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Interview: Emily King

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Emily King
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With her fantastic new studio album, "Scenery," as the backdrop, the R&B singer-songwriter will perform in Columbus Friday night at A&R Music Bar

First and foremost, let me say that it’s been a privilege to explore Emily King’s phenomenal new album, Scenery. The fusion of her smoked sugar voice and sultry, minimalist grooves are like the most perfect summer night personified – warm and soul-satisfying.

It’s no surprise that Scenery has evoked unanimous critical and fanatic praise across the industry (Sam Smith and Justin Timberlake are just a couple of artists who have declared their affection for King’s expert handiwork). Lead single “Remind Me” is a passionate gem with a bass-heavy pulse that bubbles up in between airy layers of harmony on the choruses, while “Look At Me Now” lingers a little longer with a decidedly retro R&B flair that rivals Diana Ross in her 1970s solo prime. It’s a batch of unarguably strong songs spun by an undeniably effective storyteller.

Born and raised in New York to Kalesti and Marion Cowings, accomplished jazz vocalists that have made music collectively and individually for decades, King began performing locally at the age of 16. In 2004, she was signed to Clive Davis’ J Records label, and made her commercial debut as a featured singer on rapper Nas’ renowned seventh studio album, Street’s Disciple, that same year. Her first album, the Grammy-nominated East Side Story, arrived in 2007.

King is currently on tour to support Scenery, which makes a stop in Columbus on Friday night at A&R Music Bar (Oakland-based folk singer Jennah Bell is her guest). Later this summer, she is scheduled to appear at SummerStage Central Park Festival and Woodstock in New York, and Lollapalooza in Chicago.

Last week, King and I had an opportunity to touch base about Scenery and the sometimes long and winding path she took toward its realization.

You’ve mentioned that making Scenery involved you taking some risks. What were some of the things you had to shift or sacrifice to make the project happen?

“Did I take risks? I suppose I did. I don’t know how risky it was [laughs] – I wasn’t hanging off the side of a mountain, or anything. I did want to try new things, and I think I needed to jump start the inspiration because it wasn’t really happening where I was at. So, I moved myself out of the city with the hope that it would trigger that feeling. And it worked! I really am sensitive – and I think we all are – to my environment. It either serves us, or it’s a disservice to our thoughts and feelings if we stay in the same place for too long. So, I think that was risky for me.

I had to learn how to drive. I didn’t know if I could! [laughs] I was terrified! It was scary. I mean, I figured everyone else can do it, but when I first started doing it, I didn’t have the motor skills. So, I had to train my foot to slowly press the gas, and not just go from zero to a hundred – things like that that I’m sure everyone else is used to by now! That was pretty thrilling.

Sonically and musically, I wanted to tell a different story on this album, and I wanted to, you know, express different feelings and have different grooves. Trying things that I hadn’t – different ways of singing that I’m not really used to, like on a song like ‘Remind Me’ where I’m really pushing the vocal on the hook. I hadn’t normally done that in the past, so I kind of had to train myself to sing that way and just sort of step out of my comfort zone.”

Once you made the move and removed those obstacles that were in your way, at what point did you feel that first stroke of inspiration? What started the flow for this particular set of songs?

“I think, yeah, just immediately being in a space where I didn’t have to worry about the neighbors, and I could just do what I wanted to, essentially, without a roommate or anybody like that around. [laughs] You have to be really selfish when you’re creating, you know, and sometimes it’s hard when there are other people around that you care about and you’re trying to be there for them.

So, I immediately had this sense of adventure and excitement. And, then, after about a week or so of procrastinating, I finally sat down and told myself to write a song, and it finally just kind of happened. These words came out, and I sang without really playing guitar, which in that moment was easier because sometimes the guitar will stop it – because I’m know a virtuoso, you know? I’ll be searching for the right chord and you’ll lose the idea.

And, so, I just sang these words, and it ended up being the song called ‘Remind Me,’ which is on the record. That song felt good right away, and I thought, ‘okay, I can still write a song. Let me try to do some more.’ Yeah, I think that was enough encouragement to keep going.”

From your perspective, what makes a good song? Or, maybe, how do you know when you’ve written a good song by your standards? What has to click for you to recognize it?

“Hmm. There are so many different ways to write a good song, and there are so many different, you know, formulas and different paths you can take. Sometimes, I’ll hear a great song and I just don’t understand how they came up with it – but I know that it’s a great song. Maybe there’s not even a hook at all, and I’m just, like, ‘this is great!’

