A candid conversation with Elle King, a multi-Grammy nominee set to perform at House of Blues this week
Elle King, a multi-Grammy nominee and first-time mom, talks music, sobriety and confronting COVID-19
Unflinching candor is unusual in most interviews, let alone in response to a deliberately innocuous, breaking-the-ice opening question. But hard-rocking songwriter and band leader Elle King — whose take-it-to-the limit lyrics often reflect her take-no-prisoners approach to life — is an unusually candid exception.
The four-time Grammy Award nominee reinforced her reputation for honesty at the start of her late-January phone interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Asked why she had recently moved from New Mexico to Rhode Island, she unhesitatingly replied: “Well, I got knocked up!”
Later in the interview, King, 32, publicly disclosed for the first time that she had contracted COVID-19 during the Christmas holidays and that it had spread to at least one member of her family: her newborn son.
She gave birth to her first child — Lucky Levi Tooker — on Sept. 1.
Her fiancé, Dan Tooker, who is Lucky’s father, is a Boston area tattoo artist. The couple announced their engagement in late 2019. King’s entry into motherhood comes after her struggles with infertility and two miscarriages caused by polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that causes a hormonal imbalance.
“It was still a new relationship (with Dan) and we were doing the cross-country thing,” King said, elaborating on her move to Rhode Island.
“At the end of the day I travel for my work, and I support my partner. I am very proud of his business and of supporting his tattoo shop. We live near a major airport, so it’s easy for me to fly out for concert dates.”
Head to head with Eddie Vedder
King’s 29-city “Drunk and I Don’t Wanna Go Home Tour” — postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic — belatedly kicks off Tuesday at San Diego’s House of Blues. The tour takes its name from her chart-topping country hit with Miranda Lambert.
Asked if she knew that her tour-opening San Diego show coincides with a sold-out concert here the same night at The Magnolia by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and his new band, The Earthlings, King responded with a question of her own.
The former San Diegan is on a brief tour that stops Tuesday in El Cajon. His new album features his two teen daughters, plus Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr and Elton John.
“Are they at the exact same time?” she inquired. “Hmmm. Is this why our show is not sold out?”
Asked what her advice would be to a fan who had a ticket to both concerts, King paused for thought.
“Well, that’s a really tough one,” she acknowledged. “There would be no grounds for me to say: ‘Come to my concert over his’.”
“OK,” King said. “I’ll put it like this: I don’t think he’ll have any banjo in his show. So if you’re looking to hear some tweedle-de-dees on a banjo, you’ll find it at my show. If not, you’re welcome to go to his!”
Her banjo-playing notwithstanding, King is not a country-music artist, even though she has collaborated on chart-topping country radio hits with Dierks Bentley (2016’s “Different for Girls”) and Miranda Lambert (2021’s “Drunk and I Don’t Wanna Go Home”).
In addition to her country successes, King has scored No. 1 singles in other formats, including Rock (2015’s “Ex’s and Oh’s”) and Adult Alternative (2019’s “Shame”). Also equally at home with pop, blues and soul, she is — as Lambert has noted — “one of those artists that can do all of it.”
Not surprisingly, King is quick to confirm she doesn’t make distinctions between different genres.
“Music is music to me,” she said. “I don’t listen to just one type. I have different music for different moods and I play different instruments. Nobody has ever tried to fit me in a box, and I don’t think they could if they tried.
“Like, the Strokes’ (2001 debut) album, ‘Is This It,’ is a cohesive record from the first song to the last. I love that about it and I still listen to that record on road trips, but that’s not the kind of artist I am. People are like: ‘How will you put all these different things on one record?’ Well, there is a thread through it — and it’s me.
“I don’t ever want to just do one thing. No one every told me I have to, and I don’t think I’ll start now. As I grow and have these opportunities to branch out and express myself in different ways, it’s beautiful. I don’t look at it as: ‘I am playing different genres’.”
‘Saturday Night Live’
King was born Tanner Elle Schneider in 1989. Her father is comedian and “Saturday Night Live” TV alum Rob Schneider. Her mother is former model and actress London King. Elle credits her stepfather, Justin Tesa, as the person who mentored her as a musician when she was young. He continues to do so.
After busking on street corners as a teenager, King was signed in New York by RCA Records and released her debut single, “Good to be a Man,” in 2012. Her debut album, “Love Stuff,” came out in 2015, followed by “Shake the Spirit” in 2018. She plans to debut some songs from her next album during her upcoming tour.
As befits someone so frank, King has been forthcoming about her past substance abuse issues, depression, and what she described in a social media post as a post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2016, she secretly married Andrew Ferguson just a few weeks after they had met. Barely a year later, he was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge that was later dropped. The couple divorced soon thereafter.
King’s second album, “Shake the Spirit,” partly chronicled her failed marriage and her efforts to get clean and leave her on-the-edge, party girl days behind. Her wistful country ballad, “Sober,” seems drenched in personal experience as King sings: Well, this wine looks lonely on that shelf / Well, it won’t drink itself / And I’m sober / I’m even wrong when I’m right / But I only cry when I’m sober.
“I am writing songs because it’s my outlet,” King said. “I’m not always amazing at communicating, or really knowing or understanding how I truly feel about something. So I write (songs) and it helps me know myself and understand things in a different way.
“I had a lot of angst as a kid. And as tough an exterior as I put on, I’m an extremely sensitive and emotional person. So I had to find a way to dig into that. It’s taken me all this time, and I’m still learning how to write music. But when I was 16, I heard this song called ‘Hate’ off Cat Power’s album, ‘The Greatest,’ and the lyrics are: ‘I hate myself and I want to die.’
