With his sophomore album Shape & Destroy, Nashville-based artist Ruston Kelly now documents his experience in maintaining sobriety, and finally facing the demons that led him to drug abuse in the first place. But while Kelly recounts that journey with an unvarnished honesty, his grace and conviction as an artist ultimately turn Shape & Destroy into a work of unlikely transcendence.
With its unsparing reflection on what Kelly refers to as “the cycle of frustration and temptation after getting clean,” Shape & Destroy took form during a period of painful transformation. “It wasn’t surprising to me that getting sober was a challenge, but there were moments when it was challenging in a way I’d never experienced before,” Kelly says. “There’s so much repair your brain has to do—spiritually, emotionally, physically—and at one point I really felt like I was losing my mind.”
As a means of self-preservation and catharsis, Kelly eventually turned to the ritual of free writing, a practice that led him to the album’s title. “This phrase just came to me one day: ‘Shape the life you want by destroying what obstructs the soul,’” he recalls. “I realized that was the ticket to healing myself and healing my mind: figuring out what kind of person I want to become, and then getting rid of everything that keeps me from being that person.”
In light of that epiphany, Kelly felt a profound lucidness that soon catalyzed his creative process. “From reading about other artists who’ve gone through recovery, I was sort of expecting a dry spell after getting sober, but that didn’t happen,” he says. “Instead I felt this very heightened awareness that lent itself to so much more artistic output, and the songs just started pouring out.”
That momentum continued as Kelly headed into the studio, co-producing Shape & Destroy with his longtime producer Jarrad K (Kate Nash, Weezer, Elohim). Working at Dreamland Recording Studios in Upstate New York (a space converted from a 19th century church), Kelly enlisted musicians like Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick, bassist Eli Beaird (who also performed on Dying Star), and a number of his own family members: his father Tim “TK” Kelly played steel guitar, while both his sister Abby Kelly and his wife Kacey Musgraves contributed background vocals. And in shaping the album’s nuanced yet potent sound, the band deliberately channeled the raw vitality Kelly continually brings to his live show.