So, I think, for me…because I had a hard time a couple of years ago when I was trying to write, and I got so heady about it. And, I was asking myself that very question – how do you write, or what makes a great song? Then I went to a friend of mine and told them, ‘I just want to write a great song.’ And that friend said to me, ‘I don’t want you to write a great song. I just want to know how you feel.’ And I thought, ‘ugh! That’s way harder than trying to write. Now I’ve gotta feel stuff!’ [laughs]

But, that really hit home, because then I realized there are so many great songs because the great ones connect the feeling to the melody in the most genuine way. It’s just a pure expression – melody, rhythm, and feeling, you know? I think if you can get to that place without getting too mental about it, you have a great song. So, that’s the goal, but it’s hard because you get down these rabbit holes trying to piece the puzzle together, when all you have to do is feel something. It’s the hardest thing to do, to express how you’re feeling in a way that other people can understand.”

And that’s really what I love about the album – there’s a sense of intimacy and connection. When I was listening to you, it felt as though you were telling your story directly to me. And not discredit pop music in its current state because there’s room for all of it, but sometimes I have a hard time relating to a lot of it. 

“Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, my ears don’t like that loud, bright stuff. But, it appeals to a different part of your life. If you’re in a club or something, it’s fun. I like the more feely stuff. When I go to a movie, I want them to make me cry, you know? I want them to take me somewhere I’m not able to go to on my own.”

The song “Caliche” really intrigued me when I first heard it. Of course, I had to look up what the word meant…

“Ha! Nice. Me too, actually!”

There’s imagery there that really spoke to me – being surrounded by the desert, either literally or figuratively. It’s imposing, but in a positive way. How did that song come about?

“That song – I had the blueprint for the hook: ‘first you wanted it / then you needed it.’ And, I wanted it to be open to interpretation. I do love music that isn’t so on the nose, you know? I’m not a poet, by any means. In fact, Jeremy Most, my producer, came up with that word that he had heard in one of his favorite movies, No Country for Old Men. That song always made us think of the desert – searching for something, but also running away from something, or something taking over you. It could mean a lot of things, but I think we wanted to more so paint a picture, because that song was already so visual for us. I’m glad you agree.

But, honestly, I don’t even know what it’s about! [laughs] I’m still trying to figure out what that one is about. I guess it’s whatever you want it to be.”

Regardless, I think it’s so haunting. Beautifully so.

“I love that haunting stuff, too! I love it when music is kind of scary. It’s fun.”

You spoke about writer’s block and inspiration as being challenges to your creativity. What do you most fear as an artist? 

“Well, the fear is to phone it in and not challenge yourself, because you think you’ve succeeded already. You just get comfortable. I think that’s the fear is to not fulfill a potential because you are disillusioned to think you already have. And there’s so much to learn, and so much to try. You have to constantly kind of humble yourself.

I was just at Coachella last week, and I saw an artist that was so inspiring that it kind of hurt a little bit to watch her show. [laughs] And, I was grateful for that moment because that doesn’t always happen. I felt a little growing pain in my soul – like, ‘Okay, I’m not really where I want to be yet.’”

Another artist and I discussed that recently, and how even the most accomplished creative people are constantly striving for more – of something. What does that look like for you?

“I would really like to be more prolific than I’ve been. I really admire artists with a huge catalog that’s consistent and exciting, and there’s a little bit of everything. I would just love to keep growing that catalog. It makes playing shows more fun and exciting because you have more to choose from, because you can throw in this song, or that song. Yeah, so maybe that’s…selfishly I just want to have more of a fun show, or a longer show.”

And now you’re tasked with making Scenery a complete live experience while you’re on tour. What has been your goal as you’ve been making preparations to go on the road?

“I want them to feel good – that’s my main goal. To take them out of their concern for that time, and to be present enough with them so that I am accomplishing that. Because if I’m distracted or focusing on something else, they feel that. We have these animal instincts that tell us, you know, when we’re being lied to. So, I think that’s my goal, to have this experience where we’re all in one emotion, and we come out of it having fun. There’s a release and this kind of a ride that you take everybody on.”

Emily King appears this Friday, May 3, 7 p.m. at A&R Music Bar, 391 Neil Ave. in the Arena District, with special guest Jennah Bell. General admission tickets are $22, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about Emily by visiting her official website, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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