“It was a huge moment for me, because I said: ‘Oh, my gosh. She has these really painful feelings and is putting it into her music, and I’m not put off. It draws me in and I love her. And I have these (similar) negative feelings, and that song is a connection.’
“I wanted to hug her. That’s why music is so beautiful. You can put all your feelings into it, although not everyone will like you. Some people will say: ‘You suck.’ But a lot of people will connect.
“That’s why it’s important for anyone with a platform to share and talk about things that are sometime sticky, or that people may not want to hear about, or prefer to keep behind closed doors. I find it a strength to be open and talk about feelings.”
In a 2015 Union-Tribune interview, Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine discussed her then newfound sobriety, saying: “I was angry when I first realized I could sing better when I was not drunk. I was like: ‘F--, this means I have to be sober on stage.’ But what I get now on stage, without drinking, is this clarity and feeling the performance in every way.”
How often has Florence Welch, the singer and namesake of the English rock band Florence + The Machine, been asked to discuss getting sober and confronting her inner demons head on?
Does King share those sentiments?
“You know, now that I have done performances in both ways, they are different,” she replied. “They don’t call it ‘liquid courage’ for nothing. I mean, how many jobs do you show up for and there are bottles of liquor on the table for you (in your dressing room)? There are not a lot.
“I will say I enjoy both and I really applaud people who are sober. I went through a lot of different phases in my life where I thought I had to be in a different head space to create music. And it was beautiful to realize that I don’t need any outside things to get me to that space. When I started writing music at 13 and 14, I wasn’t drunk. I was writing about emotions, and it took me a while to get back to that.
“The music I made stone cold sober and organically has been some of my favorite music I’ve ever created. It doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the music I made when I wasn’t completely sober, but do I want to go back in time to who I was and give her a hug? Yeah, I do. Everything is about moving forward. But at the same time, I really like to drink and sing. I don’t want to get as drunk as I used to.”
King paused for a moment of further reflection.
“It’s easier for me to say: ‘Yeah, I want to drink and party and (then) go on stage’,” she admitted. “I get nervous before I go on stage, (so) I have couple of drinks (first). Drinking makes me less nervous about hitting the notes when I sing. If I don’t make them, it won’t sting as much.
“This (upcoming) tour will be very different for me, because I put being a mother way, way, way above having a good time. And I’ve had enough good times. I want to bring my family on this tour, so maybe talk to me in a year and see where I’m at.”
A less candid musician might have let the subject rest there, but not King.
“My band did tell me when I was sober and eight months pregnant: ‘Elle, we’ve never seen you sing so good,” she recalled.
Wrestling with COVID-19
In late December, King, Zac Brown and Sam Hunt all withdrew at the last moment from their performance slots on the CBS TV special, “New Year’s Eve: Nashville’s Big Bash.”
Brown disclosed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 despite having previously contracted the virus in September. According to the show’s producers, King and Hunt could not perform “due to unspecified COVID -19 protocols.”
With her 2022 “Drunk and I Don’t Want to Go Home” concert tour about to begin — and with first-time mother King bringing her infant son on the road with her — will she take extra precautions in the midst of the pandemic?
“You know, it’s weird and it’s a very sticky and tricky situation,” she replied. “As much as I’m like, ‘Live shows are all about music and fun,’ I have had personal experiences at shows that have made me anxious as a concertgoer throughout my life.
“Safety is key. And, even before the pandemic, I have stopped shows and had people thrown out of shows. As a concertgoer I got punched in the face at more than one show, one (instance) of which I deserved ...
“I am not ashamed to say that I got COVID. Santa brought it to me for Christmas and my baby got it, too. In a weird way, I’m glad it happened while we were home and had all our rooms (to quarantine in). I’m glad we weren’t on the road and stuck in a hotel.
“But it’s really hard, and I just want to be very, very careful with my words. I was pregnant and didn’t get vaccinated when I was pregnant, so they tested me every day on tour (in 2021) before I came backstage. Unfortunately, someone in our touring party — who was vaccinated — got COVID.”
King, whose comedian father is a publicly outspoken opponent of COVID-19 vaccinations, weighed her next words even more carefully.
“It scares me,” she said, “because, how do I say this? There are breakthrough cases. And we’ve sold VIP (meet-and-greet) packages for my tour that will (bring) people in more intimate, close up-contact with me. Since I am traveling with my baby, for anyone — vaccinated or not — to have a VIP package and get their picture taken with me, and for the very small group of people who attend my (pre-concert) acoustic performances, they have to be COVID-tested that day...
“Because even if people are vaccinated and can show a vaccination card, they can still pass COVID on to someone else. I was given COVID by someone who was vaccinated and boosted.”
Given her understandable concern for the health of her baby and herself, has King now been vaccinated?
For the first and only time in this freewheeling 45-minute interview, her candor came to a halt.
“That,” said King,” is a very, very inappropriate question.”
Elle King, with Lola Kirke
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
Tickets: $30 (general admission), $99 (VIP), $182.50 (official platinum)
COVID-19 protocols: Attendees must be 14 days past their final vaccination or have had a negative COVID-19 antigen test within 24 hours of the concert, or a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 48 hours. Children under 12 may be required to take a COVID-19 diagnostic test within 24 hours before the event and to provide proof of a negative result prior to entering the venue.
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