Right around when the weather in New York started getting chilly in October, Elle King came home after a month of U.K. shows and knew, before she even left the airport, her life had changed. “I got some fist bumps; a couple people yelled, ‘Elle King, you rule!’ ” says the raspy-voiced 26-year-old singer-songwriter, sounding mind-blown. “It has been a really crazy year.”
Elle King: The Billboard Shoot
The reason? “Ex’s and Oh’s,” a revved-up, hook-laden saga of the real-life trail of broken hearts that King has left from Texas to London. The track has risen to the top rungs of the charts months after its 2014 release, and moves 15-12 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated Nov. 14, its 17th week on the tally. The hit also made King just the second woman in two decades (after Lorde) to top the Alternative Songs list and the only woman to lead Hot Rock Songs in 2015. Powered by the crossover smash, King’s debut LP, Love Stuff — which features an all-star crew of collaborators including Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker — is also on the rise, hitting a new peak, No. 26, on the Nov. 7 Billboard 200 after debuting at No. 45 in March. So now, the hard-partying artist — who sounds a little like Amy Winehouse and looks a lot like a banjo-wielding Anna Nicole Smith — is ready to introduce the world to the face behind the song it increasingly can’t escape.
That is, if the world’s ready: Even when she’s not fully on — like, say, during sound check for her show on this night at New York’s Webster Hall — King demands attention. It’s her hair, a newly green-tinged blond weave that she’s pretty psyched about. It’s her tattoos, which snake down both arms and include a bouquet of flowers inscribed “Dirty Deeds” and some classic sailor-style sexy ladies. But most of all it’s her personality: brassy and bigger-than-life, but also raw and vulnerable. “She’s kind of an artist from another era, who can just capture a room with a guitar and her voice,” says Bhasker, who worked on three Love Stuff tracks — including standout “Last Damn Night,” recorded with Ronson at Memphis’ Sun Studios when they were in town making “Uptown Funk!” “Her voice is just so unique and full of pain and passion.”
At Webster Hall, King steps up to the mic, murmurs “Test, test … testicle” and launches into a powerhouse cover of The Beatles‘ “Oh! Darling,” which stays remarkably faithful to the original — until the end, when the chorus becomes “F–ing darling.” After sound check she bounds offstage, grabs a Jameson bottle from a nearby table and heads back into her dressing room to mix up another whiskey and Red Bull. “I know, it’s disgusting. Don’t judge me! I do a lot worse things — this isn’t even one of them.”
She’s psyched to be playing her hometown tonight: King has a place in Brooklyn, right around the corner from her mother in one of the borough’s brownstone neighborhoods. They relocated to New York from Columbus, Ohio — not far from Wellston, the tiny Appalachian town where her mom grew up and the family still gathers for holidays — when she was 11, after her mother, model London King, married her stepfather, a musician named Justin Tessa. There were great things about the move: For one, her stepdad got a guitarist friend to come over and start giving King lessons. But there were other less-great parts. “I got kicked out of school in eighth grade,” she says. “It was a horrible place; just rich kids being bad.”
Part of that probably had to do with the fact that King’s dad is Saturday Night Live veteran Rob Schneider; he and London were briefly married. (They named their daughter Tanner Elle Schneider, but she has gone by Elle King since she was 18.) “When you grow up in New York with famous parents, you kind of end up running into other kids with famous parents,” says King. When she was 13, she came home with a pierced tongue and London sent her to live with Schneider, which meant tagging along while he shot Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo in Amsterdam. “So, I can roll amazing joints,” she says. “Really wonderful.”
Elle King Crowned No. 1 on Hot Rock Songs With ‘Ex’s & Oh’s’
That’s not to say she didn’t absorb lots of genuinely important lessons from her dad, with whom she also spent her summers. “One important thing I learned is, when you have a big personality, you can walk into a room and be the life of the party, or you can be in a bad mood and suck the f–ing life out of it. You have to be really careful with that.”
King got signed in 2011, but says she’s not sure that anyone at her label, RCA, really knew what to do with her. She wasn’t crazy about the idea of co-writing and was ”absolutely terrified of those three letters: p-o-p.” But when “Ex’s and Oh’s” grew out of a session with Dave Bassett (Rachel Platten, Fitz & The Tantrums), it all began to make sense. “Sometimes I’m too loud and sometimes I get too drunk and sometimes I’m not very ladylike, but I’m myself. They’re all personal things, and from the love aspect of the album to the religious aspect, they’re all things that are inside me. I’m really happy the people I co-wrote with helped me bring that out in a way I couldn’t have done myself.”
So what’s next? “I just found out today that RCA picked up the second-record option: I didn’t get dropped!” says King with a laugh.
And she’s recently single — although always open to making the acquaintance of young gentlemen of the beard-and-tattoo variety. “Thank God,” she says. “I got a second album to write!”
Listen to Elle King and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of Billboard.