Marcus King interview: “If you get a Marshall stack to sing just the right way you can almost emulate a Tina Turner or Janis Joplin"

Marcus King
(Image credit: Alysse Gafjken.)

Marcus King might only be 24 years old but his soul has already got some miles on it. The South Carolinian is wise beyond his years. You can hear it in his voice, in his phrasing, and in a songwriting sensibility that allows his band to deftly swing from blues and Southern rock to soul and back again.

When it comes time to talk shop and unpack the influences, gear and craft behind his debut solo album, El Dorado (nominated for best Americana album at the forthcoming Grammy Awards), King scarcely wastes a word. A storyteller by nature and trade, it’s like note choice – the words matter. “Songs should tell a good story,” he says. “Whatever metaphors you can use, it is a lot like writing a very short story.”

Co-written and produced by Dan Auerbach, El Dorado has no shortage of moments when King turns up the heat with the electric guitar, but it is notable for how often he dials it back to let his voice and the acoustic carry the song. It is no surprise to hear him cite soul legends Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye among his inspirations.

Here, King talks about about multi-generational musical upbringing, the benefits of a jazz education, his talismanic Gibson ES-345 and more.

Marcus, opening the album with Young Man’s Dream, with acoustic guitars foregrounding the vocal, seemed like a statement. What was the thinking there?

“Well, on that opening track, the mic was so hot. You can hear me sipping my tea. That was a stylistic choice on the production side of things, and when I heard it I was really pleased with the way that it turned out. It made the opening of the record very vulnerable and in that way I was glad to put myself out there, and give people a heads up that it was going to be coming from a very real place within me, and so that people would open themselves up to me as well.”

Definitely. It draws the audience in closer. Do you remember what mic it was?

“It was a very special mic. I don’t know how many trade secrets I am allowed to disclose but it was a wonderful mic – and it was an old mic. I want to say it was an old ribbon microphone. It captured quite a bit of the magic in the air.”

"I grew up on country and western music with my grandfather, and Southern rock and blues with my father, but the discovery I made on my own was soul music"

There is a very strong soul vibe…

“It was intentional that we focused more on the vocals and on the songwriting capabilities of myself and the team, and that soulful side just kinda came out. It is a huge part of me. I grew up on country and western music with my grandfather, and Southern rock and blues with my father, but the discovery I made on my own was soul music, artists like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, James Brown.

“Artists like that were the ones that jumped out at me and that was my discovery. You know what I mean? It was the music that I sought out and chased. On this record, we followed that approach a little more. It was unintentional and intentional at the same time, if that makes sense.”

Absolutely, and it makes perfect sense to bring your voice forward. After all, much of what we do on the guitar endeavours to get close to a vocal performance. And no matter how good the player is, they fall short.

“There is always going to be that separation because I think what is beautiful about the voice is that people can at least relate to the lyrical content if they are not melodically inclined… There is one more layer that they can peel off. But, y’know, the guitar, the instrumentation, is also really important because that spans beyond language, and beyond all these other boundaries, so to be able to do both is special in my eyes – and to my ears.

“But it’s funny you said it, when I actually started out playing guitar my intention was to try to emulate the female vocal cords with my guitar through my amplifier. If you get a Marshall stack to sing just the right way you can almost emulate a Tina Turner or Janis Joplin. But it doesn’t quite get there. That was when I started singing at that age, about 13 or 14.”

That is the horizon that guitarists are always chasing, how do we get that full-throttle rawness, or vulnerability, of Joplin’s voice in our vibrato.

“Oh the journey is the destination with that one!”

You studied jazz. How has that grounding helped you bring in different styles and put them together?

“Yeah, that’s the perfect way to put it. It was very grounding. It was humbling. To be able to study that material with my instructor, Steve Watson, at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, it was kind of a way for me to learn the guidelines and the rules, and then to learn the proper way to break them. I was really inspired by my couple of years there, learning jazz theory and really just getting a better melodic vocabulary and a deeper understanding of music, which just furthered my appreciation for it.

“That was just so valuable to me, that time I spent there, and it helps me now just to have a really good understanding of theory – at least to the point where I can go do a session. Y’know, it is important to be able to know the vocabulary when you are working in the industry. It just makes communication much easier.”

Do you enjoy session work? It seems like a Southern tradition to sit in with other musicians and collaborate as widely as possible.

“Man, I think it is a beautiful thing to do. Collaborations are always a beautiful thing. Whether you are talking about Clapton sitting in with Delaney, Bonnie & friends, or Duane Allman sitting in with Clapton for Derek and the Dominos, it spans all the way back. And you are totally right, it is a Southern tradition, and that is how I grew up doing it. If I get the call and I am excited to play with that individual, I am going to be there with bells on. I just like to play, y’know! [Laughs]”

Could you take us back to the El Dorado sessions and talk about some of the gear you used? Besides vintage microphones, of course…

“Man, going in and working with Dan Auerbach I just felt I would not be taking full advantage of the situation if I didn’t let him just tell me what I should play through. [Laughs] I just let Dan speak for the gear that he would recommend to me, and what we played through for the entire record was an old accordion amplifier from the 50s.

“It was called a Flot-A-Tone, an accordion amplifier, and depending on the song, we would just adjust the volume and play straight through it – with the exception of maybe one fuzz pedal. The amp was recorded in the bathroom, which got the natural reverberation. 

