Marcus King Shares Lessons He’s Learned the Hard Way

Written by Catherine Walthall

Videos by American Songwriter

Marcus King turned 26 years old in March, which certainly “isn’t very old” according to King and by most accounts. But he does make the distinction that now he’s “just a guitar player” rather than a “young guitar player.” This distinction wouldn’t necessarily occur to most artists, but King has been around music for as long as he can remember. He’s felt what it was like to be the youngest guitar player in the room—one young enough that he couldn’t drink at the bars where he was playing. 

Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, King was introduced to music through his family. King’s father, Marvin King, was a well-known blues guitarist, and his grandfather was a regionally adored musician in his own right. So, the guitar naturally fell in King’s lap when he was a wee lad. And at 8 years old, King performed on stage with his father. “My family was really wonderful with their support and guidance,” King tells American Songwriter about the early years. 

It wasn’t too long, though, before King was itching to find his voice and his own path through the wonderful world of strummin’ and singin’. “I think that was always something that was encouraged, was to discover your own path,” he says about his family’s support.

King set out to become the guitar player that the world hadn’t heard yet. “I wanted to find my own source, my own well to pull inspiration from,” he says of his guitar playing. “So, I did everything I could to make my guitar sound like Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin or Tina Turner, Bobby Womack, David Ruffin. These singers inspired the hell out of me. Like Bob Seger— just people with really interesting voices. Those were people I was trying to get my guitar to sound like.”

With these souls and rock ’n’ roll icons as his touchstone, King cultivated a style all his own. It was music unsullied by the expectations of established rock; it didn’t sound like the commonly-heard imitations of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. King played, and continues to play, the guitar with such emotion that you can almost hear the words forming and with such intensity that each note lingers long after it’s gone. Then, soon after developing his skills on the guitar, King began to sing. “I reckon around the time I was 13, I started to find my voice,” King explains. “That’s when I started singing.”

King recalls this turning point in his craft with great clarity. At 13 years old, he was dealt a particularly difficult loss. “When I was 13, this girl I went to school with, she passed away in a car accident,” King explains. “I really liked this girl. She was a dear friend of mine, and [I] didn’t get to tell her how I felt or anything like that. So that was a crushing moment for me.” In his grief, the young guitarist turned to what he knew best—music. “Usually, [the] guitar would always help take anything I was dealing with away,” King continues. “All that I had been through, up until that point, [playing the guitar] had worked [to ease the pain].” But after this seemingly impossible loss, playing the guitar just “wasn’t cutting it” anymore. “So I figured I’d started singing and writing. And it helped,” King says.

Now a bonafide singer/songwriter formed in both the fires of love and loss, King formed The Marcus King Band. Comprised of Jack Ryan (drums), Stephen Campbell (bass), and Justin Johnson (trumpet/trombone), the group got its start in 2013. The blues/rock outfit put out three studio albums and one EP that all went to the Top 10 on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart—Soul Insight, The Marcus King Band, Due North EP, and Carolina Confessions. To put it simply, they were on a roll. But just as King had found singing, he found his solo career. 

In 2019, King announced that he had created his debut solo studio album with none other than, Dan Auerbach, the acclaimed guitarist and vocalist for The Black Keys. Auerbach produced King’s debut, El Dorado, at his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, which dropped at the beginning of 2020. The album was welcomed by the music community with open arms, and ultimately received a Grammy nomination in the Best Americana Album category. 

“[With] all the Marcus King Band records that I have out, being able to do something a little bit different… I’m thrilled,” King reveals. 

Ever-evolving, King didn’t wait long to get rolling again. Only about a year after El Dorado was released, King was writing another solo album. But this time, he was returning to the rock heroes of his early guitar-playing years instead of the Americana sounds found on El Dorado. This callback to the heroes of his youth, like Cream and ZZ Top, was King’s way of bookending this chapter of his career. The result? His new album, Young Blood, arrived in August 2022. “This felt the most natural, and for all the shit that I was going through at the time, it was the most natural record for me to cut,” King says of Young Blood. “It felt the most at home [to make], and I think Dan saw that.

