Even in light of how rapidly her career has grown in the past year, Elle King still considers a moment from four years ago to be one of the most nerve-racking she’s faced as a performer: her debut on The Late Show With David Letterman. At that time King had just been signed to a major label and had released her debut, self-titled EP. “When I heard that Letterman wasn’t going to do the show anymore, it was just so crazy that I got to be one of the people that did it,” she reflects. “That was one of the scariest things, because nobody knew who I was. I put out four songs, and it was really crazy.”
Now, it’s hard to escape her fun, cheeky single “Ex’s & Oh’s,” off King’s debut album, Love Stuff. The song has reached the top of the rock charts and the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. King, who is the daughter of actor Rob Schneider and model London King, is now wielding a pair of Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, up against the likes of Florence and the Machine, the Alabama Shakes and the Foo Fighters.
King spoke with Rolling Stone about her journey to the top of the charts, Letterman and her upcoming chance to attend music’s biggest night.
How did you find out about your nomination?
I was in room 608 at the Hilton in Pittsburgh. I had given my bassist a key to my hotel room because I wanted him to come be with me while they announced it. I remember that whole thing like I could watch it like a movie. Alicia Keys came on and she didn’t say my name for the main thing. My mom called and she said,”Don’t worry, baby. They have Grammys every year. You’ll have another chance. You’ll have a shot.”
And I was like,”Wait, wait, wait. I didn’t get [Best] Record, but there’s other things!” I looked up all the nominations and I kept hitting refresh, and I scrolled down, and as I saw the first nomination for Best Rock Song, I saw my name. Then my manager called, and I hit decline and was like,”Oh, my God!”
I looked down and saw Best Rock Performance, and then I called my mom back. There was lots of screaming. I got a knock at the door and I opened it, and my tour manager just went, “Ahhhhh!” I paced back and forth for a little while we drank champagne. I couldn’t open the bottle of champagne. For like four hours I kind of just paced back and forth, staring at the wall thinking, “What the hell happened? How did this happen?” I’ll never forget that.
Are you a particularly big fan of any of the artists you’re nominated against?
I’m a huge, huge fan of the Shakes. I saw them perform at SXSW. I went to their press-release show, and there weren’t fans. It was all just cameras and stuff. My parents turned me on to all the best music, and they told me, “You gotta go to this thing. You gotta see this band.” We went and we shoved through all the photographers and stuff and watched them perform.
Later that night, we went to some show, and I met [Brittany Howard] outside, and I was like,”I’m such a huge fan!” I’ve seen her a bunch over the years, and got to hang out with her a few times, and she’s just one of the coolest people ever. It means a lot for me to be in the same category as her, but it’s just amazing.
Anyone you’re excited to see perform or to meet at the Grammys?
I’ve been watching the Grammys every year since I was a little girl, and I never thought that they would let me through the doors, let alone nominate me for something. So now they literally have to let me in [laughs].
[I’m just excited for] the entire show. Being there and getting to watch the whole thing go down and see other people’s dreams come true, whoever wins. It’s just an exciting thing. My mom’s gonna be my date, and all of it’s so exciting. Actually, my stomach drops thinking about how soon it is.
Listening to the rest of Love Stuff, it’s really striking to hear all of the country and rock & roll influences in your music. What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
My stepdad [Justin Tesa] came into my life when I was nine years old, and I listened to pop music when I was a little girl and everything. He let me go through his records, and I started getting into Blondie and the Runaways, and then I would kind of go down a different avenue, and I got really into soul music. I fell in love with Otis Redding. What I really loved about him was that, when you listen to those heartbreaking songs, that man felt it. Somebody broke his heart. You could hear that in his voice and in his songs and in the music.
And then I got three female heroes: Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Wanda Jackson. Those three women were hugely influential to me, and I hope that you can hear that those are my biggest influences.
