Quarantine was a blessing in disguise for Elle King.
Today the LA singer-songwriter—who initially dreaded the prospect of spending months at home—releases her In Isolation EP, which she wrote, recorded, and produced entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In certain times in my past, I really have struggled being alone,” King tells American Songwriter. “I think that it’s because you have to really sit with yourself. Anxiety has a massive opportunity to come up and take over. So I’ve always tried to fill my life with work or relationships or friends, and not all of those people have been amazing influences in my life. Now with this forced quarantine and isolation I was like, ‘I’m not gonna let this drive me insane. What am I going to do? How am I going to push myself?’ So I started taking guitar lessons, and for the first time in my life I started writing songs with Zoom writing sessions.”
Those writing sessions would eventually lead to a powerful trio of quarantine cuts. The songs are fierce (“The Let Go”), fearless (“The Only One”), and funny (“Over Easy”), centering King’s raspy, athletic vocals over simple guitar and piano arrangements. Though she worked with co-writers (Daniel Omelio, Nick Long, Madi Diaz, and Jessica Maros), the EP was borne of isolation.
“I also worked a lot on writing and playing alone, because that in and of itself isn’t easy for me,” says King. “When I felt like I was trapped in my house, I really felt like I could go in my music room and I could be anywhere that I wanted to be and I could really work through a lot of emotions and feelings. It was an amazing opportunity.”
Last week King spoke to us in depth about each song on In Isolation, which comes after her Grammy-nominated 2018 album Shake The Spirit. King also opened up about learning to let go, practicing self-forgiveness, and reconnecting to her DIY roots. Check out the full interview and listen to In Isolation below.
American Songwriter: Can you tell us a little about each of the songs on this EP? What are they about?
Elle King: I’m gonna start with “Over Easy.” It was my first Zoom co-writing session, and it was with Madi Diaz. She’s just so fun and sweet and lovely. I’d never met her before. For “Over Easy” she had this idea for this kinda funny, cute song—almost an innuendo country nod to a relationship or doing something other than eating eggs, if you will. I don’t think that writing session was longer than 45 minutes. We laughed so hard. That’s one of those highs that you chase when you’re writing music, when it’s fun and easy.
Then there’s the other version of that, like “The Let Go,” which was more of an emotional struggle. But I’ll stay on “Over Easy.” We need smiles and laughter and upbeat happy feelings more than ever in the world right now, so that was really important to me. I would have probably put out a whole record full of sad-ass songs like “The Only One,” so it was important for me to put that out. I always have funny nods—on my last record, Shake The Spirit, it was “It Girl.”
With songs like “The Only One,” I just sat down at the piano and it kind of poured out of me. I obviously was dealing with a lot of feelings of isolation within the quarantine. I mean, if I’m being completely honest, if quarantine wasn’t in place I still would not have left my house—the only difference is that I would have been on tour. I literally would’ve been getting ready for my tour as direct support for Chris Stapleton. So I had to dig deep and push through my feelings. I don’t want to push feelings down anymore—I used to write music and just push them down. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to sing my songs on stage because they were so emotional for me. But now I’m like, ‘Let’s blow them up, let’s release them.’
What changed? What caused that shift?
I mean, I’ve owned this house for three years and I’ve never spent this much consecutive time in it. I’ve actually never spent this much time in this house. I just really had to look at myself. I’ve done a lot of self work and I’ve done a lot of therapy and spiritual work, because I want to work on myself and I want to constantly be evolving and changing.
For most of my life I resisted change, but now I’m like ‘Bring it on. What are you gonna teach me?’ So I felt like this whole pandemic was an opportunity for me to really dig deep and see what I don’t want to hold onto anymore, whether it’s relationships, friendships, old ideas, or things that I told myself.
With something like “The Only One,” I told myself that I could never be alone. ‘Please don’t ever let me be alone. I don’t care if you’re an asshole, just keep me company.’ So I really wanted to push through that, release that. I wouldn’t say there is anything beautiful about the recording of that, because I made the recording in my house. Not that I haven’t been super appreciative of producers and engineers, but I’m going to be a lot more appreciative and grateful because of the work they do. I am not one of them!
I went back to my beginning and thought about the songs that I wrote in my dorm room, in my bathroom, in my closet, like ‘Why do you play music? What did you want to get out of this? Why did you stop making little recordings by yourself?’ So I started literally playing music every single day for like 10 or 11 hours.
