After a bad breakup, some girls would call on their friends for consolation. Some would prefer the company of a total stranger, foraged from the local dive bar; others a pint of ice cream and Netflix. Elle King ordered three pianos to her home in Los Angeles.
“I was so manic,” she says. “One day I was like, ‘Here’s a fun game! How many pianos can I get delivered to the house in one day?’ And I got three fucking pianos.”
It’s a late-summer morning when King walks into the lobby of the Williamsburg Hotel wearing a strappy brown leather harness, Gucci tee and jeans; a single stud in the shape of a Playboy bunny glimmers on her left ear. Although she’s made herself a reputation for being a foul-mouthed, tattooed hellraiser, King immediately offers a generous hug and orders a glass of water. Just 24 hours before, she and her freewheeling blues band, the Brethren, rode ATVs after playing Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks Festival in Colorado. “For a while, I was like, ‘Country’s more rock & roll than fuckin’ rock & roll,'” she says, stealing a quick puff from her vape. “They party fuckin’ hard, and I love that shit. But I don’t know. I’m back [in rock & roll] now, ’cause I believe in it.”
By the time King celebrated her 29th birthday this past July, her 2014 hit “Ex’s & Oh’s” had gone platinum twice, peaked at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and made her just the fourth woman in 20 years to top the Alternative charts — following Lorde, Alanis Morissette and Tracy Bonham. And just when people had her typecast as a burgeoning alt-rock queen, she lent her honeyed twang to Bentley’s 2016 country ballad, “Different for Girls,” which won them both a CMA Award that same year.
King has three Grammy nominations under her belt and could well earn more with her new album, Shake the Spirit. Yet when she meets me, she describes herself as “a mess,” struggling to shake off the man she secretly married nearly three years ago. “I was literally talking to ghosts,” she says, wide-eyed.
When King speaks of communing with ghosts, she doesn’t necessarily mean the supernatural kind. What haunts King most are her memories, which she recounts in no particular order — at least not one that makes sense to anyone on the outside. Like bits of shrapnel, trauma surfaces in fragments for King; sometimes, the trauma stays embedded in the flesh, carrying an extra pang of hurt with every sudden move. Eventually they settle into the body, becoming parts of the whole. But King is determined not to let them overtake her.
“I think that there’s some beauty in vulnerability,” she says. “I seek connection, and that’s what’s really beautiful about music: I think you can have real music on radio dealing with real fuckin’ things. Getting your heart broken, having somebody cheat on you, feeling ugly, not feeling whole. There’s a lot of things people can relate to on the record.”
Brimming with sermons of self-love and rage, King’s new album draws from Sixties soul and musses it up with a grungy, garage band kickback. The country-rock shoot-out of “Baby Outlaw” evokes the dusky drama of Ennio Morricone scores; in the caustic “Man’s Man,” King asserts her dominance as she growls, “While you were away/I fucked somebody on our one-year wedding anniversary day.”
“Sometimes you gotta fuckin’ shake yourself out of it,” she says of Shake the Spirit. “You ever see somebody who is just not getting through, and you want to just slap them? I had to do that for myself.”
King first met her ex-husband, Scottish retail worker Andrew Ferguson, in January 2016. They ran into each other in a London hotel lobby, on King’s last day on tour. Within two weeks, Ferguson quit his job, settled into King’s home in New York City, and proposed to her on a boat underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. By March 2016, they were married.
A source close to King said no one in her family or her band was aware the marriage took place. King would eventually announce an official wedding ceremony — she even shopped for a bridal gown in a March episode of the TLC show, Say Yes to the Dress — and set the date for April 15, 2017. King, however, abruptly called off their wedding day, opting instead to see Eagles of Death Metal and Mastodon in Seattle. “Skipped out on my wedding,” she wrote on Instagram. “I married Rock & Roll instead.”
King had previously gone on the road with Eagles of Death Metal; she developed a close friendship with frontman Jesse Hughes, a fellow firebrand who had been reeling from the aftermath of the 2015 Bataclan attacks. “I [knew] it was his first big tour since Paris and everything,” says King. “So I texted him. I was like, ‘Jesse, I’m really sad… I was supposed to have my big wedding today.’ And he goes, ‘Baby, get on a flight. Fly to Seattle. Come on tour.'”