“This record marks the next chapter in my career and closes the door on the previous chapter,” he continues. “Not that I’m about to change myself radically or anything like that—it’s just when I listen to the record, I just think of every experience I’ve had in the first 15 years of my career. I can reflect on that and look forward to the next chapter. Or hopefully chapters.”

Courtesy Big Feat PR

Diving into the specifics, King reveals that it all started with the track “Lie Lie Lie.” He had been playing the song live at “drive-ins and whatnot” during the pandemic under a different title. After batting it around and garnering positive reactions from various crowds, he brought the song to his trusted collaborator, Auerbach. And as it usually goes with The Black Keys musician, the creative juices began flowing near immediately. The duo played with the existing formation and riff and tinkered with the chorus. Soon, King and Auerbach had the tune that would be titled “Lie Lie Lie” on Young Blood

“That song, for me, really sparked the idea of doing a heavy rock ‘n’ roll record,” King said of the track. “And, you know, Dan’s always the guy for that.”

With that initial spark of inspiration, King’s second studio album was officially set in motion, and nothing was going to slow the roll of this record. “It took us a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to get all the writing sessions completed,” King says. “Once we got into the studio, we had the musicians that we thought would be just right for the record. Dan steered that course. And when we got there, everything just fell into place. The band felt right as rain, so we just got playing through the songs. After six days, we looked around and there wasn’t anything left for us to do. So we went bowling.”

Six days to record 11 songs which capture both King’s darkest emotions and brilliant moments of redemption. It was no small feat of technical skill and creativity, but it was time for King to tell the world about this side of himself. 

A notable moment in the record, especially given King’s closeness with his family of musicians, is the track “Hard Working Man.” When King begins to describe the ’70s-inspired tune, he says, “I’ve always believed if you really love something, you gotta be willing to work your ass off for it… I was just raised in a family of hard-working folks. And whenever I’m playing, I think of my grandfather. I think that track would make him proud to know that I see the importance of being a hard-working citizen.”

In a turn towards the heart of the album, King explains that overarching themes of “crying out for help” or “feeling lost” can consume the album at times. The one track that holds many of these sentiments is the refined and wailing “Rescue Me.” According to King, the song “is kind of a plead,” but at the same time possesses intense moments of absolution. “You get to put all your sins on the table and walk away a little bit lighter in this world. So it’s also an opportunity for that,” King says. Rescue me/ Take my hand, help me stand/ Rescue me/ In your arms where I belong, he sings.

Another track on Young Blood, “Blood on the Tracks,” was written with prolific songwriter and producer Desmond Child. The featured songwriter has written hits for the likes of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Cher, and others. King, while feeling humbled to work with the industry veteran, also admired the songwriter’s ability to be unapologetically himself all the time. With this authentic environment established, King came into his writing session with Child holding nothing back. Together they created a song about leaving the pain of the past in the past. The King/Child writing session wasn’t all serious, however. King laughs a little as he recalls that the way he fidgeted with his pen drove Child “absolutely insane.” “So I got my pen taken away,” King confirms.

That openness is how King likes to approach every writing session, too. “Each session was almost like a therapy session. I would just talk about what I’m struggling with either substance-wise, or love-wise, why my heart was aching that day, if I was feeling manic, or if I was feeling really low.”

He continues, “I always make a point to write with people who I admire as writers, and [they’re] not just gonna slide a word in there because it rhymes, but because it means something.”

Baring it all, oftentimes to co-writers that he’d met that day, King cultivated each song as a mini-episode of his journey through excess, addiction, heartbreak, and ultimately, salvation. 

It’s a stadium rock-sized record with enough punch to be felt in the gut of any listener. When asked what title would best describe Young Blood if it were to have another name, King immediately responded with, “lessons learned the hard way.” Consequently, Young Blood is the truest account of one guitar player’s triumph over the pain that has the resonating power to touch each listener.

Courtesy Big Feat PR

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