Marcus King Gets in the Mood

The Nashville singer, songwriter and guitarist talks plunging into the depths of his own vulnerability, becoming more intentional with his beloved six-string and decamping to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio to make his latest solo album, Mood Swings.

Music Features Marcus King
Marcus King Gets in the Mood

From 2013 through 2019, Greenville, South Carolina-born singer, songwriter and guitarist Marcus King developed a reputation for being one of the best millennial pickers alive—and his work with his epnoynmously titled band (and their three studio albums) made him a bit of a rock prodigy nearly a decade ago, long after he first became his father Marvin’s sideman before even reaching high school. But, even though King has left the orbit of folks like his mentor Warren Haynes and won a few Grammy Awards, he’s managed to find some really endearing, uncharted personal successes across the releases of his three solo albums since 2020. With his longtime collaborators Chris Spies and Mike Runyon in the stable, King descended upon Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California to make a record with Cory Henry, Jason Lader, Kevin Scott, Isaiah Gage, Benny Bock, Aaron Paris, Daphne Chen and others.

The marquee detail about Mood Swings is that King recorded it with Rubin, whose resumé speaks for itself—as he came to prominence for being a force behind the early golden age of hip-hop nearly 40 years ago and has since cut his teeth on rock music, especially the Strokes’ The New Abnormal, Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s World Record and Gossip’s Real Power. Rubin has dabbled in blues and soul-inspired worlds before, but not since he helmed the boards and vibes on Jake Bugg’s Shangri La in 2013 has that artifice really stuck out so intentionally. King’s entry into Rubin’s catalog is one that makes sense on paper and, once “Cadillac” rings out at the conclusion of Mood Swings, in practice.

As is the case with much of Rubin’s production work, there is no real tangible evidence of his input of the album—at least not to a casual ear. His style is much more introspective and indescribable, and the work he does with each artist is tailor-made to benefit that specific musician rather than his stable of collaborators at-large. “Rick is more than just a producer,” King says. “He’s a fan of music and he’s in awe of artists and he wants to be a champion for artists in any way that he can. Everybody looks to him as a source of inspiration, and it felt really divine that he would step in at the time that he did for me to do this album. And it feels like my truest work so far, because he has a way of truly helping artists go deeper than they’d ever gone before and just be completely true to themselves and not create something we think would be successful, but something that would be successful because I was truly pleased with it and I got something off of my chest.”

On his past two solo albums—El Dorado and Young Blood—King worked closely with Black Keys co-founder and Easy Eye Sound-honcho Dan Auerbach. The music they made together in Nashville between 2019 and 2022 is, as King calls it, “effectively prescribed to the efficient nature” that the city’s music scene is built upon—a city King now calls home himself. Auerbach—and the late bassist Dave Roe—introduced him to the exercise of making “writing charts,” a post-demo phase enlistment meant to foster collaboration and ingenuity. “Everybody looked at the chord chart and they’d write a part in their head and then we’d all go in and lay it down together,” King explains. The quality of the musicians, the quality of the instrumentation and the gear and the studio and sound of the studio—you walk back in and play it back and it sounds like the finished product already. It was almost like seeing Henry Ford’s assembly line for the time, working with Dan in that regard.” King, even when he welcomes bands and singers into his own studio space at home in Tennessee, finds himself borrowing from that readied adaptability Auerbach effortlessly flaunts. On the flip-side, Rubin is less concerned about the clock. King believes he falls someplace in the middle of the two producers’ spectrum.

While working in California, King would put on Mastodon’s Leviathan and go for jogs down the Pacific Coast Highway, only to take a dip in the ocean and return to Shangri-La to write and, in his words, “dig deep.” While he was working on Mood Swings, producers Skrillex and Rex Kudo were also in-town doing sessions on the property; watching them experiment with their own projects inspired King to “create and be truthful with it.” The Mood Swings timeline is a broad one, as half of the music was composed in the wake of a pandemic breakup King went through. However, the other half came to life in the midst of him falling in love again. “My third date with my now-wife was out there,” King laughs. Likewise, Mood Swings offers a warm balance of daunting, cathartic reflection, getting back on the wagon with a newfound hope and a title that succinctly echoes King’s own personal metamorphosis while making it. When it was all said and done, the album took two years to finish. “It took as long as it needed to take,” King posits, speaking with noticeable excitement.

