In an industry where artists are often manufactured, worked to the bone, and lyrics are bought and auto-tuned, Elle King is the exception. Her notorious path to success, marked by her ubiquitous single X’s and O’s, wasn’t an easy one, but it led her to create her most cathartic work to date, her sophomore album: Shake The Spirit. With thirteen self-written, soul-quenching songs, Elle King explains the year she almost lost her mind. “How do I sum up ‘The year I lost my fucking mind’ in an album title?’” she says. “Because that’s really what this record is about…” Her new album reveals a raw portrait of an artist on the edge, sharing her pain, heartache and humor with a touching venerability and the swagger of a spitfire.
Indira Cesarine from The Untitled Magazine caught up with King for an exclusive interview which touches on the importance of talking truth in lyrics, how her life falling apart was a driving force in her creative process, and how “shaking her spirit” helped her navigate her journey.
Indira Cesarine: You’ve been on a massive journey since your debut album came out! You have had two Grammy nominations, a double platinum album and your track “Ex’s & Oh’s” blew up the air waves for ages… That must have been quite a roller coaster for you. How did you manage to balance your new circumstances while continuing to perform and tour?
Elle King: I think that if you are skyrocketed to any sort of fame it can be overwhelming. But even if it’s something that you want, there’s no real true way to prepare for all that. I never got into music to be famous, I wanted to get into bars when I was 16 so that’s why I started. But when you put out a record and you’re signed to a major label that’s also what you want to happen. You want your song to be everywhere! I didn’t have any expectations, and I didn’t know what it was gonna do. It also took a year for “X’s and O’s” to do what it did, so the only thing that was super rewarding was that for a whole year I was really trying to get it all over the place, and then I left the country for tour and came back and it was just everywhere! So it really just smacked me in the face almost. That was a little much. But it wasn’t the fame. It was truly… I had management that really just worked me to the bone. And that what kinda started to make me go crazy because there weren’t a lot of people thinking about my health, or if I was sleeping, or eating, and I was really struggling with all of that. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t healthy and so it started to chip away at my sanity and I was starting to lose it a little bit, but I kept working through it…..There is some truth to [the fact that] this is how you get your song to be everywhere. You don’t say no when you’re starting out and you don’t think about your personal time or personal space, and in some way, that fueled the success that “X’s and O’s” has.
I understand that while you were on the road and constantly performing things started to get a bit reckless? You were on an insane schedule and partying a lot…
Yeah, I was. But at the time I was younger. I could handle it. You don’t even think about what catches up with you after, or the long-term effects of partying on your brain and your sanity, and how you can lose yourself in it a little bit. I drank a bottle of Jameson a night, and that’s how I had to go to be on stage because I was so anxious. I didn’t know that I could go on stage and not only perform better and enjoy myself but also have more energy by not doing that. I feel like yeah, I had a crazy few years, but I feel like if you don’t take time to reflect on it you’ll be lost your whole life. I’m learning so much about myself and where I’m at now. I’ve been through a lot of bullshit, but I don’t think I’d change anything because it has made me strong and it’s my duty to talk about these things. I know there are people in the world that have felt how I felt and it’s cool to have honest and open conversations about people and their real life.
I’ve never considered myself a celebrity and I grew up around it. I just never saw myself as that. I see myself as someone who got let in and my face is out there, and so I don’t really have any gage on that, but I have a cool platform and I can talk about things. A lot of people see celebrities as just characters but people have real lives and real struggles. I’ve always been interested in hearing people’s real-life stories and what they go through and where their music comes from. This is my opportunity to share these stories behind my songs and the things I went through to make it. A lot of my story has to do with everything that happened about “X’s and O’s.” It really changed my life in a very drastic and dramatic way, very quickly.
The songs come from a very personal place. It feels like we’re reading your diary. What’s the background of the title of the album, “Shake The Spirit”?
We recorded in Texas, and I felt that I had found this really really safe place, so I played music nonstop. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t do anything. I was always in the live room playing, writing, singing. This incredible thing would happen when I was singing and it felt like I would physically shake, and I had this ball of energy, and it would come up and my teeth would chatter and my whole body would shake. I think about that, and fast-forward after the album’s done, thinking about everything that I had been through and how we were going to sum up this crazy story. I had to shake my spirit out of the darkness in a way, singing these songs. I mean I was physically shaking, and I do truly believe that it got me through to the next place that I am in now in my life. I had to shake my spirit free of that, and it was really fitting and told my story pretty well.
And you secretly got married to a guy you had only met a few weeks before while all of this was going on? The story of your relationship seems to reveal itself in many of the songs on the album…
My marriage and my divorce, that was huge. It consumed my life. When my marriage had started to fall apart last year, a couple months went by while I was trying so hard to keep my life and marriage together and everything went crumbling, and they’re like, “you gotta make a record!” And I’m like, I don’t know how I’m gonna do this, but I have to get back to work and make an album. It had been three years since my last album. I don’t think I could’ve gotten a better blessing because, at the end of the day, I started writing music at 11 years old because I felt emotions inside, and I didn’t know what to do about them, so I wrote music. When this opportunity came up, it was an amazing gift.
