When Elle King and Variety last met, the Los Angeles-born-and-bred singing, songwriting, banjo-playing shouter had just commenced a 2018 tour for the (then) recently released “Shake the Spirit” album.
While King’s rough, poppy debut album, 2015’s “Love Stuff” and its top 10 single “Ex’s & Oh’s,” earned her two Grammy nominations, her ragged voice and raging spirit, by 2018, was much like that of Janis Joplin — explosive, outspoken, life-sponging. By the time of “Shake the Spirit,” King’s music was filled with elements of punkish country, rough soul and deep blues, with lyrics confessional, caustic and something of a cautionary tale-waiting-to-happen.
To hear King tell it now, she was at the frazzled and frayed end of a very long burning-at-both-ends candle. With that, “Elle King: In Isolation” — out July 10, her first new music release since 2018 — finds the wrenching emotive singer still haughty and bawdy, yet clean-and-sober and vulnerable, caught-unawares of the fear of quarantine, and everything it entails. As far as recording at home and straight, King’s new music is deeper, rawer, yet even more empowered than in her past.
The last time Variety looked in on you, you were acting as a minister and marrying couples, having your own marriage and divorce issues, reconnecting with your dad (“SNL” comedian Rob Schneider), and starting a tour for your sophomore album. You’ve always spoken prominently of love, family and men in your music and in interviews. Where are you now with that stuff?
The beauty of love is being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. Love doesn’t always go as planned, but everything’s a lesson. Looking back on so many of my relationships, I’m, like, “Thank God, I’m not with that person,” and “Thank you, asshole, for teaching me about what I didn’t want.” Now, I’m happily in love with someone I met unexpectedly — we’re together 10 months. The best thing was I had time to work on myself and be alone before this, build on the idea of self-love. RuPaul says it best, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Words of the prophet.
I’m in my 30s now. I had to work on self-reflection so that I could bring a whole person — happy, healthy, respectful — to relationships. You should always take any opportunity to look at yourself and see why people are in your life — are they bringing out the best qualities in you? I’m finally in that. I’m OK to be alone, and didn’t have to go on social media to meet someone to fill that hole. We have to fill our own hole. That speaks to the progress I have made as a human being.
You’ve done a lot of repairing and all in quarantine at home?
I’m getting along with my family. Things are great between my father and I. I’m happily in love. I’m moving — hauling ass and getting the f–k out of Los Angeles for Santa Fe — I’m in forward motion. I had a birthday a week ago. And it was a sober birthday; getting high on my own life. I’m doing a sober summer, and looking at everything I put into my body, whether it’s food or sugar. I’m trying everything I can, because, what I was doing wasn’t working.
Everything positive, fresh and clear that you’re embracing: how did that figure into “The Let Go” and the rest of the “Isolation” EP?
A crazy thing happened to our planet. Whether you look at it as an individual or as part of the global community, the same thing happened to all of us. I took this as an opportunity… I want to choose my words carefully…. even in my own life, everything f–d-up thing has happened for a reason. For the past 15 years, I never spent so much consecutive time at home, in one place. I mean, I love my dogs and have had them for 10 years, but, I’ve never spent this much time with them. I’m used to long-distance relationships, but this time, my boyfriend came into quarantine with me. When I went to see my dad on Father’s Day, even he recognized that this was the most time I spent with one person — and I was once married.
If I’m being transparent, I was frightened by isolation. I thought it was taking its toll on me. But I had to be my own superhero, and ask: “How do I want to be when I come out of this? What are we going to shed, better ourselves, further myself as a musician, lover, daughter, aunt?” So, I just wrote. I took guitar lessons. I pushed myself. I want to change. I crave change. Thinking of “The Let Go,” it’s interesting because when the idea first popped into my head… yeah, sure, I could write it as another relationship song, but why not sing about releasing all things that are poisonous? That are put on me throughout my life, from society, growing up? So many times, I thought that I had to put things in my body to open my mind and stretch my antennae further. I didn’t realize that all that was doing was putting a f–ing sheath over it…. I’m proud to put out a song like “The Let Go” because I’m releasing things that have kept me stuck.
As frank as you have been about your life — drugs, drink, men — considering the clarity and sobriety you have now, do you wish you had not said quite as much?
I’m honest, always was, and proud of it. Besides, anyone has the capacity for change. “Sorry” only means something if you truly make a change. If I think about partying really really hard, I didn’t realize I was hurting. I respect people more when they’re open and honest. I had a duty and a platform to share and be open. The more you talk about things, the less you carry with you. Now, should I have not shared every f–ing detail? 100%. However, that’s who I am. How beautiful is it be honest — that I went through s–, pulled myself out, and that you can, too. Everyone’s stages of how they get out look different. My chapter of getting f–d-up was a pretty long one. With “Shake the Spirit,” I was really struggling. I used an art form to get that out of me. That’s why the title — I was shaking all that s—t out of my life. I released it. That album’s a diary. If I need to reference that, it’s right there.
What’s the challenge of writing in a happier personal place? And in isolation? Were these songs written differently than songs in the past?
[Starting with] How do you live up to this personae of being a wild party girl? I’m still that girl. My definition of partying has changed. I didn’t need to put 30 things in my body to stay up. I’m still a total insomniac. When it comes to a song like “The Let-Go,” I just knocked it out. Fast. It’s very raw — this goes back to where I began, making sh–y recordings in a bathroom, in a closet, in my dorm room. The only thing that’s changed is that I have a baby grand piano in my living room. “Over Easy,” that’s another very emotional song. That was the first video song-write that I’ve ever done. So fun. Madi Diaz wrote it with me. We did it in less than an hour, and laughed the whole time we wrote it. That song is yet another nod to me loving country music, as well as the art of innuendo.
So: “In Isolation” is raw, from top to bottom.
Right. Even the cover is DIY. Look, I like the polished shiny s–t that’s well-crafted. But, this record isn’t that. It’s vulnerable and raw in every way. It’s full of beautiful imperfections that I have to be OK with, because I want to be OK with that.