ELLE KING ON SHAKING SPIRITS AND THE FUTURE OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
story / Talullah Ruff
illustrations / Nicole Wargon
Elle King sits across the table from me. We’re at Hangawi, a Korean restaurant where customers take off their shoes upon entering. She’s gone from TV tapings to record signings to live performances all week, and we only have twenty minutes before she leaves for the airport. But King is laid back, at ease on the floor cushions, platinum hair and winged liner offset by a Mötley Crüe t-shirt and arms crowded with tattoos. She’s unconcerned with our timing, ordering jasmine tea from the waitress and breathing it in when it arrives. However, she answers each question with fervor, wide eyes engaging as her mouth motors to keep up with her thoughts.
King is twenty-nine, with just two full albums under her belt, but already she’s cemented herself as a force in a multitude of genres. Since the release of The Elle King EP in 2012, King toured with the likes of Dixie Chicks, James Bay, Of Monsters and Men, and Ed Sheeran. Her single “Ex’s and Oh’s” off her first LP Love Stuff has sold over two million copies, peaked at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100, and was nominated for two Grammys. The song’s clean, jangly pop production is contrasted by King’s signature grit, her wails, and growls akin to hard-rock fire. And yet, King’s 2017 country collaboration with Dierks Bentley, “Different For Girls” (which earned a Grammy nomination and won a CMA) shows the tender, understated side of King’s voice– proving that King knows how to use her sizable range and memorable tone with finesse.
Shake the Spirit– her latest release– is a dynamic exploration of King’s personality, at once intimate and playful and fierce. While “Shame” harkens back to the style of “Exes and Oh’s” with its inescapable hooks and distorted vocals, “Man’s Man” is stark and vicious in comparison, allowing the nuance in King’s voice to take precedence. “It Girl” is a pithy jaunt, with lyrics such as “To be a hit / It’s all in the wrist” set to a warbled brass section and bouncing beat. “Little Bit Of Lovin’” is the album’s finale and mission statement. It begins as chipper pop-rock, growing into its earnestness. With a choir voicing approval at King’s impassioned proclamations, the song nods at the gospel. And as this energy grows, “Little Bit Of Lovin’” reveals integral lyrics and the message behind her album title: “You can be living, but you’re not really alive / You have to be awoken, you have to be revived.” King declares– refreshingly upbeat for rock n’ roll– that the power to revive is not found in an outside source, but found within oneself.
In our short time together, Elle King discussed her thoughts on the future of rock n’ roll, the strength of her voice (physically and metaphysically), and the importance of being nice.
Every song on Shake the Spirit sounds like it could be a single– are lyrics and melody lines an inseparable part of the songwriting process for you?
I think it’s all kinda different. I mean, sometimes I’ll sit down like I wrote most of the songs on bass and so I would come up with a groove and I’d write lyrics to fit that. And the kind of songwriter I am, I’m not gonna sit and write a song about this day and blah, blah, blah… I just kinda let it come out. So, most of the time, I usually come up with them together, so it’s this weird thing that comes out. But other times, and only recently like on this process, will I try to sit on something and try and write it later. But usually, it all comes out in one kind of go of it. Otherwise, if I don’t really sit down and let it out in one sitting, it doesn’t usually get finished except for a couple songs. “Told You So,” I played everything and wrote by myself, but didn’t write the chorus ‘til seven months in between. And I tried to write the chorus with a bunch of people, but everyone that I took it to, what they loved about it they then tried to change. I loved it so much and I was like: I’m the only person who could write this. And one night it just came to me and I wrote the chorus for that. So, I don’t know, it’s all kind of different, but usually, it’s in one sitting and it’s melody and groove at the same time.
Do you ever feel like there’s anything you won’t write about or share in your music? Do you ever get nervous being so candid in your lyrics? I was listening to “It Girl,” and it’s awesome, but also in something with more emotionally taxing lyrics, as well.
Thank you, thank you.
I don’t know, I don’t know. I feel like I’m a super open person and I’ve really respected people who’ve been really open. Like when I was fifteen or sixteen, Cat Power’s album The Greatest–
I don’t know if you’re familiar with that album, but she has this song called “Hate” on it, and the lyrics are: “I hate myself and I wanna die,” but it’s this beautiful, sad, song. And I remember not being like, “Whoa, that’s too heavy!” What it made me feel was like, “Wow, I’m young and angsty, and I wanna just hug her.” And I loved her. So, I’ve always loved Cat Power and I’ve always loved that kind of thing. I don’t write music to please anybody else, I really do write music as a cathartic kind of therapy. So, I don’t know– I can’t say what I’ll do in the future; I’m not ashamed of anything I made, I’m proud of what I made. This is the music I make and I don’t make it for anybody else but me; it may be uncomfortable for some people. If it makes people uncomfortable, they can listen to something else. I don’t really give a shit if people don’t connect with it. I don’t have a problem with that, I understand that. I don’t wanna listen to death metal all day. I respect that people may not wanna listen to my music all the time. So, it just makes me that much more grateful for the people who do wanna listen to my music and I don’t know, everyone has different taste in genres. I don’t really wanna hear trap music and metal, you know, so I understand that and I’m okay with that.
