting right in your own head before you started tackling emotional shit.
Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right. I needed to do that. It was pretty much a necessity. The world’s shut down. My marriage shut down. My sister’s marriage shut down. My family unit was broken up. We’re really close. My dad used to tour with me all the time and my band and I began to see him and worry about him.
He has an autoimmune disease so during the pandemic that was extra sketchy. Then my sister with her kid, and her ex-husband–all the drama, I just felt like I wasn’t escaping it. I felt like the best thing to do was to go to a place where I was predominantly alone, where I could confront the things that hurt the most.
Ruston Kelly plays Knuckleheads on Monday, May 22, with Briscoe. Details on that show here.