Marcus King Talks About the Therapy of Music and His New Album El Dorado

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Marcus King Talks About the Therapy of Music and His New Album El Dorado

After moving from Greenville, S.C., to Nashville, Marcus King had a lot to process. He and Dan Auerbach wrote 21 tracks for King’s new solo album, El Dorado before cutting that number down to 12, which they recorded at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound over just three days.

Maybe that explains the record’s genre fluidity. El Dorado starts with crooning soul and slips into strutting rock, then segues casually into R&B, funk, and all manner of musical modes. Most records that leap from style to style tend to develop identity crises. But King is the throughline El Dorado: The album functions like a window into who he is as a musician and a man, and chronicles his journey over the years and across state lines, sonically switching gears to fit the needs of individual tracks. Think of El Dorado as King’s declaration of self, and also as his therapy.

Paste Magazine sat down with King to talk about that therapeutic element and the role it plays in his identity, in his discography writ large, and on El Dorado specifically:

Paste Magazine: For you, mentally, what went into El Dorado? What did you want to say with this album, to differentiate it from a Marcus King Band album?
Marcus King: Oh, man, this was an opportunity for me, for my first record as a resident in Nashville, to stretch my legs and put a different accent on it, you know, as opposed to what I’ve done in the past, which has been more focused on guitar playing. This record was focusing more on myself as a frontman, with a different kind of energy put forth. And it was an opportunity to work with [Dan] Auerbach, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I guess it’s not the best way to put it, but I wanted to relinquish a little bit of the creative control to someone that I trusted, you know?

In the past, I’ve always worked with producers, but I’ve never fully—and I guess I still haven’t—but I guess the best way to put it is, work with someone who I trusted to get the right project done.

Paste: That phrase, “relinquish control.” Is that a bit scary to have to do that, even knowing that the person you’re giving control to is someone you trust?
King: Yeah, man. I mean, you gotta do that a little bit. You gotta be willing to play ball. I mean, you wanted these people to be there. It’s the same thing like when I worked with Dave Cobb. What comes to mind is Dave’s idea for what “Goodbye Carolina” should’ve been and my idea were very different. So I did it his way and I played ball, because I trust Dave. He has an incredible ear. So I said, “We’ll try it.” So I did that and I listened to it when I went home that night, and it just didn’t sit right. So I came back the next night, put the time and energy into trying to see it his way, and I said, “I’m just not feeling it.” But if you’re working with someone and you relinquish control, and you give it a shot without just shutting it down immediately, people tend to respect that more, you know? So it’s always kind of scary. But obviously you speak up if something really doesn’t sit well with you.

Paste: Did you find that easy to do? Me, I’m not a speaking-up kind of guy, so the idea of having to say, “Hey, this isn’t right,” sounds intimidating.
King I’ve got a pretty good spiritual guide within me that allows me to roll with the punches until it jumps out at me if I don’t agree with something. I don’t allow myself to disagree with things unless I really disagree with them, and on this record, I don’t think that happened at all. I was a fan of everything, every idea that they were having in the studio. The only thing I would do is add more ideas. I never had any conflicting feelings about what we were doing. We just rolled right along, man. The chemistry on this album was pretty heavy. It’s cosmic.

Paste: It sounds like Nashville suited you well.
King I fell in love with that town, man. When I’m sitting in traffic, I start to wonder why the hell I moved there, but when I get to where I’m headed, it makes me feel right back at home.

Paste: There’s a lot of incredible, electric energy there. I’m not a musician, but even now I’m feeling it. So you tapped into that energy and drew on that, and that flowed naturally into what you were trying to accomplish with this album?
King I think in a big way, yeah. Nashville in a way had a very big voice on this record, you know? It’s kinda like how people say that about cities being a cast member on shows. That’s I feel about Nashville on this record.

Paste: That’s interesting to me. The title reflects you moving to Nashville. It’s a destination. But for you, how did it manifest as a character?
King Well, just the sound of Nashville, that old-school grit, that sound that was brought by all the cats that were playing on this record, you know? The guys that were there in the heyday that helped to create and build that sound, and laid down the foundation for people like myself to come in and pull from—that well of knowledge that we talk about on the record and tap into. That’s where we’re pulling our resources from, the well, and the way that Nashville becomes a super important part of the record is just for that: just being there and cutting a record there and living there while cutting the record there. Those are all important factors to it. Like you said, there’s an electric energy here. The way that I see Nashville is like a fluorescent bulb. It just kinda has that buzz to it when you get there. That’s how I feel every time I come home.