King shadowed Eagles of Death Metal for nearly a month, staving off the grief by making guest appearances at their shows and partying harder than ever before. “I was buying time until I had to really deal with emotional things,” she says. But just before their New York show, King panicked; what used to be her hometown had become an emotional minefield. She bailed on the concert and promptly jetted back to California.
According to an arrest record dated April 23, 2017 — less than two weeks after their would-be wedding day — Ferguson was arrested and booked by the Los Angeles Police Department for felony domestic abuse after he had grabbed King by the throat and strangled her inside her L.A. home. According to the arrest record, Ferguson, who could not be reached for further comment, denied the allegations at the time, claiming that King was “under the influence” and that he was “trying to keep her from hurting herself.” He would resurface periodically on her Instagram page — as recently as Valentine’s Day 2018, when he and Elle celebrated their second anniversary together. “I look forward to a new stage of my marriage in 2018,” she wrote in January, “Not just forgiveness from each other, but moving the f–k on from it.” As of October 2018, however, King has since exorcised all trace of him from her social media accounts and is currently in the process of filing for divorce.
“I didn’t realize how scared everybody was about what was going on with me,” she reflects. “I was like, ‘I know I’m crazy. Just let me get this album out and I’ll pull it together!’ I was bullshitting. I was lying through my teeth when I said that shit. But I said it enough that I started to believe it.”
From then on, she grew increasingly resistant to leaving her home, opting instead to shop online and cover her home in wall-to-wall shag carpet. Guitarist Cameron Neal and bassist Paul DeVincenzo flew from their respective homes in Texas and Tennessee to visit King in California — first to make sure Elle was alive and eating well, but also to write much of what would become Shake the Spirit. “I have two brothers, but I never had a sister,” DeVincenzo says. “With Elle, I know what it is to have a sister. It’s a much a different relationship. You have to be more thoughtful with sisters.”
“None of [my friends] were confrontational, at all,” says King. “They weren’t like, ‘What are you doing?’ I think I probably would have pushed them away if they’d done that. I wasn’t ready to change, but they didn’t give up on me, they didn’t abandon me.”
“I used to be a really dorky kid,” King says. “But I think most people would like to hang out with the bad kids sometimes. You know why? ‘Cause they’re fucking fun!”
Growing up, King felt doomed to eternal geekdom before she altered her fate by hanging with “the slutty girls” in middle school. In turn, she says, she started getting invited to all the best parties. Her early sexual experiences later inspired her to write “It Girl,” a bawdy ragtime disco cut on Shake the Spirit. (“My reputation is great,” she sings coyly, “just ask any of my first dates.”)
In the aftermath of King’s traumatic relationship, and in light of the ongoing #MeToo movement, untangling the fun of sex from the looming threat of violence is a bold move for the singer-songwriter; but she’s used to pushing those buttons. When she performs “It Girl” live, she’ll usually pull up her shirt and flash a nipple for laughs.
“It’s about taking your power back,” says King of the song. “Taking back power [for] women being sexualized in a negative way, when women are just trying to fucking go out there and work and take control of their lives… When you’re talking about the #MeToo movement, I think that it’s not just women. I think that for men as well, it’s [about] finding your power and sexuality. Take control of your body!” She begins to reflect on the state of women at large before she’s drowned out by the sound of another woman’s heels clacking across the hardwood floors of the hotel. King follows the slim figure of a lady marching past in high-cut, Daisy Duke shorts. “Hoo, wild!” King marvels, her blue eyes dilating like telescopes. “I almost wore that today.”
King inherited the same baby blues as her father, comedian and director Rob Schneider, as well as the blonde locks and dimpled smirk of her mother, actress-model London King, who now works as a doula. Her parents were married only two years before they split in 1990; King stayed with her mother, who raised her in Southern Ohio with the help of her maternal grandparents. (“I’m actually a hillbilly,” she says with a laugh.)
Although King describes her mother as “spiritually free,” her Episcopalian grandparents ran a tight ship in their house. “I wasn’t allowed to watch Harry Potter,” she says. “I went to church camp. I believe in God. I believe in good and evil, and I believe that the devil can come out in many different ways. I think that a healthy fear of good and evil is not a bad thing, you know? And I don’t tell anybody what to believe in. All I can do is share what I feel and how I believe.”