I’m so lucky that I have my band. They are my best friends and family and they’ve supported me and they knew I was really lost as a person when this whole thing came about. They kept me writing and gave me company and they pushed me. Anytime I had a weird idea they explored it, and it coincided with my life falling apart, but it was a driving force. It kept me going. And every time I would write a song I would feel better or learn more about myself, and so I literally made a record as all of these rough things were going on in my life. They are really open an honest, but it’s more than telling a story. I was going through it and I had to make a record at the same time. Am I supposed to not put them out cause they’re so personal? Or, do I say fuck it I don’t care if people think its too open because I don’t make music for other people, I make music for me and my soul and my spirit, I just happen to be on a major label? And so I’m open to possible criticism.
I don’t think its too personal. Yeah at the end of the day, it is coming from a real place that reflects honesty. But I think it’s great as a musician that you can touch on things that are really happening to you.
Thank you. I really try not to read reviews, but there’s also an excitement about it. You’ve worked on this for 18 months. Some guy wrote a review that said [my album] was “impersonal.” I was like… You’re out of your mind! I couldn’t believe that…
Your album is so honest and true. It’s so touching… There’s a lot of lyrics that I feel like I’m listening to your diary. Like the lyrics on “A Man’s Man”…“It only took three weeks to hustle me into being your wife...You called me cryin’ scared in jail…Hard man is terrified beggin’ me to pay his bail..” It’s pretty clear who you were talking about! And listening to those lyrics, I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about this, but I understand your husband was arrested for domestic violence as well while you guys were together?
I don’t wanna get too into it, but I’m pretty clear I’m not making up stories! Everything I’m saying is true. That’s my way to process something traumatic I went through. I won’t talk about it too much because I talk about it in the album. I don’t think you need to do a lot of reading between the lines, [lyrics] are pretty straightforward!
In songs like “Good Things Gone,” your voice is so heartfelt…
I guess this is goodbye to you and I
You couldn’t put down that last drink
What a shame
Another good thing gone
These things were happening as you were writing, and then you were getting a divorce and everything else. How did you navigate that while also working?
I didn’t know how to do it. The only thing in my life ever that has really helped me is music. It’s a cathartic outlet for me. That was a really hard song. I cried and I was like, I can’t sing it again, I’m sorry… and I have to leave. I wrote that song, so it’s a really hard song to do in a studio, but I’m very proud of the song and where I am now. I’m very happy and healthy so I can enjoy and love that song for what it is and how it helped me.
And now that we are on the subject, I think it’s also important for me to talk about how I just want to empower other women, children, men, women in relationships, people who have been in traumatic relationships, mentally abusive relationships, everything. I just wanna show people that you don’t have to be stuck on something, you can get yourself out, and it’s just so important for everyone to know and see that someone was in a really bad place in their life, and now I think that’s why I talk about it. I’m like, look, I was such a mess! And I thought it was gonna destroy my life! And I didn’t know if I could be okay outside of that, and I am, I’m better.
I’m doing the best I’ve ever done in my life and I just want to show people that you can get yourself out of a place, be a stronger version of yourself and that you can become the best version of yourself. It takes work but that’s why I want to show that. I put all of my praying in something and look how the world is responding to me! No judgment. Love and kindness. People have been gentle. The more open you are, the more open and honest conversations you’ll have, and if people can’t handle it they’re not true friends.
Through all of this, the people who showed up for me, it was few and far between than the friends I thought that I had, because my life was messy and the people who showed up, I mean I can count my true dear friends in less than both of my hands. The fact that I have that many is incredible. It just goes to show you that the world is kind, and the world will be there for you even though it doesn’t seem like it. It’s up to you whether you focus on that.
I feel like your final track “A Little Bit of Lovin’” really touches on that sense of survival. We really can feel you come full circle when you sing that song. It’s really great a track to end the album. Your track “sober” addresses your struggle with substance abuse. Can you tell me about it? I understand you were in rehab and you left before you were completely well?
I was really struggling. It’s uncomfortable for me to talk about this but I think it’s important. I really was dealing with emotions that were big heavy feelings and I just numbed myself because I wasn’t okay, and I wasn’t in a good enough headspace for me to take on those emotions, so I just numbed myself and I drank and I drank, so I was not sober when I recorded that song, but I was dreaming of the day that I could be. That’s a dreamy song about looking into the future and hoping. Nobody pressured me. People met me where I was at. I told everyone, “I know I’m a mess, let me get this album out of my system and I’ll get it together!”
I said that until one day I believed it, and pulled my head out of my own ass, and put my life back together. I’m so much better than I thought that I could be, and I’m really happy and healthy, and I just think of the person I was last year and the years before that. I was just really sad and I was working for approval and love, and I had no idea that all of the things that I would have wanted from my life could come from within me, and my own perspective, my own thinking, my own self-love. once I started to work on that, it’s a long battle, but I just started to see all the good things that came from that. If you’re rewarded from that, how can you go back? I just wanna show people that happiness starts from within you. It’s not outwardly and it doesn’t come from the love of another person, which I thought for a long time. “I’ll be happy if these people will love me,” and all that bullshit that’s not true. And you’ll never be able to find true love or true happiness unless it comes from within you. That was the biggest and best lesson I learned.
You really touch on things that are very personal in an inspiring way. I would imagine over the past three years with all the trauma, there must have also been some incredible highlights? You performed for President Obama along with quite a few other massive achievements.
I got to sing a song with Dolly Parton and that’s probably one of my greatest highlights. Singing for Obama was the best thing ever and that was something that shows hard work does pay off and can get you in front of heroes and people you respect. That was a true honor.
What can we look forward from you?
I’m currently on tour and we are hoping to plan more dates for 2019. All I can say is, people who come to the shows can expect the best version of Elle and the best live show that they have ever seen!