Emily King | photo by Shotti | courtesy of the artist
Chasing Music, Not Fame: The slow-burn approach of Emily King
There are many ways our culture has employed fear to successfully mislead and hoax me, most often for profit or emotional labor. Self-actualization is probably a hearty antidote for getting pulled into this current of doom and I have endeavored to make it there through self-directed, biting honesty.
It hasn’t been working as well as I hoped. And talking with Emily King offered a theory as to why. “You have to have some delusional idea about yourself that enables you to keep going” — the objects one is going toward being their talents, potentialities — she proposes. You can uncover all the limiting beliefs that construct yourself and the world, locate when and why they were planted, and still, on some cellular level, feel them as truth. Maybe the only way to keep going is as if they are not and without expectation.
I got to speak with Emily King about delusion, the outsourcing of validation, finding her own sound, and more. You can read that interview below; she plays a sold-out Union Transfer concert on February 28 in support of her new album Sides, which features acoustic versions of songs from throughout her catalog.
The Key: So I’m a huge fan of yours.
Emily King: Thank you so much!
TK: I mean how can you not be? I find it fascinating that you have one of those textured, powerful voices that seem to require some serious intrinsic musical gifts. But you’ve said you were not born a particularly good singer. What encouraged you to pursue singing? A career in voice can feel inaccessible without natural talent.
EK: Well, I think you have to have some sort of delusional idea about yourself that enables you to keep going. You really have to like what you’re doing and kind of think that you’re better than you are at that moment. It’s almost like your brain plays a trick on you. And then years later you listen back and say, oh my god, what was I thinking? I just always had a feeling that singing is what I was supposed to be doing. And so I just kind of naively went for it, right out of high school.
TK: What was it like for you to know that music and songwriting were ingrained in your spirit but be unable to externalize that with the skill you have now? To know something so significant is fundamentally true for you but not have proof of concept in the ways people might expect?
EK: Let me remember that. There’s more of an imitating stage that you go through when you’re starting out. You’re trying to sound like artists you love, which helps you to eventually find your own voice. I was imitating these artists to develop my skill as a singer and a musician, and so I had a vocabulary when it came to writing music. But after you imitate then hopefully and naturally you will find your own sound. You also need some self-awareness that tells you when you are trying too hard or being disingenuous to your craft. Writing songs gave me the opportunity to have my own sound because I could create my own stories. I think there’s a natural progression that happens if you stick with it.
TK: When was the first time that you were like, okay, I’m kind of getting good at this whole singing/songwriting thing?
EK: I still have these moments where, well, you’re chasing your own standards and never really reach those, like a carrot dangling in front of a horse, Like, ah, I know where I want to be but I’m not really where I want yet musically. But it gives you a goal. I have had moments where I’ve been very focused in a way that I’m proud of but I’m striving to get to that next level all the time.
TK: I think a lot of people, myself included, would listen to you and think, okay, Emily King, an exemplar of musical maturity. But it doesn’t sound like you want your growth to stop there. So what is the next level for you? Where are you striving to get to right now?
EK: I never had a hit song before. I would love to write a song that was produced and packaged in such a way where it is relatable to everyone. Cause that really is what gets me going with music, is when I hear a perfectly crafted song that conveys emotion and the most simple way, like The Beatles. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are different combinations of words and different combinations of rhythm and melody that can feel new and familiar. That would really be exciting for me, I just want a song that makes people feel good.
TK: I believe you were signed to J Records and dropped from the label a year later. I read that you embarked on a longer, harder path that required more persistence than if you would have maybe stayed with the label. What did this path look like for you?
EK: Well, I was sort of swept into this willingly. I was really excited about signing with Clive at the time, it was all very shiny and exciting. I went through a developmental process with the label where they pair you with all the hit songwriters of the day and all of the hit hairstylists of the day. And so you go through this whole makeover process. That took about three years and finally my record came out and it was a little bit diluted by things I didn’t fully stand behind. There were also songs I did love. I also had a great experience with Chucky Thompson who was my mentor and producer at the time. I learned a lot from him.
So I definitely am grateful for that. And then when I got off the label, I went to the real world. I would recommend artists go there first before signing with record companies. But I did the opposite. I wanted the record label to make me famous. And when they dropped me, what I realized was that when you go home at the end of the day and have something you created that you don’t love, it’s not worth it. So I decided that I would chase music instead of fame and just try to be as authentic with myself as I could, which of course takes time. I went back to playing clubs and touring. I met Jeremy Most and we’ve now recorded three or four projects together. He really influenced me to just give the music everything and not worry too much about the other stuff. There was a lot of trial and error in the recording and songwriting process. That’s a part of growing, being your own critic. Whereas when I was with the label, I had everyone else telling me what they thought of the music.
TK: How do you know when your music reflects your authenticity?
EK: I don’t allow many people into the process of creating music. I don’t ask for people’s opinions, which may sound snobby, but I think it creates insecurity. I’ve looked for other people to tell me something was better than it actually was just because I wanted that feeling of doing something good. I’ve spent hours and days on a record that I just knew it wasn’t good, but I wanted it to be good. It’s like that moment where it’s like five in the morning and you have to pee and you’re just like, I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m just going to stay in bed with this horrible feeling rather than wake up and walk two feet and pee. And that’s kind of what it was like to rip off the bandaid and say, this wasn’t good. This is not worth my time. I have to start over. I have to just do it. And that’s been the hardest lesson. Now, I don’t look for other people to tell me if something’s good because I know if it’s good. Time allows me to have that opinion.
TK: Speaking of time. You’re from the Lower East Side and spent the first three decades of your life on the same block. What have you learned living most of your life in one space?
EK: So, really interesting question. There are so many nuances to living in one space. Have you ever seen that movie Room?
TK: I’ve seen the trailer for it and I was like, I’m not watching this.
EK: I’m like, that’s me. I’ve been in this room my whole life. I think about mind control because we don’t have like any sunlight that comes into the house. There was a lot of training your mind not to go into the darkness. Or if it does, you have to use music to relieve your frustrations. I guess the positive thing is my family and I are really close. But my brother and I used to fight all the time, which may be natural, but also we didn’t have our own rooms. So we figured that out. And now that’s my best friend. There’s tolerance that you learn from being in a room.
And the great part is that when we left that room, we had the most exciting city in the world where people come and do try to make it. You learn a lot from going to a cafe and hearing an incredible musician and just, all these chances to see people be great at what they do. I think if you live in a big city, you really have to get out of that room and explore the city for what it’s worth. Or I guess wherever you live. My mother has a song called “Do You Wanna Stay In Your Little Room?” And I love the sentiment.
TK: How have the sensory and spiritual characteristics of New York influenced the music you make?
EK: It influenced me in every way. I think life is everywhere in the city and you can’t hide, no matter how much money you have or anything, the city’s gonna kick your ass at some point. It can be a good thing to know how to bounce back and be face-to-face with people — literally riding the subway with people from all around the world. Everyone should have to just ride the subway. You see all kinds of humanity and it’s a character study. And I think as a songwriter, I use that a lot. Often I’m walking down the street, I’ll hear somebody say a phrase, and latch onto that.
Emily King plays a sold out show at Union Transfer on Friday, February 28. Her new album Sides is out now.