Deep in the charming depths of Greenville, South Carolina 22 years ago, Marcus King was born to a guitar playing father and a music loving mother.
Right from the start King was bottle-fed the blues, soaking up the sweet, soul-filled sounds of BB, Albert, Freddie and his other fellow Kings. Before long the fourth generation musician had a guitar in his hands and a tone of his own that was rapidly taking him to higher ground, but it was venturing out into unchartered music territory that helped shape his unique sound, he says.
With an Australian tour on the cards for the young blues star, we caught up to grab the latest.
Before his first ever Australian appearance at Bluesfest and a set of headline shows, we sat down with Marcus King to unpack his story.
“What I did was seek inspiration from places other than what I was used to, what I was comfortable with and played. I started out listening to people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, and Freddie King but decided to dig a little deeper and tried to find some other avenues to express myself. I listen to people like John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and soul singers like Otis Redding.”
“That was a big part of it, just trying not to become a clone of the blues musicians that I love so much and instead trying to find my own way. I think being well rounded as a listener makes you more well rounded as a player…”
King was also teaching himself to sing through listening to female frontwomen like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, a skill which much alike his guitar playing, was developed through a lot of hard work.
“I’ve never taken a vocal lesson, it’s just a lot of hard work. Many hours of my life have been spent learning the guitar, really it’s not a very easy instrument. Singing is also something you have to work, it’s a muscle, you have to build it but you also have to gain a comfort level with it, and feel alright expressing yourself that way.”
“My voice has always been more of a high tenor, so I associated better with female vocalists like Susan Tedeschi, and Aretha Franklin, but also men like Sam Cooke.”
By the time he was 15, King was performing gigs with the big boys each week, playing alongside every seasoned musician under the table, and it didn’t take long for word to get around. Soon enough he had caught the attention of Carolina royalty, Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, and the blues’ best living slide guitarist Derek Trucks.
It was an experience which taught him a lot about what it takes to play with subtlety and grace.
“They teach you a lot about restraint, a lot about playing with a tasteful approach. Using a little bit of restraint and not giving everything away right at the beginning. Playing with musicians like that is just priceless to me. It’s something I feel so grateful to be able to do, to have such good mentors who are teaching me all of that.”
Together Haynes and Trucks carefully helped King to hone his skills on The Marcus King Band’s debut LP Soul Insight. Serving as a masterful exploration of genres, the band showcased their ability to soar seamlessly from blues to jazz, from soul to southern jam-rock and back again with the finesse many players could only dream of tapping into.
Hitting number eight on the Billboard Blues Album Charts, Soul Insight had officially put Marcus on the map. Following the album’s release, a whole lot of live shows, and a line-up change, King and his brand new band of musical brothers set out to record their sophomore self-titled LP.
The second album was a rebirth for the band. King had finally met his musical match in saxophone player Dean Mitchell, drummer Jack Ryan, bassist Stephen Campbell, trumpeter and trombonist Justin Johnson, and keys player DeShawn ‘D-Vibes’ Alexander; the chemistry was indelible.
The band’s second album was released in 2016, and it was no longer just the blues obsessives and guitar geeks who were taking notice. King’s music had gone through an evident evolution, one that has continued on through to 2018’s Carolina Confessions.
“With every record you want to grow a bit more with your craft, and with this most recent record it’s the most comfortable I’ve been as a songwriter and as a vocalist. As a guitarist I’ve always felt comfortable with that being my main form of expression for myself in a musical context and now having the same level of comfortability with writing and singing it’s really a thrill. I really look forward to building on that more and more.”
Carolina Confessions is a personal portrayal of leaving; relationships, hometowns, and old ways of living, and asking for forgiveness. Penned almost entirely by King alone, the album’s dominant theme was conceived while on the road.
“The majority of the songs I wrote while I was on the road, and a lot of it had to do with seeking absolution, seeking some form of forgiveness… It’s partly that, but it’s also a story about coming of age, leaving your home town, leaving the nest so to speak.”
“It’s a record about falling out love, and leaving home, all of these things I think a lot of us feel. Especially around this age, I think you feel it a lot stronger, it hits a lot closer to home because when you’re young you don’t feel as jaded about the world, it’s a little bit more sincere. Plus, I’ve always considered myself a hopeless romantic so that’s where I look for inspiration.”
Recorded and produced at Nashville’s legendary RCA studios by Dave Cobb, King says recording the album was equally as inspiring as writing it, giving the band the opportunity to lay down their best work to date.
“It was a lot of fun, it was an incredible experience, there was an incredible energy in the air. It’s a blessing to be able to work in a studio where countless amazing records were recorded.”
Whether the band are playing shows across the world, laying down tracks in the studio, or enjoying some time off, they can usually be found with friends and family of both music and blood. It became something they wanted to turn into a yearly get together, thus birthing the Marcus King Band Family Reunion.
Holding their second annual festival last fall, the third is soon to take place, and King says the festivities are a reminder of why he continues to create music.
“The idea of it is it’s our musical families and our actual families all getting together sharing in fellowship, and breaking bread with one another. It’s just a safe song for everybody to get together and share some laughs and music, whenever we meet other musicians on the road who we love or admire we always invite them to our festival.”
“The band and I want to put together the lineup every year, and we like to bring in people who really get us excited about music because that’s what important to find the people, places, and things that keep you excited and remind you why you continue to do this even though sometimes it’ll knock you down.”
As for now, The Marcus King Band are looking forward to making their first trip to Australian shores for Bluesfest – followed by a slew of shows across the country.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the countryside and meeting the people. I know we’re going to have a really good time playing because from what I hear, and what I presume, Australian crowds are some of the best in the world. It’s going to be a party, hopefully we’re well received.”
Describing their live performances as “a conversation between everyone on stage and the audience”, King revealed that he and the band aim to capture the live shows in all their conversational glory on a double live LP that they’re hoping to have recorded and released by the end of 2019. So, even those who miss out on their Australian shows will get a chance to experience the onstage musical magic.
“We want to put on tape what we do live and we want to release that. That’s thinking very short term, there are a lot of things on the horizon that I could speak of but to keep it short and summed up I’d say that we want to release a live record double LP by the end of this year, that’s our goal.”
2019 Australian Tour
15 April 2019 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Get tickets here
17 April 2019 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Get tickets here
Also appearing at Byron Bay Bluesfest.