All of that leads me up to my favorite song on the EP: “The Let Go.” It’s interesting because I start from the end of the EP with “Over Easy,” like, ‘Let’s start off with this co-write and just laugh.’ That was the week that quarantine really started for me. Then I really needed to dig deeper—you go to “The Only One,” which is like, ‘How long is this going to last? Please don’t leave me alone, I don’t want to be alone through this.’ But then you have to think, ‘Why don’t I want to be alone? What happens when I’m by myself?’ Then you get to a song like “The Let Go,” which is all about release—all about things that no longer serve you in your life. It’s about past ideas that you’ve put on yourself or that you have allowed to be placed on you that weren’t even your own and become your voice.
Unfortunately that’s what happens with society, with our family, with our friends. The world will tell you what and who you are before you even get a chance to figure that out. That idea came to me and it made me so sad because instead of giving people the opportunity to find themselves, they have to first work through all of this shit which is the universe telling them who they are, what they have to be, how they have to think. That’s so unfair, because that should be our own development—that should be our own voice that comes from within us.
So when I think about a song like “The Let Go,” that’s letting go. It could be about a relationship, and for me maybe it started off about a relationship, but now when I listen to it—and every time I sing it—I’m like, ‘This shit’s about me.’ The bridge is “I had to pay for all of your bad behavior / but expensive lessons are always the best to know.” When I really think about that it’s like, ‘Oh, I am now paying off my karmic duty because of things that I’ve done in the past and because of things that I’ve allowed to continuously happen in my life that fuel my brain and my heart with doubt of my potential and my self-love.’ It fogged over the ‘I can’ and just became ‘I can’t, I don’t, I won’t.’ And that’s so sad because that’s limiting your own potential. I was afraid.
When I put out my first record, I thought about my friends in high school who were in bands and playing shows. I was playing shows, but I still compared myself to everybody. I was like ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna think I’m so stupid for putting out pop music.’ Why would you even think that? Of course it’s all part of growing up. It just makes me sad when we put so much emphasis on what others are going to think of us and we don’t [ask] ‘How do we think about ourselves? What do we tell ourselves? How do we treat ourselves?’ Everything starts with an idea, with raw energy. A seed is planted in our brains like ‘I’m not gonna be good at this’ or ‘Nobody is gonna like this.’ But really you don’t want to do it because you’re afraid, and you don’t know if you like it.
For instance, my sister spent a lot of time during quarantine here with me. She is such an incredible person. When my six-year-old niece was learning how to swim without floaties, my sister would make her repeat, “I can do hard things.” If we start off with things like that—“I can push myself through fear,” “I can release things,” “I can do hard things”—that is such an incredible place because that grows into “I’m strong,” “I am able to do this,” “I am gonna love doing this and I’m gonna detach myself from the outcome.”
So another part of the EP is I couldn’t get into a big fancy studio. I had to use my shitty mic and I had to record some shit in GarageBand and send it off and hope they don’t fucking laugh at me. This is yet another opportunity for me to say, “I’m detaching myself from the outcome of this. I put my heart into this, and that is what I want to be heard.” I have to be kind and gentle with myself and say, “You know what? It’s not perfect but that’s okay. You’re not perfect, but you’re beautiful and you’re powerful and you’re strong and you can do hard things.”
If 16-year-old me were to meet myself now she would probably want to punch me in the face. But at the same time she was a very angry kid and I think about all those times in my 20s when I thought that I needed certain things to help me write music. There’s good selfish and bad selfish, and I think that forgiveness is good selfish. Forgiving yourself is so, so, so hard but I have a really beautiful cathartic outlet which is music.
When I write songs like “The Only One,” it’s like, ‘Okay girl, you’re scared of being alone and that’s something that you need to work on. So why don’t you just deal with the fact that this isn’t perfect and put it out?’ I’ve held on so tightly to things that have happened in my life because I wasn’t ready to let them go—because I was still holding on to feeling the emotions about them. I’m so proud to put out a song like “The Let Go” because you know what? I don’t want to carry it with me.
It’s like releasing the song is part of the work.
100 percent, yes.
I have to ask, what is it that your 16-year-old self would want to punch you for?
Sounding like a hippy!
In Isolation is out July 10 via RCA Records.