I’m not just saying that I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it! So, I was listening to one of your interviews and you were talking about the collaborative, familial spirit of your band, which I think can especially be a challenge when one person is clearly the leader– do you have any tips for aspiring bands/musicians on this collaboration process and how to build these successful and lasting relationships?
I had to really pull it out of the guys because we had to get to a space that was comfortable. So, I think the best advice is that when it comes to being open in a creative space, it can be pretty uncomfortable to share your ideas and you’ll get shot down. I’ve always said the worst thing anyone can ever tell you is “No,” and “No” is always negotiable, in most cases. It just comes with being comfortable, and you don’t get what you don’t ask for and if you don’t say your idea, you’ll never get your idea out. It can be uncomfortable, just do it with people you’re comfortable with. When I first started making music and I would go around doing these co-writes with people, it was like a first date and it was really uncomfortable. And because I make music from a really personal place, sometimes it just wasn’t a good fit, you know, and I think the more you practice it and the more you practice writing music with other people, the more comfortable you get. But I think if anyone were to be making music in the way that I do, which is really a personal kind of thing, you just have to be comfortable, and then soon enough you get more confidence in yourself. I’ve only made two albums and I’ve only made one album in a band scenario, so I don’t know if I know everything on it, but I’m proud of what we did. I think that we had a really great collaborative effort. But it wasn’t like, “Oh, every day we wrote a fucking hit song!” It was hard work, you know. But we ended up writing like twenty-five songs together– well, maybe we wrote fifteen songs together and I wrote like thirty.
That’s great. I can tell– or at least to my ears– listening to Shake The Spirit there are a lot of Soul and 60’s rock influences. Were there any specific musical influences for Shake the Spirit? Were there any specific artists that made deep impressions on you or helped you in some way, when you were younger?
Well, I really didn’t listen to too much music literally for like a year. I listened to a very short list of things, and that was Abba, Parliament, Disco Gold– which is just a mix of disco songs– and I listened to this one song on repeat called “You’re Gonna Need Me,” by Barbara Lynn, and it’s just an old soul, kind of a doo-woppy kind of feel. But I didn’t want anything new to kind of creep in and I didn’t want it to seem like I was copying any trend. And I don’t really listen to any new music anyway, which seems kind of hypocritical because I put out new music, but whatever, I like what I like, just like I said. But when I think about my deep-rooted influences, I love Aretha Franklin– it’s really hard because I don’t know if what I do is compartmentalizing, but I have different genres of music and I think that because I have idols in every genre– And so yeah, I’ve got soul heroes, I’ve got country heroes, I’ve got rock heroes. And Mötley Crüe is not on the list but this is a cool shirt. I don’t know if I could cite Mötley Crüe as a hero. If I had to do my female heroes, it’d be Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Joan Jett, and maybe Mavis Staples. Yeah, I think that’s good to go with, all female. I just love big powerful voices.
Unrelated to anything, did you see the new Joan Jett movie?
I haven’t yet– She’s the coolest. She’s probably one of the coolest people. I got to meet her and record with her and we hung out and she’s just the best. She’s really amazing. I swear I’m not trying to name drop or anything but I’ve really had the most beautiful luck and gotten to meet a lot of my heroes and I’ve found that the people that I’ve idolized, I’m glad that I idolized them because they’re really kind, really cool, really down to earth, and it just reminds me that that’s such a big reason probably why they’re where they are because people root for them. So, I always have it in my head: be kind, people will root for you. And of course, there’s always gonna be fucking assholes, assholes will always creep in. But I don’t know, I just feel sorry for them because you wonder what they think at night when they lay their head down, you know? But the nice ones, they sleep well. I sleep well.
Yeah. That’s actually part of one the later questions I was going to ask you about, I forgot where I read it, but I saw you were talking about Joan Jett… You talked about how the most successful and badass women are the women who are also nice. Do you think there’s a way for women in rock– especially because rock is a notorious boy’s club– to be nice but to also be a strong presence and still be successful? Do you think women can be both, in rock music?