Paste: Yeah, I totally get that vibe. I hope I get to go back there. You mentioned “The Well”; that’s the first song that I heard off of the record. Talk about an introduction. That song’s like a statement of purpose. There’s so much confidence in it. So we’re talking about this foundation that you’re working off, and to me there are two things you’re trying to do here: honor that foundation, but also bring that confidence. Did you find that difficult to balance?
King Yeah. I guess it’s my own way of having any confidence on a project like this, because for me, I’ve always been reserved and almost introverted, not this confident frontman. You kinda need a little bit of that to break through, I guess is what I’ve learned. You need a little confidence just to have people listen to you. It’s difficult for me to bring that energy forth, but when I’m doing it in a way that’s also respectful to my elders, and the people that I grew up hearing play this music, it makes it a little bit easier for me to really confidently put out something in this vein that carries all of the weight of my musical heroes. I feel like I have some validation working with the cats that played on those records and who would tell me if I was bullshittin’ the idea.

Paste: That’s lucky, to have the voices in the room to call you on your stuff when it comes up. That’s so surprising to me, to hear you talk about introversion. I struggle with introversion myself; I definitely feel that. But I can’t imagine going up on stage, the way I’m introverted. Does that feel cathartic to you?
King Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what it is. Men in my family have never been good at sharing our feelings, and the women in my family neither, for that matter. This is how every man in my family has ever expressed himself emotionally, whether they saw it as that or not. It’s a cathartic release of energy and it’s important to get it out. I think a lot of people don’t have this, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, release of energy. For the men in my family, it’s been sometimes conscious, sometimes not, and for me, I’m very aware of it. That’s how it’s been since I was a kid. It’s something that I need to do to feel better, to say what I need to say. That’s my voice and you’re not going to get much out of me aside from that. I’ve gotten a lot better with it. It’s something I work on. But playing music and being on stage has always been my release, my separation, from the mundanity of existence, I guess.

Paste: Listening to you speak about it, it almost sounds like you’re talking about a form of therapy. Is playing music a therapeutic act for you?
King Yeah man. Entirely. It’s always been like therapy for me, and I’ve learned recently that sometimes you need that impartial party that’ll just listen to you implicitly and won’t interrupt you, that’ll just be there for you with all the love in the world. It’ll never disagree with you, because whatever you want to put down musically, if that’s how you felt in your heart, then that’s what you should be saying. But the trouble with that, being a traveling musician and always being on the go, is that when you have something that kind of feels like you’re surrounded by yes men all the time, it feels good for awhile, but then you want someone to disagree with you. And that’s where real therapy comes in handy. You need some critical thinking on the other side, because music will always agree with you.

Paste: When you think about writing a song and engaging with that therapeutic quality, how do you decide, from song to song, to marry style to the kind of feelings you’re working through? How do you think about fitting that therapy into the style?
King Well, it’s kind of funny. For me it’s an interesting process, because I just like to put things down, and however they come out, that’s how they were intended, you know? If I feel good about it, then I know that I’ve completed the thought once I have something tracked on tape, and I know that it’ll always be there even after I’m long gone. That’s when I feel that I’ve finally gotten something off my chest. So that’s the complete thought. It always comes out how it’s supposed to. It hasn’t failed me yet. I don’t sit down to say, “We’re going to write a rock song.” That’s contrived to me, and I could never play a part in that, unless I was with someone that was like, “Hey, I want to write a rock song for me.” Then I’d be like, “I can help you out.”

But for me, I can’t work like that. That’s how we did this entire album: We just sat down and wrote, and whatever came out, that’s how, how we tracked it. That’s why the album is all over the place stylistically. But that’s a good peek into my brain. I’m a little bit all over the place and scrambled, and my musical taste is the same.

I guess the only thought I would add on to that is that these writing sessions with multiple people, the only way I can put it sis kind of like going to your therapy sessions, and bringing like two friends or acquaintances, and having to be as completely bare and forthcoming and honest as you want to be, just to be able to get the full attention and treatment that you need. But it’s also a little awkward. It’s kind of like a first date.

Paste: Yeah, I get that, too. That’s an intimate kind of experience that you’re talking about. I can only imagine that’s something you want people to hear and feel for themselves? Do you want to inspire them to find the support that they need so they can work through their stuff as you do on this record?
King Yeah! I’m always a big advocate for that. I like to tell our fans, I like to be extremely open with them, and just let them see that we’re just human beings, and it’s important just to get it out, however that may be. For me, I write, and I sing, and I play, and it’s all very emotional. Emotionally releasing energy is what’s important. If you like to run, or you like to jog, or you like to draw—shit, I mean if you just need to go yell out your window . . . what’s that movie about the anchorman? “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”?

Paste: That’s Network, man!
King Network, yeah. It’s kinda like that. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, like I’m just yelling out of a window. [Laughs]

‘El Dorado’ is available everywhere on January 17.