Elle King Recounts Her Journey From Her Rural Ohio Roots Through New York City to the Heart of Country Music
Elle King grew up in southern Ohio, eating ketchup, baloney, and cheese sandwiches. Her grandfather was a railroad conductor in a coal mining town, and her brother had worked at all the factories within a 40-mile radius.
"You either work in factories, you join the military, or you get pregnant at 16, which everybody in my family did, by the way," King said. "I love it. And I also want to celebrate it. I had to find my path and find myself first to celebrate where my family is from."
King's debut country album "Come Get Your Wife" is out now. While the collection is the boisterous singer's first foray into the country genre, she is already a seasoned music industry veteran. King's 2014 debut pop single "Ex's & Oh's" is four times platinum, and her debut album "Love Stuff" is platinum. However, with the release of her first country album – which contains her current Top 40 hit and Dierks Bentley collaboration "Worth A Shot," her platinum single "Drunk (And I Don't Want To Go Home)," with Miranda Lambert and "Lucky," a song inspired by her infant son - King has found her forever home in country music.
"As much as I've been a very open book to the world, I still only let people see a sliver of who I am," King explained. "Becoming a mother and being accepted by the fans in country music, that really, really helped me. When I came into country music, I felt the more I am myself, the more they connect with me and celebrate me for being different or who I am.'"
The collection is a stunning, heartfelt, gritty, adventurous album of authentic story-telling songs that unflinchingly reveals King's dedication and pride in her mid-western roots and her willingness to step outside of her comfort zone and take control of her creative narrative.
Country music fans frequently tell the singer they would be best friends because of her Ohio upbringing and over-the-top personality. But King's history is also laden with experiences and dimensions that are atypical in the genre – and the general population. Born to famous parents– actors Rob Schneider and London King – the singer lived two different realities. Schneider took King to New York City when she was a child, and the pair went to see theater productions. She moved to the Big Apple at 11 years old, and for a while, King wanted to be a theater actress. Later, she realized she enjoyed singing more than acting.
King was kicked out of her high school play when she was 15 or 16 years old for not doing her homework. The penalty didn't just keep her off stage – it kept her from performing on a theater trip to Scotland.
"I was just basically killing time until I could play music and move on with my life," she said. "I just wasn't a very good student, and I didn't do well in that entire part of my life."
She turned to open-mic nights about that time and remembers discovering the difference between singing a song written by someone else and singing her own. She found more joy and power in being on stage as a singer than as an actress. King didn't have a lot of self-confidence, but she was tough.
"I always had to be quick and witty and try to make new friends in new places, new cities," she said. "That kind of worked for me when I started to go up on stage. I always joke that musician parties were more fun than actor parties."
The truth, though, was that she searched for the area of artistic expression that made her feel most comfortable in her own skin. She didn't want to pretend to be someone she wasn't – even though she found great joy in theater productions.
Her primary instrument was banjo, and when King signed her record deal in New York City, it sprouted from the simplicity of her on a stool with her instrument. The record label scrambled to figure out how to categorize the singer with her edgy appearance, raspy voice and twangy strings. When "Ex's & Oh's" got traction, they made her an alternative pop star. But banjo has always been at the core of her artistry.
"We go in the studio, and we start recording this 'quote unquote' country album, and we didn't have to make it up," said her manager Mary Hilliard Harrington. "We just went back to the basics."
The result, Harrington said, is so authentically King that it is unmistakable.
"People would be like, 'Well, is it country enough? Is that too pop?" Harrington said. "Everyone's always thinking so much. At the end of the day, I would always go back to, 'What would Elle King do? Just do what Elle King would do. It's so her that it cannot be mistaken for anyone else, which is most of the battle when everything starts to sound alike on streaming services."
Harrington is also the root of where King's country music career began. A longtime fan of the singer, Harrington suggested King as a possible duo partner to her other management client, Dierks Bentley, when he was looking for someone to join him on his 2016 hit "Different for Girls." When the request came in, King had never heard of Bentley. She told her brother about the offer, and he insisted she do it.
"My brother said, 'If you don't sing on that song, you have to,'" King recalled. "I said, 'Well, anything to make you think I'm cool.' Everything I do is to make my family proud. I want to connect people who may not know about modern country music. They exist, and I want to bring them in. I want to celebrate that the country fans have allowed me to have this kind of a space of expression and make what country is to me."
The genre has also brought her closer to her brother because now the pair have something to discuss. He's her best friend and her favorite person, but they were living very separate lives until she started playing country music. She said her family could understand her job for the first time because country music is something they're interested in.
"What actually happened (with Bentley) was I made a friend who changed my life, opened up my world and my mind in a massive way, and pivoted the trajectory of my life and my career in multiple ways," she said.
The admiration is mutual.
"She's got a killer voice," Bentley told Today's Country Radio with Kelleigh Bannen. "She's rowdy but respectful. I think that's her own tagline, which I love. When you're around her, you just never know what you're gonna get, which is great. You look back at the history of the people in this town that made country music what it is, and all the people we love the most are the ones that are little out there. They're supposed to shoot from the hip. And she definitely does."
Even after "Different for Girls" became a huge hit, King wasn't sure she'd have the opportunity to make an entire country album. But she did – and she took creative control even though she didn't have extensive experience in the genre. King co-wrote the bulk of the songs on "Come Get Your Wife," which she also co-produced alongside of Ross Copperman. She wanted the album to be a piece of her. To set the tone for the project, she kicked the record off with her song "Ohio," an ode to her childhood, her family and where they come from.
"That basically tells the story … of the connection that I felt when I started coming into the country world, why I felt so comfortable, why I felt like it was my new home and why I kept coming back," she said. "I just felt this connection I didn't feel in pop and rock. I wanted to open up and share more about my life that I hadn't really expressed yet."
She co-wrote the song with Ella Langley and Matt McKinney. Langley and McKinney co-wrote five songs on the project. After the first song, King said she had the "courage to connect the dots" and share all the sides of herself.
Langley said she brought every hook she had to King and that they wrote five songs in two days on King's bus.
"It was an incredible experience to get into Elle's head as a writer," Langley said. "When you meet Elle and hear how she talks about why she wanted to make this country album, you get it. You know this is her. This is Elle being Elle. She has so much respect for country music."
King hopes that comes across in her music. She said country music fans "know when you're faking it." She's not faking it.
"I wanted to be my very true, authentic self," she said. "That's something that country's given me because I've felt this like just kind of immediate acceptance before."