"On the record I played an SG Custom. I played a Fender Telecaster, and I think an old Guild acoustic. The [ES-]345 was there. I played it on the record but it was mostly there for moral support, because it is my security blanket! But, for the most part, that was the gear.”

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Marcus King

(Image credit: Olly Curtis / Future)

Marcus King rig tour 

"That guitar was sort of my guiding light. It was my torch. It was my everything"

Talk to us a bit about your Gibson ES-345. All those parts you played on a Tele or SG, you’ll be able to play them on the ES-345 on the road.

“Oh yeah, man. The ES-345 is a very special one to me. That is what my grandfather played and when he passed – unfortunately when I was 14 – he left it to my father, and when I was 18 years old my father give it to me as a symbol of support, a symbol of being able to take a little bit of my grandfather’s energy with me as I was embarking on what seemed to be a never-ending tour. 

"We went out and we didn’t turn back for I don’t know how long, six years. That guitar was sort of my guiding light. It was my torch. It was my everything, so I am working with Gibson now on replicating it and hopefully being able to give it as a guiding light to other players embarking on their own journey.”

Do you know when your signature ES-345 will be out?

“You’ll have to forgive me! I do know it has been rumoured for quite some time but 2021 is going to be a big year for a lot of different reasons and that prototype is one of those reasons. I think it is fair to see that the second quarter of 2021 that guitar will be available to get into some people’s hands.”

Heirlooms always have this almost cosmic significance, they connect us to those we have lost, but especially so with a guitar. It feels like a living, breathing thing, with a potential that’s endless, and helps keep those memories alive.

“Absolutely, man. I totally agree. Y’know, for that, it’s literally a memory of my grandfather that can actually speak, it can speak volumes.”

"I am just really thankful for those days and that wholesome upbringing that allows me to understand the finer things in life which might just happen to be the simpler things in life.”

Looking at your upbringing in the South, it seems inherently romantic, that music is always around you, what was that like? When we speak to artists from the South they tend to have this gift for storytelling. Is that something you get from your folks?

“Well I would say the same for your culture, too, the Scottish people. You have always been very gifted storytellers. I always enjoy hearing stories when we go over there and I appreciate you saying that. I think it is a real romantic thought about the South and it is inherently true.

“That is one of my fondest memories, sitting around with my grandfather telling stories, and laughing at his own jokes! It was just a very wholesome environment to grow up around and that paired with the music we would make on Sunday afternoons on the front porch, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, y’know, I just couldn’t have asked for a better way to grow up, and I am just really thankful for those days and that wholesome upbringing that allows me to understand the finer things in life which might just happen to be the simpler things in life.”

Absolutely. Amen to that. That storytelling in verse is something you have had since day one.

“Oh yeah, man. I think it is important to tell a story with anything that you do. You need to have a discernible beginning and an ending, and what happens in the middle, well, a lot of that should be open to improvisation, and that is how I write a song."

How valuable has touring been for inspiration? Those experiences are so mind-expanding. They change you artistically and as a human being.

“Man, what I love about travelling is getting a fine appreciation of other cultures and feeling what it is like to be a guest in someone’s home, and I mean that metaphorically. When we go on tour we are guests, in the UK, in the EU, or in Asia. When we are guests in someone’s home and feeling people appreciate us being there and being kind to us, it just gives us a further idea of how people feel when they come to our country. Because it is a beautiful country here, and we just appreciate that people want to come here and enjoy the bounties of our land. 

"It gives you a fonder appreciation of people in general, and a greater understanding of what other people might be going through, and I think that is important in songwriting… In anything in life. Just being kind to your fellow man – try to put yourself in their shoes.”

Have you had time to write during 2020?

“Oh man, yeah. We took those first couple of months off because, like everybody else, we thought it was going to be a couple of months off the road, and it was the longest we had been home in six or seven years or so. We thought we’d take advantage of this time off.

“Then two months turned into three, four, and once we got back to work and putting on some livestream shows, putting on some drive-in shows, that was when the working brain kicked back in. I got back into the swing of things, and that’s when I started writing a lot, and I started tracking quite a bit of demos. We are sitting on a stockpile of songs and we are going to be getting ready to get into the studio here in the start of ’21.”

"It is still going to sound like me. It may not sound like the last interpretation of me but it will always be there"

That’s a great position to be in. Have you noticed a change in your sound in that time?

“That’s kind of the underlying goal with everything I put out. It is still going to sound like me. It may not sound like the last interpretation of me but it will always be there, and it is just how I am feeling at the moment. Rest assured that playing guitar and singing is always how I get my emotions out to the forefront. It is how I speak my mind. So I am always going to need to do that! [Laughs] Even if the sound’s going to change a little bit here and there.”

You have described music as therapy, a form of self-care, but how do you manage to keep it healthy? Because it’s a job, and there’s all the pressure that comes with that.

“Well, what’s important to keep in mind is that everything that’s off the stage is the very non-therapeutic part. [Laughs] That’s where I have often described my anxiety or my work ethic to be like a duck on the water, where it looks very elegant and it looks very effortless, and very peaceful, but if you were to flip that duck up on its head and see the legs kicking, it’s very erratic!

“But that is what the road is. You make every preparation off the stage to make sure that you have a very peaceful set that can almost become transcendental in a way. You just kinda lean into the music, then you can speak from that very spiritual place. You can have a cathartic moment that can be very therapeutic… As long as you have everything set in place. Don’t bring any of the negative onstage with you. That’s just a recipe for disaster.”

El Dorado is out now via Fantasy. 

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.