Mood Swings is a guitar record—all Marcus King albums will be—but it’s not a guitar-focused record. He’s been pigeonholed as a bluesman and as a jammer for the majority of his time spent on-stage over the last 11 years (“I’ve never done a blues record,” he protests), but his third solo outing was a subconscious effort to pull himself out of typecasts—especially at a time when guitar rock is not so immediately at the center of popular music culture. “It felt really organic, the way it happened,” King says, assuredly. “The music just didn’t lend itself to gratuitous guitar-soloing. It wasn’t the medium that I was using to emote the emotion, lyrically and melodically.” Whenever a guitar solo does happen on Mood Swings, each breakaway is crafted to uniquely benefit the song—the days of King shredding for the sake of finding a cheap thrill in the moment are behind him, at least for now. “Live, I still play,” he continues. “It’s such a wonderful way to achieve some transcendental emotiveness. It’s great.”

Rubin’s guidance was crucial in that sense, too. “He knows how important guitar is to me and what a huge pillar of my life it is and what an emotive instrument it can be for me to really speak truthfully through,” King says. In turn, the guitar is not a lifeline on Mood Swings but an ornate, flourishing addition used to better emphasize the soaring, sensual and soulful heights of the organs, keys, bass and walloping percussion across the 11 songs. “We knew my abilities were there, so we focused on other sections,” King continues. “And when the guitar was introduced, it was, for lack of a better term, just icing on the cake.” During the post-production sessions for the album, King and Rubin wanted every song to stand on its own and be structurally sound from the lyrical content and melodic construction alone. “Anything, guitar included, added on top of that was fun and decoration,” King concludes.

On Mood Swings, King takes his voice to new places. Never before, even across El Dorado and Young Blood, has he sounded so comfortable in his own vocal range. Take a track like “Hero,” which was co-written with Auerbach one afternoon in Nashville and features a freewheeling, cool-breeze acoustic lead at the melody’s center-stage: “I was just dropping by [Easy Eye Sound] to say ‘hey’ and pick up something I’d left at a session,” King says. “We ended up at the kitchen table writing [‘Hero’]. It was one of those divine moments, and the melody in that song is just so beautiful to me. That’s the power of Dan Auerbach—he’s got so many wonderful melodies in his hand, and I decided that the guitar should, in a way, pay homage to that beautiful melody, but with a different spin on it.” Such an affection for a song’s core harkens back to something King picked up from his grandfather: “He was a really big believer in, if you’re going to improvise over a song, what better place to start than the melody?” King pauses for a moment. “Unless the melody’s no good.”

It’s clear that King was really feeling the power of his own vocals on this album, as a confidence erupts in the heart-and-soul centerpiece of Mood Swings: “Delilah,” a piano ballad that’s rough around the edges yet tectonic in its passion. Like the rollicking, grooved-out “Fuck My Life Up Again,” it was a track that King had been testing out on the road months before the album’s release last Friday, and it’s a special song for him—in that it was the product of his first-ever co-writing session with another musician (who King keeps nameless in our conversation). (“Dan taught me how to co-write, as it were,” he mentions. “I learned that side of the game, at least how it’s done in Nashville, and he educated me on that.”) “To me, writing—or having any kind of musical relationship with someone—is the second-most intimate relationship [you can have], aside from your partner and your therapist,” he says. “You either have that chemistry or you don’t and, with this particular partner, we really didn’t hit it off.” After humming around about whether they should write a song or just go get lunch, they came up with the “Delilah” melody and the rest was history.

“We’ve all been on a date where the conversation was no good, but the physical attraction was very great,” King says. “The passion was there, and it created something beautiful—even if it was just a one-time thing, it’s something that you look back and remember, because it created something great, maybe if it’s only a memory. [‘Delilah’] was just such a classic [Jack] Kerouac or [Ken] Kesey kind of American tale. It just so honestly describes how it feels to have somebody waiting for you at home.”

The vocal take we hear on “Delilah” is the first take King tracked—and it was the first time in his career that he ever played piano and sang at the same time in-studio. While he wanted to overdub a few parts, Rubin said no—a move evident in the nurturing strings and swaying country soul singing on “Bipolar Love.” “Cory Henry was on the other side of the glass playing a Hammond,” he says. “To anybody who knows of Cory Henry and what a profound and prolific pianist and organist that he is, it was really intimidating. But there was something captured there that Rick really loved and, in hindsight, I’m really glad that we went that route. That organic, undersaturated approach can be found all across the album, in places where King is insistent that he probably could have sung the lines better. But there’s a vulnerability alive and thriving in those spots, and the truthfulness of each syllable and emotion are captured right onto the record King and Rubin delivered to us last week. “When I listen back to it now,” King says, “I try to listen within those ideas.”