“The biggest themes in a lot of my music are heartbreak — I am kind of an asshole and a monster, but you love me anyway — and religion,” she says. ‘Am I going to hell? Where’s the devil? Am I the devil?’ I still have this deep-seated fear that I’m going to hell, or if I’m not acting right, the devil will get me.”
As a teen, King began to spend more time in New York, and eventually in Philadelphia, studying at the University of the Arts. (“I failed English and art history twice,” she says.) It was in college that she picked up the banjo, after a chance encounter with a busker near her school. “I saw a babe and walked up to him on the street,” says King. “I was like ‘I know how to fuckin’ play that.’ That guy let me borrow his banjo for a year… I was fuckin’ hot, I could do that.'”
Growing up, she racked up a few small movie roles alongside her dad in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, The Benchwarmers and Wild Cherry. She ultimately decided to take the plunge into the recording business, dropping her dad’s surname along the way so no one could accuse her of riding his coattails. “I didn’t want him involved in my stuff,” she explains, “and he’s very proud of me for doing what I’ve done.”
King and her father remain close. He has since remarried Mexican TV producer Patricia Azarcoya, with whom he shares two daughters, ages five and two. King periodically visits him and his family in California; she even bought her sister, Miranda, an LED light-up guitar. “I want to be able to teach her something,” says King. “But I don’t know how, ’cause I don’t read music. I learned the Suzuki method.”
Does music run in her family? “My mom couldn’t carry a tune if she held a bucket,” King says with a laugh. “[But] my dad used to be an Elvis impersonator, they called him Tiny Elvis… He has a beautiful singing voice.” King also quips that that her dad’s shorter than she is.
“My grandmother had a very bad stroke,” she reflects. “It affected the speech part of her brain, so from a very young age, she always said, ‘If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re gonna have a pretty miserable life.’ And so we’ve always tried to spin painful things and laugh about it — that’s just something that my family’s always done.”
King conducts herself as the perfect cult leader would: charismatic, warm, impassioned. She has ceremoniously christened her fandom the Fellowship — and even plays a convincing guru in the video for her lead single, “Shame.” Stacked with an assortment of gold chains and other ornaments, she sings beguilingly, “I can make you better babe/Come pray with me/Get saved with me.”
“I want to start a cult, but about love,” she says. “Have you seen Wild Wild Country? I’m obsessed. I feel like this cult started for the right reasons — about freeing people, finding yourself, living your best life. The community they built was genius, they were so smart. But it just…it ended up being a greedy, power-hungry struggle.”
“I kind of joined this rock & roll cult for a little bit,” says King, referring to her stint following Eagles of Death Metal. “When my husband and I broke up, I was on tour at [SXSW 2017] and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to New York. I can never step foot in my house again, I’ll never go back there.” Along the way, King encountered Joan Jett, who would help produce a song King wrote for Wanda Jackson. “I taught Joan Jett how to hula hoop when we dropped acid together,” King intimates. “Just like, dream shit. I’ve met all my female heroes, and they’ve all been fucking badass. But there’s a reason they’re on top of the world: They’re fucking nice.”
Within a week of moving to L.A., she linked up with Corey Parks, ex-bassist of Southern rock band Nashville Pussy. In 1999, their song “Fried Chicken and Coffee” made both Parks and guitarist Ruyter Suys the first women nominated for Best Metal Performance at the Grammys; taking on a deeper, grunge rock affect, King describes Parks as a kewl chick bassist. “We hung out all night,” King says. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to help me pick out my first bass?’ So we went and picked out a bass!”
Already a seasoned guitarist and banjo player, King wondered what her songs would sound like if she wrote them from bass lines instead; she also admits that she covets the grounded, earthy vibe of the female bassist. “I always thought chick bassists were the coolest people in the world,” she says. “I play a lot of instruments, [but] anytime I’d ever see a female bass player at a show, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.”
