Marcus King, a Bluesy Rocker Who Stared Down His Own Crossroads
Ours is an improbable world, in which Birkenstocks and tie-dye — once signifiers of hippie anti-style, as glamorous as trail mix — are now more chic than ever.
But in the early 2000s, when the singer and guitarist Marcus King was attending middle school in Piedmont, S.C., this was not the case. In a recent interview, King recalled being made fun of by “teachers and students alike” for showing up to class dressed like a Deadhead.
“I was like, ‘Man, I saved up a long time for these Birkenstocks!’” King said. “‘I’m going to wear them all year!’ So I always kind of stood out.”
That same unapologetically out-of-step spirit animates King’s second solo album, “Young Blood,” a collection of brawny hard-rock songs in the audibly hirsute tradition of the James Gang, Grand Funk and early ZZ Top — uber-70s outfits whose names have not been trendy musical reference points since Homer Simpson was single and people under 60 used “boogie” as a verb.
But in this respect, too, King — who is 26 but looks younger, with a baby face and a goofy, almost triangular smile — has the tastes of a time traveler. He grew up with his father, the blues musician Marvin King, whose record collection was full of music like this.
“I was getting spoon-fed these riffs along with my Gerber applesauce, man,” King said in a video chat from Italy, where he’d stepped outside and found Hollywood-quality sunset light. “My dad would give me records to listen to while he was off at work. And I’d just listen to them and learn ’em.”
His mother left the family when King was very young. They maintain a relationship, but King says her absence “created the first sense of loss and sorrow in my life”— a predisposition to the blues.
In King’s earliest conscious memory, he’s around 4 years old, home alone, strumming his father’s Epiphone El Dorado, which he described as “one of the more off-limits guitars” in the house. Once King acquired his own guitar, it became his closest companion. From the beginning, he was remarkably good at it, too. He was only 11 when he made his professional recording debut, on Marvin King’s album “Huge in Europe” — that’s him on the cover, a pint-size prodigy in shades and a wide-brimmed Stevie Ray Vaughan hat.
By the time he was a teenager, King said, “I didn’t want to just be the kiddo guitar player.” He started listening to more jazz, and paying closer attention to vocalists — from Aretha Franklin to David Ruffin to Janis Joplin — whose tone and phrasing he’d then try to emulate on his own instrument.
As soon as he was old enough to secure a learner’s permit, he was booking shows at any venue within driving distance. These experiences relieved him of whatever teenage timidity he had left. “Being in the clubs and having to stand your ground is kind of a scary place,” he said. His extracurricular activities made him chronically late for school. “They were so terrible about it, man,” he said. “They tried to put me in juvenile hall for truancy, multiple times.”
He eventually dropped out, and then toured relentlessly, working his way up to sharing stages and festival bills with the jam-circuit elite. He made three well-received albums of soul-inflected Southern rock as leader of the Marcus King Band, and earned a Grammy nomination for his first solo album, “El Dorado,” released in 2020.
Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, “El Dorado” drew on vintage AM-radio pop, Nudie-suit country and even psychedelia, bringing out a surprising delicacy in King’s preternaturally weathered vocals. But when King and Auerbach began mapping out plans for King’s next album, they quickly decided to tack in the opposite direction, aiming for something more raw and immediate.
It was a practical decision, at least at first. “He’s out on the road, on tour, and the venues keep getting bigger and bigger,” Auerbach said in an interview, “and he wanted some songs to help feed that energy he’s experiencing onstage.”
But in April, the momentum shifted. “Everything kind of fell apart in my personal life,” King said, his eyes suddenly downcast, narrowing behind his round tinted sunglasses.
The album would become a document of this harrowing period. “Every part of me believed this was going to be my last record,” King said, “’cause I just knew I was going to either drink or drug myself to death. I was already on that path.”
King started sneaking post-set beers while playing in bars as a teenager; as an adult, he said, he turned to alcohol and drugs to help him play through the pain of a punishing tour schedule. “If you’re tired and you need to get up and go, there’s things that’ll get you up to go. And if you’re depressed as hell, there’s things that will make you not so depressed,” he said. “And if you’re hung over, you do all those things again, and it goes away.”
This was particularly unwise given that King was also taking prescription medication. “A lot of people argue that pineapple don’t belong on pizza,” he said. “But I can tell you for a fact that antidepressants and alcohol don’t go together.”
Things got dark. King — who’d grown up in the Pentecostal church, whose father believed in messages from God, and whose mother often talked about premonitions and spirits — began to see ominous signs and symbols everywhere. The music of the English rock band Free seemed to follow him around; when King looked up the band’s lead guitarist, Paul Kossoff, he discovered that he’d died — of a pulmonary embolism, after years of drug use — when he was 25.
King was 25 when he read this; it didn’t feel like a coincidence. “When you start creating these signs in your mind,” he said, “they start to show up all over the place.”
Meanwhile, his relationship with his girlfriend was circling the drain. It was in April that they booked a staycation in Nashville, hoping to rekindle things; it didn’t work. One night he wound up walking the streets after dark, and encountered what he described as an “entity without a face”— a man in a hooded sweatshirt with nothing but a void inside the hood.
King says he wasn’t wearing his glasses at the time — but he was also sober that night. Whatever he’d actually seen, it felt like a message: “A heads-up that the end was coming soon for me, and to get all the work in that I could.”
“Young Blood”was in progress, and its track listing tells a story from the abyss — “It’s Too Late,” “Lie Lie Lie,” “Pain,” “Dark Cloud,” “Blues Worse Than I Ever Had.” But the tone of the music itself is defiant, not desperate; King calls it a “real war-cry kind of thing,” an attempt to rise from the ashes.
“I’ve been through a lot of those things that Marcus is going through,” Auerbach said. “I can relate, and I was just trying to be supportive the whole time. It was tough when he would come into a writing session and he would be late because things were bad at home. I felt bad for him. But in retrospect, it definitely set the fire of creativity when it came to making the record.”
These days King believes that weird night in Nashville was a warning, as opposed to an omen: Get it together, or else. He’s engaged to someone new — the singer Briley Hussey, who he says “kind of pulled me out of that crevasse”— and while he still enjoys the occasional glass of wine, he uses “non-repressive techniques” to deal with whatever demons arise.
One of those techniques is music. He was in Tuscany to put the finishing touches on another new record, working in a studio housed in a former 12th-century church at the suggestion of a producer he wouldn’t name.
Another new album?
“I’ve tried to keep a journal,” King said sheepishly. “And I just can’t keep up with the damn thing. So I just let it all build up. And then I write it in a record.”