When Marcus King finished recording Young Blood, it was vitally important to him that he leave the listener with a sense of hope.
That wasn’t because he had conquered his own demons and wanted to share his positive outcome. It was just the opposite. The blues rocker was still so deep in his depression and substance abuse, he believed Young Blood, which came out Aug. 26, would be his last statement—musical or otherwise.
“I really didn’t think I’d be around long enough to make another record,” King tells Billboard over Zoom. “I was pretty convinced I was going to drink and drug myself to death, or another means of not being around any longer. So I wanted there to be a sense of hope and give people a feeling that they can get through it, even though I felt it was too late for me.”
Young Blood, for all its lyrical depths of despair, is a staggeringly confident work, with King easily referencing his rock and blues forebearers including Free, Jimi Hendrix and ZZ Top, both on guitar and vocally on the propulsive, dynamic effort.
The cathartic album chronicles a devastating break-up (chugging “Lie, Lie, Lie”), the yearning for a human savior from his destructive ways (the trippy “Rescue Me”), his descent into drug use (“I used to be a diamond, now I’m just a rolled up dollar bill” he laments on “Pain”) and finding new love (anthemic “Hard Working Man”), before ending on a bleak note (swampy “Blues Worse Than I’ve Ever Had”). His words may often pack a desponding wallop, but King’s surefooted playing is gloriously muscular and uplifting at all times.
Ultimately what saved King was finding love again. He had finished recording the album and was on the road last summer. On the second date of the tour, “I met a woman that I’ll be married to next year,” he says, a wide grin spreading across his face. “She pulled me out of a really dark, really dark place.”
While he will occasionally still have a drink, “I’m off the hard stuff for sure,” he says. “She knows how to keep me in check, that lady of mine, and remind me not to go off the rails.”
Though only 26, King is a music veteran. A fourth-generation musician, he picked up the guitar when he was three and by the time he was eight, he was performing alongside his family. For the last decade, he has played around 200 dates a year, including opening for Chris Stapleton at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Young Blood follows 2020’s El Dorado, King’s first solo album after four sets with the Marcus King Band, and it reunites the Greenville, S.C. native with that album’s producer, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. The Grammy-nominated El Dorado became King’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart, spending six weeks at the summit. Three previous collections reached No. 2.
The first song King co-wrote for the album was wide-open rocker “Blood on the Tracks” (he was unaware of the classic Bob Dylan album with the same title) with Auerbach and iconic songwriter Desmond Child, co-author of such hits as Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady).”
“[Dan and I] talked about making a big rock and roll record, something that was sonically really booming — but we wanted some hit caliber kind of material, stuff that we can really be proud to sign our name to at the bottom. Dan brought Desmond in and his energy is almost as big as the studio we were writing in,” King says. “He’s so unapologetically himself. I just really love that about the guy. He only got frustrated with me because I was clicking my pen because I fidget a lot and I lost my pen privileges. He took my pen away from me.”
Though he was in a bad place through much of the recording, King says he had learned to mask his pain, and blames no one for not stepping in to help. “You know how cats when they feel their time has come, they kind of go off and [die] in their own privacy?” he asks rhetorically, adding that he and his fiancé had adopted two rescue cats the day before. “I’ve always kind of been like that with my depression and dark thoughts. So I don’t think it was anyone’s lack of caring — I think it was my lack of sharing that was keeping people from intervening more.”
The album is King’s first for American Records/Republic, a move that came about after American Records owner and legendary producer Rick Rubin reached out to the artist in 2019 about a publishing deal. “It’s one of those situations where you get so nervous for a phone call that you put your shoes on for some reason,” he says. “I’ve only done that twice. That was when I was expecting Rick’s call, and when I called my father-in-law to ask for permission to ask his daughter to marry me. I was so nervous I put my boots and a belt on, like I’m going off somewhere.”
After he got over his nerves, King says he and Rubin “connected right away. He’s a soulful and beautiful human being.” He signed with Rubin’s publishing company, and when it came time to look for a new record deal a few years later, “Rick threw his hat in the ring,” he says. “That really meant a lot to me. I love the fact that I can speak to Rick directly.”
Through American’s partnership with Republic, King is getting a significant radio push. He previously charted three songs on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart — with 2020’s “The Well” reaching No. 12. (“Hard Working Man” from Young Blood peaked at No. 25.) “I think a radio hit would be just really validating and really wonderful,” King says, “But I think more about the live show.”
On stage is where King lives and where he has built his faithful following. Next month he’ll start a theater tour that includes multiple nights at New York’s Beacon Theater and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “The fans are Marcus King fans — they love the band, and that’s what’s important,” he says. “They don’t love us for one song or one sound. They come out and support us even if some nights we want to be a little more experimental and play less of the tunes that they may recognize.”
The set list may change but King’s show ritual does not. He never goes on stage without his “lucky” Zippo in his pocket and his “lucky” turquoise ring he’s worn since he was 11. “Those are a couple superstitious things,” he says. “Those two minutes before I walk on stage are the most terrifying for me. That’s where the stage fright hits me — and that’s why the nerves hit and I get the knots in my stomach. But as soon as I walk out when the lights come on, that’s when it’s time to show up. Once I get out there, it dissipates quickly.”
While he’s looking forward to playing Young Blood’s songs live and reaching “that transcendental state so I can really give the audience every part of myself,” some of the demos are tough for him to listen to, because of the anguish they recall. “The demo for ‘Rescue Me’ I never want to hear again,” he says. “But maybe it might be important for other people to hear someday because there’s no life in my vocals. I sound like a shell of who I am now. But to be able to relive those stories every night, it’s a blessing. It’s also a fair reminder to really be thankful for where you’re at when you sing about where you’ve been.”
King sounds and talks very much like an old soul — and given his musical touchstones, it’s tempting to think that he should have been born in an earlier time. It’s a notion he once believed himself.
“I felt like that before, when I was a bit younger,” he says. “But, you know, it’s a pretty tumultuous time in the world right now. So I think maybe I was born right when I needed to be.”