Analogue Music | Marcus King

Marcus King

By Matt Conner

The last few years have been very good to Marcus King but he's not one to talk about it.

Once a teenager playing in bars and nightclubs, King has graduated to the prestigious stages of the Ryman and the Opry. He's also worked with some of the best in the business, headlined coast to coast numerous times, and even earned a Grammy nod for his 2020 release, El Dorado. But still, he'd rather not "come up for air," as he says it.

King's demeanor has always been a mix of personal reserve with an "aw, shucks" humility. Perhaps that's why he describes his on-stage confidence as an alter ego, a persona he's able to put on once the lights are focused on him and his guitar.

With a dynamic new album out this month, Young Blood, the truth is that King is going to have to get used to even more of the spotlight and perhaps even questions that ask him to reflect. It's part of the job, but at least he's aware of it by now. It's the grind that allows him to do what he loves more than anything else: make music that connects with its substance and excellence.

Analogue: We haven't spoken for a few years now and it seems like so many wonderful things have happened for you in that span of time. Did the industry half of the pandemic allow you to reflect back on any of that?

Marcus King: I don’t come up for air too often. I just kind of keep my nose on the grindstone. I love what I do and I’m real serious about it, so I’m really thankful to have my passion as my career, but I also had a work ethic that was driven into me by my grandfather. So I don’t come up for air too often to bask in any success. I just wasn’t raised to do so.

Sometimes you gotta accept credit where it’s deserved, but that’s hard for me to do so. I don’t mean that to sound like I’m any kind of a saint, y’know? It’s just not in my nature to do so. Looking at the last six years, I think COVID kinda forced me to look at some of my past experiences. I looked around and saw things were moving in the right direction, so that gave me further validation that I was on the right track. Just keep moving forward and don’t fuck it up.

I’ve always said the only pat on the back I’ve ever given myself is that the only person who could ever fuck up my career is me at this point.

Analogue: You’re in an industry where the spotlight is a must. Do you feel at odds with the portals you have to go through?

Marcus: It’s a necessity for me. It’s therapy. The only time I really look at it as a job is from a work ethic standpoint and knowing this is a really big press week, so I’m not drinking. I’m going to bed early. I’m taking good care of my body so it takes good care of me. Been to the chiropractor. I’m getting up early for time to reflect so I have something to say when I’m doing interviews. All of that is still not that hard. It’s treating your temple good.

Young Blood cover art
Young Blood cover art

But to answer that question, the only discomfort in this industry is the two minutes right before we go on the stage. I’ve got knots in my stomach and I’m really nervous, but as soon as the lights come in, I turn on the alter ego. It’s an 'altar' in a couple of senses because the whole stage for me is an altar, a religious experience. The other persona I take onstage is that of old pentecostal preachers that I grew up admiring. Those were the first public speakers I ever saw were pentecostal preachers and they were very intense. So that’s how I learned how to speak was in church. [Laughs]

Analogue: I’ve been to more than one tent revival myself. [Laughs] Did it take you a while to develop that alter ego as you said or has that always been true?

Marcus: Great question. It took me some time to become comfortable as a vocalist as well as a guitar player. I’d started playing guitar when I was three or four, so that was always with me, but I started singing at the age of 13. So I had 10 years to make up for. I feel comfortable now on both and I feel empty if I’m not able to do both of those things when I’m performing or writing or recording.

It took some time to build that muscle and luckily I had the greatest gym in the world in being able to play smoky nightclubs and bars where everyone’s first initiative to go there is not to see you. It’s to watch the ball game or get something cold to drink and music is secondary or just an annoyance, really. So when you have that to combat, you have to build this confidence thing.

I was also 15 and playing in these bars where I had to fight for my pay because they’d try to fuck us over on the money. I’d take my grandfather’s advice. He said, ‘If they don’t want to pay you, you gotta start taking their shit.’ So that confidence is built over time. I’m really bashful otherwise, and I was only 15, but my previous drummer had two kids at the time. I said, ‘He’s got kids and these guys have families and rent to pay, so we’re going to have to take your P.A. and sell it.’ That turned into a big bar brawl, but at the end of the night, we got our check. Sometimes the ends justified the means.

Analogue: [Laughs] I wasn’t sure if you were being figurative or literal.

Marcus: Yeah, it was literal.

Analogue: Do you remember when you found that vocal confidence that you mentioned?

Marcus: I remember when we cut the Marcus King Band record Carolina Confessions with Dave Cobb. That was fairly early and one fo the first times I’d been sober for an extended period—maybe six or seven years at that point. Alcohol really dries your vocal cords out and that was one of the first times I remember being truly confident in what I was singing and it was with the song “How Long”. I had really swollen lymph nodes and a sore throat and a congested chest, but it was the only day I could cut the vocals for that track. So I had to sing the vocals and it was in B-flat, which is high, and I had to sing the harmonies above it. So it was challenging, but I remember specifically thinking I could make a career out of this at that point.

Analogue: I loved what you said about altar/alter dual meaning earlier. I wanted to go back to that because I was curious if making/playing music has always been a spiritual exercise for you.

Marcus: Absolutely. I mean, music was my favorite part of church. All the information and the laws of morality I accepted from those days in church, I find equally as important to the musical inspiration I got from it. Being uplifted or feeling overjoyed, I just associated that with the music. I came from a broken home, so I was always really searching out anything. From a young age, music was my primary source of joy.

VISIT: Marcus King