I think so, yeah. I think so. I mean, I’m probably six or seven years in this now. And I’ve had success in rock and I’ve had success in alternative music. But I used to think that I had to be so much tougher. But when I was first really starting out and touring, I thought that everybody was my friend. And so I partied with everybody and I was nice– I can out-party anybody. And so I just did whatever I wanted and I thought it was all a good time. And then I realized: these guys don’t take me seriously. So I started realizing: I don’t have to be everybody’s friend. I’m nice to everyone and I’ll always be nice. I’ll like you until you give me a reason not to like you. Unfortunately, some people have given me a reason not to like them. And they haven’t been nice to me or they haven’t been, I don’t know. But if guys don’t think women in rock music are a threat then they probably should get their fucking eyes and their ears checked because I think there are so many women that are really driving everything. And that’s why, you know, I’ve never been asked to produce anything, you know, so I just took it in my own hands. And like, I don’t think that there are enough female producers out there, I don’t think that there’s… I will always say that we need more women to do everything. Because I think that women have, I don’t know, I don’t think people give women enough credit. Oh my God, did you hear– I just heard this thing of this female pilot on Southwest, this plane that dropped their engine, I just saw this last night on television. And the female pilot is so calm, she sounds like she’s just talking to another person, and people got sucked out of the plane, and she’s so calm. Yeah, look up Southwest flight female pilot, like 1380 or something like that. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. My dad always says men can’t handle their emotions as women can. But women have such a bad rep, that we’re crazy and emotional, blah, blah, blah. So, if you can’t tell, I’m very pro-women.
So, talking about the nuances in your voice, which I love. Especially on “Man’s Man,” by the way–
Ooh, I just cringe about that song. That’s the only song that makes me really nervous, but I don’t regret anything and I hope people know when they listen to the lyrics– I just want people to know that I’m not generalizing in any sense of the word. I can only speak and sing about experiences that I’ve gone through. I just get nervous because I’d never want to hurt anyone and have someone think or assume that I’m generalizing or singing about anyone else. It was just an experience song. I’m sorry, go ahead, I just get nervous.
No, I totally get that. So, my question was: What has your process been in developing your vocal sound throughout your life? Because everyone talks about your defining rasp, so I was just wondering if that’s something you’ve had to work on or if that was a natural part of your tone?
My voice was something that I had to grow into. I had started singing when I was much younger, but I don’t think I really grew into my voice until I was nineteen and that’s when I really started writing songs and music was really like, I know it sounds hippy-dippy, but it really does come up through something, through an emotional experience. And I don’t know what else to do, ‘cause I can get frazzled really easily and I’m not great at speaking about my emotions and formulating words. But for some reason, when it’s through the song it really just comes out in a really nice way for me. But I don’t know, I didn’t really try to do anything with my voice. And it’s funny ‘cause I really love watching videos of other people singing my songs and I’ll see young girls trying to kind of do what I did because I would try to emulate singers that I love. I would try to sing like Aretha Franklin and I would try to sing like Dolly Parton or Janis Joplin, and I can hear girls trying to sound like me and I’m like “Oh, that’s so crazy!” And even in the process of this album something new happened and I’m still learning so much more about my body and my voice and what happens, and it was almost like I would work so long, usually only around the banjo, it was almost transcendental. I spent like six hours tracking this song, and I guess some people describe it as throat singing, and I think I might look into that because this thing was happening and I was like, “Is there a demon singing along with me?” But it felt like this ball of energy would come up through my chest and my teeth would chatter and as I was singing this would happen. It was the craziest experience of my life. I don’t know, I can’t describe it. And that’s just my voice, I don’t know.
What do you think is rock n’ roll’s place in the music industry right now and continuing on into the future?
Neil Young said, “Hey hey, my my, rock n’ roll will never die.” And I believe that. Just like anything, there’s an ebb and flow, and there’s been a change. I think that rock n’ roll will never phase out and it’s here to stay. I think that it can go through changes and that’s okay, just like anything in the world. But I’m sick of dance music and I’m ready for real rock n roll. I see a lot of young people coming up– I mean, I don’t know if you know who Starcrawler is, but she is like the embodiment of young fucking filthy rock n’ roll and she’s just cool. And so I see something like that ten years younger than me and I’m like, “Okay, I feel good.” And because I have my foot in so many different genres of music, I feel like I have a cool insight into things and I don’t know, rock n’ roll’s not going anywhere and as long as I’m alive I’m always gonna make rock n’ roll and I’m always gonna be rowdy. But I do wish there were more real live bands. You know, I mean I listen to fuckin’ Bad Company like that’s rock n roll. Allman Brothers are rock n’ roll. AC/DC is rock n’ roll. So, that’s what I feel about that. I shouldn’t talk shit, but there’s a lot of bullshit out there that’s not real rock n’ roll and that’s how I feel about that.
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