It’s a moral conundrum particular to our media-savvy era—what happens when your public, online-enhanced persona begins to outshine, even commandeer your private life? What happens when your avatar takes over, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the process? Grammy-nominated old-school rocker Elle King can clearly describe that surreal transition, which overtook her last year, at the height her breaking-artist success. As she releases her hard-won—and boldly confessional sophomore set Shake the Spirit, she shivers recalling her condition only a year ago while struggling to complete it. “I was pretty down and out then,” she sighs. “My skin was gray, I’d lost 70 pounds, I was doing hard drugs by myself, I was just a fucking lost person. So truly, this record and its whole process saved my life and made me a much better person. And—as uncomfortable as it all is—it’s important for me to be open about everything.”
The signs were all there from Day One for King, 29, the charismatic daughter of comedian Rob Schneider and model London King. In the same way a small forest animal puffs up its fur to appear larger to potential predators, she had carefully crafted a swashbuckling, larger-than-life profile for herself that was equal parts come-hither Mae West, hard-partying Janis Joplin, and Sigourney Weaver’s take-no-prisoners Ripley protagonist from those Alien movies, with a little Bell Starr firepower sparking just beneath the surface. Her first eponymous 2012 EP for RCA, for instance, featured a risqué concert-culled ode to cunnilingus called “My Neck, My Back” that she announces with the caveat, “If you don’t want to hear a filthy song, get the fuck out please.” She found out early that trashy double-entendre wordplay really suits her scratchy, Bessie Smith-evocative singing voice, and her rollicking 2015 debut Love Stuff wasted no time in doubling down on that sketchy image, much to fans’ delight.
The disc opens with a stomping “Where the Devil Don’t Go,” wherein King brags that there’s a certain part if hell reserved just fir her, too foreboding for Old Scratch himself. Then it jumps right into the hip-shaking—and twice Grammy-nominated—“Ex’s and Oh’s,” which runs down a lengthy roster of former beaus, all of them discarded like old candy wrappers. It doesn’t offer any hang-with-my-friends Spice Girls proviso—it basically promises the prospective suitor one thing alone: Step in the dating ring with King, no quarter will be given, and it most assuredly will end badly for you, so stop mewling about it already. It’s a cold-hearted sentiment King reprises in several movie-soundtrack cuts, like “Good Girls” from the recent Ghostbusters reboot, with its “I do what the good girls don’t” chorus. But perhaps her ultimate bravado can be found in Love Stuff’s anthemic, banjo-augmented singalong “I think I’m pretty with these old boots on/ I think it’s funny when I drink too much/ You try to change me you can go to hell/ ’Cause I don’t wanna be nobody else…What you want from me?/ I’m not America’s sweetheart/ But you love me anyway.” It’s as much of a warning as a clarion-call celebration, and—as you hear a huge crowd chant along in an anvil chorus—proof positive that this gal is a true rock star just waiting to happen. One of the first in a long, long time.
But this, then is the literary Elle King that gradually began to eclipse the corporeal King. To audiences, the toughest lynx in the woods, but beneath that fluffed hair, one shivering little naked mole rat, with no self-confidence left to call her own? How did this happen in such a brief time span? Maybe it all started with her secret two-year marriage to a Brit, nuptials she even kept from her parents, one which wallowed in mutual dissolution and naturally ended on the rocks.
King had virtually materialized out of nowhere with the unique folk-Gospel-R&B-punk-pop melding of Love Stuff. But actually, it was a long time coming—she was’t a Hollywood brat, either. Once her parents divorced, sho grew up in Ohio with her mom and stepdad, who gave her full investigative access to his extensive rock ’n’ roll collection. “So I was only one or 10 years old, but I was getting AC/DC pumped into my veins daily,” she chuckles. At first, acting seemed like her thing—she appeared with Schneider in his campy Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo—but by 13 she’d learned guitar and banjo, and become fascinated with trailblazing all-girl Bay Area outfit The Donnas. She moved all over the world—Copenhagen, London, New York, Los Angeles—found work in a tattoo parlor, enabling her own growing ink collection. By 16, she was gigging—even busking—around the Big Apple, where she was discovered, then signed, by RCA’s new honcho Peter Edge, who quickly issued her first snarky #metoo-movement-presaging single “Good to Be a Man”; The Elle King EP followed two months later. Along the way, she’d developed her own sartorial style, revolving around vintage babydoll dresses, scuffed cowboy boots, and Nudie-classic fringed Western wear. Think Patsy Cline attending her first GBH concert for a visual reference. And although she hailed from up North, King was delighted to embrace her inner trailer trashiness—it only enhanced her rough-and-tumble songwriting. When she sang about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—and other seedy topics—you couldn’t help but believe her.
