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"Playing For Keeps" by Elle King
Elle King sounds like Billie Holiday having a shot of whiskey with Johnny Cash. She loves banjos and hobos. Born in Ohio and raised in Brooklyn, Elle retains her roots in a style that blends those worlds of both grit and mid-western charm. She ties her old soul, blues, and rock 'n' roll influences into a sound that’s all her own. She’s far from a bully but she ain’t a punk. To hear her is to believe her. Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Elle King may be just 23 years old, but she’s already got quite a story to tell. Born in rural Ohio, she moved to New York City at age 10—“there was definitely a big difference going from climbing trees barefoot to taking the subway by myself,” she says. After getting kicked out of school, she headed to California, then returned to New York, and then Philadelphia for art college. Since then, King’s home base went from Copenhagen back to LA before finally settling down in New York, where she has recorded one of the most exciting and unique debut projects of recent years.
Already hailed by such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Glamour, Perez Hilton, and Vanity Fair—and featuring “Playing for Keeps,” which was chosen as the theme song for VH1’s Mob Wives Chicago series—the four-song THE ELLE KING EP reveals all of this experience with a sound and style that is distinct and mature beyond King’s young age. In the midst of her far-flung and hell-raising travels, King started playing the guitar at age 13 (“a friend of my stepdad’s taught me, and I learned stuff by, like, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Otis Redding”) and then later picked up a banjo, inspired by the Hank Williams and Earl Scruggs records her family listened to.
King pinpoints the day her life changed to her ninth birthday when her stepfather gave her the first album by hard-rocker girls the Donnas. “I put that on and that was it,” she says. “I wanted to play rock and roll and be a girl and do it. I started listening to the Runaways and Blondie—all the rad chicks.”
It was during her time in Philadelphia that her music took a different turn, toward her current country-blues-soul blend, and her songwriting got more serious. “I was living on my own, getting into way too much trouble, and really getting my heart broken for the first time,” she says. “I made friends with people who slept on park benches and wrote songs, and it made me start putting different words together. I’ve never been shy, but that’s when I started singing in parks and busking.”
A romantic disaster in Copenhagen led to the song that King considers her breakthrough, “Good To Be A Man” (featured on the EP), which has already garnered airplay on such influential radio stations as KCRW Santa Monica and XPN Philadelphia. “I thought it was catchy, and I saw that people liked to sing along to the mean songs,” she says.
Following her own set at an outdoor show, King stuck around to watch a young band “just some cute boys who play banjos and guitars”—and discovered a new way to approach her instruments. “When I picked up the banjo, I would play country music, that went hand-in-hand,” she says. “But these guys played the banjo just as an instrument, not stylized in any kind of mold, and I got it—just play it because it’s beautiful. So I’m not twanging it anymore, and that totally opened up my songwriting. I had stopped writing on the banjo because I wanted a break from country songs, but now these weird songs just started coming out.”
In addition to “Playing for Keeps” and “Good to Be a Man,” the EP includes another King original, “No One Can Save You,” and a live cover of Khia’s gloriously lewd hip-hop hit “My Neck, My Back,” which the singer says she included “so everyone can see that I’m kind of a crazy wild card—the only problem is now I can’t send it to my grandma.”
While working on her full-length debut album, King has been touring with such acts as Train, Of Monsters and Men, and Dry the River, and her boisterous live show has been earning notice and acclaim everywhere she goes. The Austin Chronicle raved about her “shockingly sexy-sorrowful songsmithery” and her “sweetheart-with-a-knife voice that promises potentially dangerous intimacy on a grand, spooky scale.”
For Elle King, all the hard living and hard work has gotten her to the place she always wanted, where she and her music are being accepted on her own terms. “People made fun of me when I was little, and I was never confident,” she says. But one day I was like, ‘I like getting tattoos and dying my hair, I like singing loud—and people started listening. I was never begging for people to like it, and now everyone is like, ‘We love you for you, just be yourself.’”
“All I want in life is for people to sing the words to my songs at my shows,” she concludes. “One of my dreams is coming true, and it’s coming true in a really great way.”