Elle King has confessed on record that she’s “not America’s sweetheart.” Her latest hit is about staying out too late and drinking too much. She’s a tattooed love girl who’s even done a viral version of that song about necks and backs (you know the one). The Grammy nominated singer-songwriter is very aware of a particular notoriety attached to her.
But late last year King gave birth to her first child, a son she named Lucky, and he’s hitting the road with her on a 29-city tour which includes a February 19 date at Warehouse Live. We asked her whether motherhood and its responsibilities will change her approach to performing or the type of songs she’s become known for, cheeky earworms like her breakthrough hit “Ex’s & Oh’s” or last year’s chart-topping duet with Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).”
“I guess you could say I’ve built a certain reputation. I am undeniably a very rowdy person but I think change and evolution is beautiful and it’s part of life and growth is amazing. But music is my outlet and music is my fun and my joy,” King said. “I played a show in Kentucky recently and I was like, ‘Yeah, I probably won’t drink that much,’ and I let my hair down. It was Momma’s night out, I still had fun.
“Music to me, and live performances, it’s fun and I think that’s why people like coming to my shows because it’s like a party onstage and in the audience and we’re all in it together, whether you drink or not,” she said. “I also haven’t fully toured with a baby so I have to find my footing within that. But at the same time, it’s not like it’s going to be a bad thing for me to drink less before I perform.”
King said Lucky’s dad and her mother are on hand for the tour which kicks off this week and runs through March. So, she doesn’t have to choose whether it’s better to be Lucky than bad.
“The shows will not be any less rowdy or rambunctious, it will still be fun, I’m still Elle King,” she promised. “I feel like I’ve been a slingshot just pulled back, waiting, ready to go on a headline tour for two years now. I’m very excited. All I can say is I have a new bandmate now. A little, teeny, tiny bandmate.”
While King works through touring with an infant in tow, she has already seen how parenthood might influence her songwriting. She’s asked fans if they’d be interested in a children’s album. Despite her outlaw reputation, this falls right in line with King’s ethos. Her sound isn’t simple to pin down. She’s got a vast list of musical influences and that’s allowed her to move comfortably across genres, from pop to blues rock to country. So, why not children’s music?
“Lucky, my son, he loves music and it brings me a lot of joy. I always had a dream of playing my banjo for my baby one day and he lights up when I play music for him and when I sing for him,” she said. “I’ve always just made up songs as I’m going through my day and I started to make up little songs for him and all these songs have kind of started to stick. I put it out on Instagram and obviously there’s a lot of other parents - one thing is for sure, people are always going to have babies and there’s always going to be business in the funeral home.
“I’ve sort of started to sing them on Instagram and put feelers out and everyone was like ‘Please make a children’s album!’ So yeah, that’s definitely something that I would obviously love to do."
As King noted, she writes a lot of songs — for kids or grown folks — on banjo. It’s rare to get to ask an artist about the instrument and rarer still to ask a woman who’s mastered it to extol its virtues.
“I learn more and more about myself as I grow and try to gain some semblance of self-awareness. I realize I’m an extremely competitive person. I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert in anything that I do except having a good time,” she laughed. “I saw this guy, who was kind of a new friend when I was living in Philadelphia, playing the banjo and I was like, you know, I can fumble my way around guitar — anything you can do, I can do better.
“That guy let me borrow his banjo for like a year-and-a-half and his dad built it. I taught myself how to play and every time a new instrument comes into my life it’s a beautiful thing because it does something to my brain. I can’t really explain it. It’s like falling in love with something all over again or in a brand new way and it’s a challenge to me. So, I try to learn it and my way of learning something is writing a song on it and I eventually figure out how to play it. I say if I can write a song on it, I know how to play it.
“Banjo, it took me a while to figure out and once I realized that it doesn’t have to be country music or sound like Deliverence or straight-up bluegrass and I just approached it as a beautiful four- or five-string instrument, it opened up my songwriting,” she said. “I write funny songs on the banjo but I also write really beautiful, heartfelt, folky music on it, too.
“The root of it is all these instruments that I’ve fallen in love with are just tools for this cathartic release that has somehow become my career, which I’m so grateful for,” she continued. “At the root of it is this cathartic release of my feelings, my emotions, when I’m happy, when I’m sad, I write music and it helps me. All my records are diaries of my life so far.”
We wonder whether competition is an element she sees as essential to a good collaboration. Take “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” for instance. The song charted on Billboard’s Adult Top 40, Hot Country Songs and Hot Rock and Alternative Songs all at the same time. The engaging video starring King and Lambert also racked up several CMA Awards nominations.
“It’s really weird because none of my collaborations or anything like that have ever been competitive. It’s kind of like, ‘Are you kidding, they would do a song with me?’ or ‘They’d even go in a room with me?’ or ‘They know who I am?’ Yes, I will say and I’m very proud to say that I’m an extremely hard-working musician. When I was starting out my friends would ask me, ‘Well, how did you get on the radio?’ You know what — I played bars every single night and on tour I woke up every single morning, five o' clock in the morning, went to three radio stations, shook hands, kissed babies, tried to remember everybody’s names, tried to get everybody to root for me. It’s a lot of hard work. And now I have this opportunity to be with these people.”
King said she’s tried to put less pressure on herself and just let things happen as intended over her career. That’s yielded good results, she thinks.
“That’s why when we released the ‘Drunk’ music video, people were like, ‘That looks so fun!’ I usually hate music videos. They’re so stressful, I worry about what I look like, and I wanted Miranda to not think of working with me - even though we’re friends - to be a chore,” she said. “I wanted her to enjoy the experience so I said let’s make it fun, let’s make it easy so we can enjoy this. And that’s definitely my favorite music video I’ve ever made, besides ‘Ex’s & Oh’s’ where I was bathing a hot man. But, you know, a close second.”
King teased a future collaboration during our chat.
“Listen, I can’t disclose a lot but I will tell you that there is a collaboration with who I consider to truly be America’s sweetheart that is in the works right now and I think people are really going to love it,” she said.
Let your imaginations go wild, music fans. America’s sweetheart teaming with “not America’s sweetheart.”
“You’re the first person, any press or anything, that I’ve even alluded to this, so I’ll give you that one because I love Houston so much.”
Until then, King’s focusing on tour and her latest, most important collaboration.
“Most of my success has been a happy accident. I never saw it coming. And that’s what the beauty of life has been. You know, I named my son Lucky because I feel like I’ve been so lucky in my life and I hope that I pass on this dumb luck to him.”
Elle King plays Saturday, February 19, 2022 at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. With Lola Kirke. Doors at 7 p.m. for this all ages show. $30 and up.