Then the artist met Scotsman Andrew Ferguson in Britain in January of 2016, and married him three weeks later, to the day. “And I don’t think either of us were in a particularly healthy place,” she allows, sparingly. “I don’t want to go too much into anything about him. So it was a really crazy experience, and I’m not pointing fingers—I was not a walk in the park to be married to, so two unhealthy people cannot make a healthy relationship.” King discusses all of this with refreshing candor—bravely, she will answer any questions on the subject, including the pressure she suddenly felt when RCA came knocking about a Stuff followup. Too nervous to visit label offices, she arranged one dinner meeting instead, where she partially came clean about what was going on, she says. “I was in a really destructive place, and my marriage fell apart, and I was scrambling, totally snowballing quickly to rock bottom,” she says. “I’d abandoned my New York apartment and I never went back, and I rented a house in L.A. and just holed myself up there. I was totally crazy and manic and I ordered three pianos one day and just locked myself in my house. And one of my bandmates would fly out every two weeks just to make sure I had food.”
It wasn’t as bad as Goldie Hawn’s cupboard full of cake frosting tubs, but it was close. “I was eating a lot of Hula Hoops,” she admits. “And by the time I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was in a place where I was completely out of control, and I didn’t know what was happening to me. So I—thank God—got help, and music has helped me a lot with that. So I was literally trying to make the record while I was spinning out of control, and also getting help for PTSD and dealing with a lot of other personal issues that were going on.”
King’s backing band The Brethren was more than understanding. Members clocked in with her every week or so to help her navigate her way through confessional new material like current single “Shame,” a Peggy-Lee-smoky blues stroll where she dubs herself a “Devil woman” and promises a sinful love that’s almost vampiric: “You can live forever babe/ Walk with me in the shadows.” Shake the Spirit boasts some incredibly dark sentiment (it’s probably best that fans don’t know exactly what the sleazy “Man’s Man” is about, ditto for “It Girl”). But musically and thematically it picks up right where the last album left off, with King galloping through town like Annie Oakley, firing her pistols just for the fucking hell of it (the doo-wop inflected “Talk of the Town,” the Bic-flicking power ballad “Runaway,” a Morricone-exotic Baby Outlaw,” and her sneering putdown of soulless “Naturally Pretty Girls,” simultaneously the most pop moment of the proceedings. Aptly enough, King is featured on the cover enrobed like some cult’s high priestess, arms outstretched in hypnotic spell-casting mode. She’s either an exotic dancer who just stumbled into the wrong room or a genuine witchy woman who has already put a spell on you. It’s just too late to fight. You are under the power of Elle King, just as she intended.
Coming out of her tailspin, King—who recently reconnected with Schneider after some time apart—at first felt like the underdog. She thinks she experienced the stages of grief, one by soul-searing one. “But I came out of it having a lot more strength, knowing myself a lot more,” she says. “And when I started being kinder to myself, it made me start being kind to other people who had hurt me. And I got back a lot of confidence—even if it starts small, you have to build it up from somewhere, because I really thought that my whole spirit was totally broken.”
So—for those keeping score—here’s where this firebrand stands in 2018, per the hard-hitting Spirit material. On “Baby Outlaw,” she defiantly declares, “Pity the man that stands in my way/ I’m a nightmare even in the day…You know I ain’t evil/ But I ain’t a saint.” Elsewhere: “In middle school I wasn’t very cool but/ Slutty girls taught me the Golden Rule/ To be a hit, it’s all in the wrist (“It Girl”); “”Well, my love was pure/ But I made an awful wife/ ’Cause my husband was dumb/ And I was just lazy…I still got a little bit of lovin’ left in me/ But I don’t lookin’ for no extra crazy” (“Little Bit of Lovin’”); “Well this wine looks lonely on the shelf/ Well it won’t drink itself and I’m sober/ I’m even wrong when I’m right” (“Sober”); “No hands will hold me/ I’ll always be lonely/ Is there someone out there who can break/ This habit of going/ There’s no way of knowing” (“Runaway”). Bless her, Father, for she has sinned. But she has no qualms about sharing her confessions with all of her open-minded listeners, not just some sequestered clergy. Which is one more reason to love the affable, tragic-to-a-fault King—she’s long since sped past the point of PC propriety, and she simply does not care.
Does King, at 29, understand the separation of avatar church and state? That the more your persona swaggers and brags, the greater chance you’ll have of a stranger calling your bluff somewhere down the line? She guffaws, loud and raucous. “I had to force myself to come back to the badass that I believe that I am,” she concludes. “Truthfully, I can hold my own in a ton of situations. But I had to fight to take back that power in my life.”