When raspy-voiced soul-pop singer Elle King comes to the phone, she’s hanging out in her Los Angeles home, which she describes as decked out with healing crystals, tarot cards and museum-worthy objects like her custom gold-plated Deering banjo. Everything is quintessentially Elle — eccentric, stylish, welcoming — from the rock collection in her kitchen, sourced from hiking trips, to the disco ball that flashes inside her Jeep Wrangler in the driveway (yes, really).
So home was the perfect location for Elle to gather her RCA team some months ago for the first listen-through of her new album Shake the Spirit, out Oct. 19 — a cathartic, rough-edged diary entry of a project that couldn’t be more personal. The album, King’s first since her 2015 debut Love Stuff, was recorded after a tough year marked by the end of a short-lived marriage, a time when King says she was “wallowing in rock bottom.” “I was just a different person — I was on drugs and miserable,” she remembers. “I was dealing with a whole bunch of bullshit.”
Though King hit her stride with Love Stuff breakthrough single “Exs and Ohs,” which earned two Grammy nominations and cracked the Hot 100’s top 10, the sudden fame eventually took its toll on the emerging star. She struggled with exhaustion and mental health issues, and the day before the 2016 Grammys, eloped with a man she’d met three weeks earlier. The couple soon separated, leaving King with PTSD symptoms. Searching for an “escape,” she moved from their shared home in Brooklyn to the other end of the country, and began making music with her close-knit band The Brethren. “When I was making music and recording was the only time I felt okay, and felt not alone,” King explains. “I devoted most of last year to being in the studio or writing. Once I started the process, I realized how therapeutic it was for me, so I just kept going.”
King estimates that she wrote more than 35 songs for the album, which was recorded mainly in rural Denton, Texas and includes collaborations with songwriter Tim Pagnotta, who co-wrote the fiery lead single “Shame,” and producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Paul McCartney). And while tracks like “Shame” revive the same winking humor and devilish vibe that made “Exs and Ohs” irresistible, others speak unflinchingly to King’s recent real-life challenges, adding a vulnerability to the project that sets it apart from her previous work.
Writing “Good Thing Gone,” a bluesy, twangy tear-jerker about her recent “earth-shattering” divorce, was so emotional for King that she could only bring herself to record one take. “I broke down and cried,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t sing it again.’” Working on the wishful melody “Sober” was equally heart-wrenching for King, who admits that she wasn’t actually, well, sober while recording it. Elle being Elle, other songs are less sentimental — “I fucked somebody on our one-year wedding anniversary day,” she jeers on “Man’s Man.”
Indeed, King describes the record-making process as “traumatic” in itself at times, characterized by days-long stretches of no sleep. When they did get some rest while in Denton, King and her band slept in a house no more than 25 feet from the studio. “I can’t believe I even got anything done, being so messed up all the time,” she remembers. “Looking back, I hear the pain in my voice, and I wish I could go back in time and fucking help her.” King says the idea for the album title came from her tendency to physically shake each time she recorded a song, as if possessed. “I sent [the idea] to my manager, and she said, ‘I almost pissed my pants!’”
Now, with Shake the Spirit soon to be released, King says she feels finally at peace — not that she’s about to slow down. She recently kicked off her Shake The Spirit Tour with The Brethren, which includes U.S. stops at Austin City Limits Festival and New Orleans’ Voodoo Fest before hitting Canada and the U.K.
“I made an album while I navigated my way through heartbreak,” she says. “To have this tangible thing, I look at it and I can see and feel and know that these hard times are behind me, and I‘m on the up and up. I can show the world that you can be a lost person and you can come back from it — and you can come back better.”
ELLE’S FAVORITE THINGS
…In her car
“I have this disco ball in my Jeep Wrangler that when you turn on, it looks like a party. I also have a chandelier in my 1958 Ford F-100. It’s breaking though, because I drive pretty crazy.”
…In her living room
“My father gave me for my birthday an Imagine record signed by John Lennon. That’s my prized possession.”
…In her suitcase
“I have a box of tarot cards. I bring them everywhere. It gives me one-on-one time with my band to figure out secrets they’re not telling me.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 29 issue of Billboard.