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Under the Surface 

After nearly three decades in music, Scott Kelly finds new challenges when he’s onstage alone

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It’s the clarity that’s terrifying.

After 27 years of screaming and thrashing in bands like Neurosis and Shrinebuilder, over the past decade Scott Kelly has changed how audiences see him. He stands alone — just an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder — and sings of the ache that clouds the depths of his heart. He’s a different performer: a grown man singing for his soul.

But every time he steps onstage, he says it’s a little like drenching himself in cold water. That feeling, that rush, that anticipation — that risky exposed feeling — is something he needs.

“When I was doing my first [solo] record, I was in the last throes and fits of addiction and I was in the process of coming to a big decision — which was to get sober in my life,” Kelly says over the phone from a tour stop in Oakland, Calif. “When I was trying to perform those songs, that became the replacement therapy for all of the dangerous places that I liked to put myself in before that. All of the Russian roulette that I would play with all of the chemicals in my lifestyle.”

In Neurosis, lyrics are often buried in a haze of distortion — just another instrument in the symphony of noise. But here, he’s emotionally naked.

“There’s a lot of different dynamics to what [Neurosis does], but we have a thing we go back to which is an overwhelming, aggressive takeover of anyone who is within earshot,” Kelly says. “Although the words are there, you kind of have to uncover them. They’re not directly out in front. The challenge of doing something where the words were directly there for people to hear, and to carry the emotion in a song and melody — it just really spoke to me.”

In his mid-30s, he started feeling drawn to calmer, more melodic sounds, artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — the country music that he remembered his father playing when he was a child.

“It occurred to me that there was as real challenge there, basically, to try and write and carry an actual song in a stripped-down form like that,” he says.

With his latest solo album, The Forgiven Ghost in Me, Kelly pushes himself as a writer. He searches through song, desperate to find redemption and face his fate. And he conjures imagery fit for a folk singer: moths flying toward flames, bodies buried at sea, stones along a riverbed.

Kelly admits that these solo records seem to come out easier during times of pain: when he fought through addiction, when he lost his father. But lyrically, he’s still hesitant to put his feelings out there too directly. It’s something he’s done on his blog, a log of “all of the sad things”: mostly eulogies for the friends who’ve passed and his blind, undying love for the Oakland Raiders. He opens his veins in his writing — and he can’t decide whether that’s something he should do with his music, too.

“I went through this real manic phase when I was writing f---ing whatever and just laying this stuff out there, and then I started to regret it,” he says, pointing at the things he wrote on his blog after his father passed away. “I reached a point where I didn’t want to be reminded of this all the time, I kind of wish I would have shut the f--- up.”

And that’s what he wonders now. How literal should he be? Once, getting up there with a microphone and a guitar was exposure enough for Kelly. But now, should he be clearer about what he’s singing?

“In Neurosis everything is hidden. And the acoustic stuff — lyrically it was a little more open and not as veiled and ambiguous,” he says. “And then I reached this point where I felt like I had put in a lot of actual literal stuff out there. I started doing that, and I kind of got afraid.”

“I’ve reached this point where I’m like ‘Am I going to go the whole way and put the f---ing cards on the table? Or am I just going to leave it and let it fade away?” 

Scott Kelly and the Road Home with Ian Miles and John K • Thurs, March 7, at 9:30 pm • Mootsy’s • 406 W. Sprague Ave. • $5 • 21+ • 838-1570

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