What works for me, time and time again, about Mood Swings is how, for the first time, it seems like King is finally allowing himself to be the voice at the center of the whole operation after years of affixing his name to projects that didn’t really radiate any personal resonance above the surface. He wrote the entire album on the piano, which widened the spectrum of spirits he could conjure. And yet, the writing is plain-spoken but earnest; the instrumentation is its own paradox of talent-encumbered sprawls and a rich meticulousness. The sound is retro, beckoning parallels of soul, R&B, blues, funk and singer-songwriter (there’s a fun Linda Ronstadt nod on “Cadillac” that real heads might stumble upon). But really, Mood Swings is a rock record that tries on a lot of clothes but decides that each article fits. Not many albums in recent memory have sounded so assured in that regard, and you can chalk that up to being a product of Rubin and King’s collaboration.

“What we talked about was allowing there to be some kind of a modern component, because the instrumentation and the style of music I do is, for lack of a better term, a little throwback,” King says. “I didn’t know what that could be, but [Rubin] suggested that my lyrics were a modern-enough component.” It’s true, as Mood Swings—while it has an aim that sporadically lands on themes of heartbreak and romantic endings—is an album King wrote about his dust-ups with mental illness. “The term bipolar [disorder] didn’t come around until recently, and speaking non-metaphorically and talking about things just as they are—I’ve always used this as content for writing, but never this directly,” he continues, before pointing to Gadsby and Ernest Vincent Wright’s writing without using the letter E as a parallel to the kinds of soul-expanding challenges he learned from Rubin. “Rick really helped me lean into that. My writing has been tremendously influenced by the depth that he allowed me to reach on this album, and the vulnerability and truthfulness that he helped me to capture.”

Mood Swings bursts during its title-track, when King sings, “I know it ain’t fair to you, shit that I put you through. My condition is no excuse.” Aside from the use of a very entrancing Rhythm Ace R77 drum machine, the song prescribes to a very honest kind of reckoning, and King follows that muse throughout the album—especially on “Save Me” and “Bipolar Love.” He has said in the past that music is something that tends to him, to us. That Mood Swings came together during quarantine, there’s a real sobering, no-turning-back level of truth radiating through the album. And King is using his past mistakes to be more appreciative of the love that has come to him since he made Young Blood.

And it wasn’t until during Grammys week, long after Mood Swings was finished, that King saw everything make complete sense upon his return to Los Angeles, in a cosmic happenstance at the hotel he was staying at in town. “I was struck, because I got the same room where I wrote the ‘last thing I remember was you slamming the door in my face’ lyric in ‘Bipolar Love,’” he explains. “It felt like such a full-circle, ‘this is where I’m meant to be’ moment—to be back in that same room and in a much different place and to be in love and to feel like I got something off my chest.”

For the first time, King isn’t hiding behind the ferocity or sticky-sweetness of his trusted guitar. On “Me or Tennessee,” King opens about getting his medication dosage correct and experimenting with meditation. It’s still—oddly—taboo for musicians to be so forthright about mental health, especially in rock ‘n’ roll of, really, any type of genre that is fronted by men, except for blues and soul music. “This world is built around partying,” King says. “But this can’t be the first generation to have felt the Sunday Scaries and to have anxiety—at least from the partying the night before, let alone anxiety in general.” There’s a good chance—or, at least, I hope there’s a good chance—that Mood Swings becomes the kind of record that inspires more conversations around mental illness in male-dominated music. Given how the industry rarely ever clamors to that part of the human condition, at least in the mainstream, a once-hesitant King has now found empowerment and tranquility in the company he keeps and the stories he’s trying to make sense of before our very eyes and ears.

“The music, the subject matter all seemed to fall together as it needed to—and we allowed the music to be what it wanted to be,” he says. “I really did want to encourage people to speak more openly and unashamed about their mental health. I was, for a long time, repressing my true emotions, because I felt like I would be judged or I’d be taken advantage of or I’d be not taken seriously within my field. But it’s one of the things we started talking about openly and you realize how many other people are afflicted by it. It’s what it is, and I feel like anxiety is the new rock ‘n’ roll—we all have it.”

Watch Marcus King’s Paste Studio Session at the Manhattan Center in 2019 below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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