King grew fixated on learning the bass at home, entirely by ear; Jesse Hughes even indulged her new course of study by gifting her a white Orange bass cab to practice with. She often stayed up late cramming to Parliament Funkadelic and Pixies records. The first song King learned on the bass was “Gigantic,” a Kim Deal special from the Pixies’ catalog. “It changed the way I listened to music,” she says. “Most of the songs on the record started on bass with drums. When you start the root of a song on a groove —” she says before she imitates the plunk-thud-plunk of a bass — “It leads to really cool music, you know?”
In the summer of 2017, King took her newfound skills to Denton, Texas. (She also took a lot of acid — the only substance she feels safe around these days. “I wasn’t micro-dosing,” she says with a laugh. “I was macro-dosing.”) The Brethren, who had since upgraded from her touring band to her studio band, reunited with King in Denton’s Echo Lab Studio, where they would write and record most of Shake the Spirit. She describes her days in Echo Lab as spiritual. “Maybe I was on so many drugs that my antenna was just so open,” she says. “I wasn’t the only person who experienced weird things happening at the studio — it’s on old grounds. We were doing this song about the time I saw the devil, and the [mixing] board went out.”
She wrote “Little Bit of Lovin'” during her very first night in the studio, in the midst of one of those spiritual experiences. “There was a crazy thunderstorm,” she explains, “And I was a lot to handle. I wanted the boys to write the record with me but they weren’t on drugs, you know? They all went to sleep. I was texting the guys at four a.m. like, ‘I think I’ve got something great here!’ And nobody responded.”
“So there I am, writing this fucking song. The original lyrics were ‘I don’t need nobody/I don’t need no-one, there just ain’t no loving left in this heart of mine.’ I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘I wish I believed that.’ It’s such a cop out, but it’s so much easier to be like ‘I don’t believe in love, fuck this, I got my heart broken, I’m never ever doing that again!’ But I just didn’t believe that so I changed it to ‘I’ve still got a little bit of lovin’ left in me.’
“And I waited until seven a.m., woke everybody up and sent them all to the studio. I got this idea for the outro, which reminds me of those old school Seventies, fucking big songs. While I’m singing, ‘you still have love in you,’ it was like my spirit just singing to me.
“You know how people have out of body experiences? I had an into body experience,” she continues. “I remember coming back into my body and I just burst into tears and fell to my knees and was like shaking and weeping and I looked up and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ My bassist looked at me and said, ‘It’s really good to see you again, Elle.’ And even though the rest of it was still painful, I started to be present again.”
It was while recording Shake the Spirit that King finally mustered up a call for help. She contacted MusiCares, a nonprofit foundation started by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. With the help of a licensed therapist — and a little bit of self-medication via LSD — King would finally confront what she now understands is post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I couldn’t go outside,” she says. “So [a therapist] came to my house. The first time she sat with me, I had covered my house in blue and pink shag carpet, with disco lights and black lights on. I was losing it. We sat on these fuzzy bean bags for about five hours and just talked. I mean, so much of it is just being heard. And so this album is another way of me getting my story out and being heard.”
By the summer of 2018, King appeared to have moved on from her ex. She also alluded to a new boyfriend, who she describes as having a “more Buddhist state of mind.” The mystery man first surfaced on her Instagram in July 2018; in a photo he kisses Elle from behind a napkin, lodged to his face by a pair of sunglasses. “Though few and far between, good men do exist,” she captioned on another photo of him. “Mines got strong hands, kind eyes, and dimples for daaaays.” The most recent photo of the two was taken October in the Pedernales Falls State Park outside of Austin, Texas. In town for her performance at the Austin City Limits festival, she offers me a brown agate stone from her pocket, which she found on that same trip.
“We lead very separate lives,” she tells me. “He meets me in this town, I meet him again in the next… But I need my space.”
According to King, Ferguson has heard her new songs. She says she even sent him one of the songs herself — not for his approval, but for transparency’s sake. In a sense, it’s her way of taking control of her narrative, not just in the face of the public, but in the face of the man who could have walked away with her life. “I feel like regardless of everything,” she says, “I think that both of us would just want each other to be happy… And in different fucking countries.”
“Breakups are bad and everything,” she continues, “but there’s just something weird about divorce. There’s paperwork and this whole thing about religion, and God. It shook me. It almost destroyed me. The album’s the only thing that kept me going, you know?
“But I don’t feel guilt,” she asserts. “I don’t feel any guilt about anything.”