Nearly four years after Elle King made her fiery debut with the folk-rock breakup tune “Ex’s and Oh’s,” the now 29-year-old returns with another rough-around-the-edges single, “Shame,” today (Aug. 10). The mischievous song is the beginning of a new chapter for King both professionally and personally: It’s the first single from her forthcoming sophomore album, and her first release since she opened up about her struggles last year with PTSD, the details of which she’s kept mostly private.
“It was a very dark, scary and very lonely time,” says King, who had days — and, in some cases, weeks — where she couldn’t bring herself to leave her house. “I didn’t know that I was not really in here, that my brain just shut down completely.”
Working on new music with her touring band, however, helped her get to a better place. And King was so protective of her time with her bandmates, in fact, that she originally balked at the opportunity to work with power-pop producer (and former Sugarcult frontman) Tim Pagnotta — especially when she realized he had produced Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” which King considered her biggest competition at radio during the height of “Ex’s and Oh’s” in 2015.
“I just remember being like, ‘Fuck that song,’” she says with a laugh. But with a new album’s worth of songs under her belt, King decided there was no harm in giving it a shot — and the result of her studio time with Pagnotta is now her new LP’s first single.
Ahead of the release of “Shame,” King chatted with Billboard about the song’s devilish inspiration, working with Pagnotta, and why writing her second album was life-changing.
Where did the idea for “Shame” come from?
I was kind of a bad kid. I got kicked out of, like, every school that I went to. I wasn’t the parents’ favorite friend [for their kids], I was 100 percent a bad influence. I’ve always kind of known that. I’ve always gone harder than everybody else.
Especially last year, I definitely went pretty hard. I hung out with people when I moved to L.A. that were an older version of, I don’t know, my bad side. If I imagined the devil on my shoulder, grown up, I was hanging out with a bunch of them. It’s undeniable fun — you just have to know when to know when to go home and go to bed. “Shame” was kind of a fun way to spin some of last year: You see the bad kids and you kind of want to party with them.
Did you know it was going to be the song to kick off album two?
Yeah. I had written the record, but I knew deep down that it wasn’t done. For the first song [to be released from] the record, I really wanted a song that was going to get people’s attention. I wanted to come out the gate swinging.
I love how pop has changed so much. You can put a lot of feelings and emotions in a song that is more upbeat. I do like seeing people dance at shows. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this song, but I have high hopes. I think it’s a fun way to be like, “Hey, I’m back, and I can make you dance, and I can make you move.”
It has to feel kind of full circle in a weird way that the guy that produced the single that was your competition 3 years ago is now making your lead single.
One hundred percent. I’ve stopped pre-judging things, I’ve stopped assuming things, and I try to just go into things with an open heart and an open mind. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s changed my life. You get what you give. I would hope that people don’t judge me for things that I’ve done in the past or expect my music on the second album to sound just like the first, so how can I judge someone for music that they’ve made?
Tim is one of the sweetest and smiley-est people. He’s such a great guy with really good ideas. I’m really grateful because I think everybody at the label is really excited. There’s some weirder songs on the record, but this song is a good bridge from my last record to what is to come on the rest of the record.
Was there anything about this album process that resulted in a different sound from Love Stuff?
Nothing happened without my approval. That was a big thing, because a lot of times in the last round I was like, “Wait a minute, I disagree with that.” It was kind of a, “Well, we don’t fucking care” [situation]. I’ve heard some horror stories about people and their label, and I haven’t experienced that. I sat down to dinner with one of the A&Rs and said, “Listen, I feel like I’m on to something with my band. They bring out something really musical and great in me, and I’m just asking for a chance to do it myself. If it doesn’t work, I’ll fucking work with whoever you want me to work with,” and he just said “Okay.” You don’t get what you don’t ask for in life.
Even though I had a very hard time personally last year, I had a lot really incredible support [from] people who were not judgemental. Nobody was like, “Elle, get your shit together, make this record.” Everybody wanted me to be okay first. They also saw that making the music was bringing me back to life. I don’t think that I would be okay if I hadn’t have made this record.
Was there a particular turning point for you?
It was one song. I wrote it in a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, and I was texting the guys like, “Hey, I’m on to something.” The original lyrics were “I don’t need nobody, I don’t need no one, there just ain’t no loving left in this heart of mine.” At the end, I remember [having] a quick thought like, “Elle, I know you don’t believe that, and you don’t want to put that out into the universe.” So I changed it to “I don’t need nobody, I don’t need no one, but I still got a little bit of loving left in me.”
I was singing it the next day, and it was like pure joy — it was animated for me. I realized what I was singing, and I just fell to my knees and started crying. It’s so cheesy, but I looked up and felt like I came back into my body. My bassist looks at me and goes, “It’s really nice to see you again, Elle.”
Ever since then, we just were in it together. It really taught us a lot about ourselves and each other and how we are a family unit, how much we’re all capable of. For them to trust me, it changed my life.
I’m just excited to put music out in the world again. Not just me, but my whole band. We really put our heart and soul into all of this. It’s not just like, “Oh, we want to play shows.” We want to show people what we did.