My mom would always tell me, “Don’t sing it unless you mean it.” That kind of always stuck with me. Then there was the rock & roll aspect of the thing, and I love AC/DC — I’ve got a huge AC/DC tattoo on my bicep — it’s just kind of endless. I wake up in a different mood every day, you know? I like to listen to, like, rowdy stuff and happy doo-wop, because it kind of keeps me going. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll put on some sad music and I’ll just sob in a dark corner.
You had mentioned how Letterman had been a nerve-racking experience for you. Can you tell me more about your debut on that show?
It was really special to me, because I was 22 when I did it, and my father was 22 when he did Letterman for the first time. My mom said the last time that she walked through those doors for Letterman, she was pregnant with me. It was just a very special day. My stepdad was just pacing up and down the hallway; everyone was so nervous.
And I met Serena Williams and she was just this gigantic, beautiful woman. It was my first time doing anything like that, and for your first time doing anything on a late show, and it’s fucking Letterman, it’s like,”Oh, shit. This is a really huge deal.” And it was a really good performance, and I was really proud of it.
“Ex’s & Oh’s” has been out for over a year now. How has it been to see that single continue to grow bigger and make it all the way to the Grammys?
First thing I want to say about “Ex’s and Oh’s” is that I never in a million years thought that that would be the single, and I’ve never been one of those people that’s like, “OK, let’s sit down and write the single. Let’s write the hit.” I write music that I want to write at that time.
The life of this song has just been insane because we released it a few months before the album came out. Mind you, I’d never released an album before, and I didn’t know how anything was supposed to go. I thought that my album was supposed to come out the same year I got signed, and that didn’t happen. I have just been on the grind, and touring the whole time. So we released the song, and we kept touring and we played all over. It was almost a full year, and it started to get traction last summer. Then I went on tour in the U.K., and my mom was like,”Baby, I think you’re in for a surprise when you come home.”
By the time I got home last fall, it was everywhere. Like, I couldn’t hide from it. I had no idea what I was coming home to, but I started hearing tweets like,”Stop playing that fucking Elle King song!” I was like,”You guys, I think they’ve been playing it a lot!” It was amazing to come home to. Then I get nominated for two Grammys for my first single on my first album, and that’s just a miracle in and of itself.
Now there’s this other crazy thing that’s happening where my album came out a few months ago in the U.K., and now the song is starting to get traction over in the U.K. and in Europe. Me and my mom, we call it “the song that keeps on giving.”
You just mentioned that you thought that your debut album would be released the same year that you were signed. What year were you signed, and what led to the album coming out later than you had expected it to?
I got signed in 2011? I guess it was like four years ago. I just didn’t know how things went. I released my EP and I had always thought, “Oh, an EP is just like a teaser before the album.” Then I was sent all over the world for like a year just co-writing. So we would try recording and co-writing with people, but co-writing is something that I never really wanted to do. It’s like a blind date. When I write music, it’s a very personal thing to me.
But also, when I got signed, nobody really knew what to do with me. I’m very lucky that they signed me. I feel like most people have a following when they get signed, and there’s not too much artist development anymore these days. So it was a pretty long process. While I was trying to write and make an album, I was also trying to get out there and take any tour that I could to help build my fanbase and get my name out there. I feel like it all worked really well. When the song started going to Number One and everything, it was kind of like,”OK, everyone’s happy, right? I think we’re doing it. I think it’s working. People like it.”
“I don’t really like hanging out with actors. Musicians have more fun.”
Your parents were on a very different side of the entertainment industry, but were they able to impart any career advice?
Yeah, I learned things [from them], but basically I thought that musician parties were way more fun than actor parties. And so I wanted to be a musician and not an actor. I don’t really like hanging out with actors. Musicians have more fun. So I wanted to be a musician.
Was acting a thing that was considered before?
When I was younger, to keep me out of trouble, I would be in the school plays and stuff. I really enjoyed being on stage, and I really loved the adrenaline and the excitement from a live performance. I learned that when I was really young. Then once I learned that you got free beer if you were onstage, and they didn’t card you, I was like, “Oh, this is it! This is what I want to do.” And I’m very pleased to know that I’m still doing it.