Being Emily King For A Day

From a relatively young age Emily King has faced a number of the challenges the music industry throws at artists – the pressure and lack of creative control that come with signing a contract with a major label, to the struggle of being unsigned and having no guarantee of work on a given day.

The R&B songstress got her start playing venues in New York when she was 16 years old. Her parents, both jazz musicians, took some convincing, but eventually gave their blessing for King to leave high school and pursue a career in music. Within two years she had signed a deal with J Records and was working on her first album.

After several years of writing and production she released East Side Story in 2007. Although the LP was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album, her contract with J Records was not renewed. King would spend the better part of a decade working toward her next album, struggling to find her voice and create music she could feel proud of.

Her 2011 EP, Seven, was a step in the direction she wanted to go, solidifying a style and providing songs for her fans to listen to outside of her live performances. It was 2015’s The Switch that finally gave King a complete record she could call her own.

Over the years King has toured with John LegendMaroon 5Emeli Sandé and Sarah Bareilles.

She’s continuing to support her sophomore album with a summer headline tour that begins in July.

King took some time to chat with Pollstar about her life as a musician and where she is headed after the first decade of her career.

Photo: Shervin Lainez

You exited high school early to focus on your music career. What made you do that?

School was really tough for me. I hated being there. I still have nightmares about it. I knew what I wanted to do; music was it for me. So my folks gave me the OK, I got my GED … and I’ve been trying to make the music thing happen ever since.

Your career really took off like a rocket. East Side Story got you a Grammy nomination and you were touring with John Legend and Floetry.

I’m glad it sounds good. I didn’t feel like I was taking off. There were highlights and there was a lot of amazing moments. You know, signing to a big label like that was amazing. It was exciting and I was young and naive.

When I signed, I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be famous tomorrow,” and four years later it was like “Oh, they’re releasing the album.”

I was very naive and very impatient, and it was a lot of politicking and trial and error… and doing things the long way, taking the long road and then kind of coming back. … If I knew something was right, I would have to prove to [A&R] that they were wrong first. They wouldn’t take my word, and I knew everything, of course.

I learned a lot. I wouldn’t trade that experience because I struggled and I came out of it with a new understanding of the music business and myself.

Why did it take so long in between releasing East Side Story and The Switch?

Well, the label didn’t take the option [to renew my contract], which was a blessing because I wasn’t where I wanted to be musically. At the end of the day, I just wanted to be satisfied with the music I was making and being without the label allowed me to develop just that, without [having to] think about just making money right away, which I think hinders a lot of music creation.

I worked so hard on [East Side Story], and Chucky Thompson was a great teacher and friend, but there was so much compromise. It wasn’t the best it could’ve been. … A couple songs on there I just didn’t like at all, but I was just trying to appease A&R, what they thought would be good for the radio. So that didn’t feel good, when it was all said and done. It’s not good when you can’t be proud of something after you’ve spent that much time on it.

[After not getting re-signed] I had to spend time figuring out how I was going to make music. I had friends who were helping me and I met my producer, Jeremy Most. I had to go from the studio big budget label to the home studio, so that took some time.

Learning how to record and how to critique my own vocals, how to be my own vocal producer—it was a frustrating process in the beginning. It took a long time to get the music to where my standards were for myself. … I was finally happy when we put the Seven EP out, I felt like we had music in the world that I could cosign.

What were you doing with live show at that point?

So after the label I lost my agent and I was walking down Adams street … and I thought “Oh, I have to start [figuring] out what kind of a performer I am and what kind of a singer I am.’ I walked into , which is probably the best small venue in the city. Ken Rockwood, who I met at the first gig, was working sound. He was the most supportive, wonderful person. I really developed a band there and I met a lot of great musicians, so over the next five years I would mostly just play there.

Until I put Seven out. Then the opportunities came in to open up for Maroon 5 in Europe and . … Things would come in just randomly, and all of those things were important in learning how to tour.

So did you stop playing Rockwood?

At one point I had to stop playing there to play at bigger venues because … Rockwood was always free. That’s the other great thing about it, there is nothing stopping people from coming to see you. But when I stopped playing there, it kind of allowed me to play the [bigger shows].

I go back [to Rockwood] all the time as an audience member … but it also feels good to actually have people pay for a ticket.

Your music is available for free on Soundcloud and YouTube. Do you feel OK that fans can listen to your music for free without having to pay you?

I do it too, so I feel OK with that. I think there is no stopping that. I do think they should have better laws that protect artists, where we do get paid more for streaming from the big companies, certainly. I do like having access to all the music in the world; it’s amazing. And if someone wants to listen to my music, I don’t want to put walls up. I want them to be able to listen to it.

One legacy from your parents is that you are of mixed ethnicity. What has your experience been like singing R&B as a mixed-ethnicity person?

The older I get, the more I forget who I am. I try not to think about race, I think it’s an old-fashioned idea. I understand why it’s relevant, but when I’m creating music, when I’m performing music, that’s the furthest thing from my mind, what nationality I am. I just try to be a vessel for the music to come through. When I listen to music, I don’t think black or white. I just love great music.

What are your career goals from here?

Now I’m so thankful when I can tour and sell tickets. I still would like to sell out arenas. … I would love to get a taste of what that feels like.

For me, my goal has always been to write a hit song, I would like to write a song that everybody likes to listen to. As a songwriter, I think that would be the top.

What would you say to other young people thinking about leaving high school early and going into music?

I would surround myself with people who are better than me at music and who I look up to, as painful as that is. And just socialize, be social with other musicians, because most of my support has been from musicians lending a hand, other artists reaching out and that has been a very valuable lesson for me.

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Upcoming dates for Emily King:

July 7 — Atlanta, Ga., The Loft At Center Stage      
July 8 — Charlotte, N.C., The Visulite Theatre
July 9 — Washington, DC, 9:30 Club
July 11 — Philadelphia, Pa., Union Transfer
July 14 — New York, N.Y., The Bowery Ballroom
July 15 — Brooklyn, N.Y., Music Hall Of Williamsburg
July 16 — Boston, Mass., Brighton Music Hall
July 18 — Detroit, Mich., Shelter
July 19 — Chicago, Ill., Civic Opera House (Appearing with Alabama Shakes)
July 20 — Chicago, Ill., Aragon Ballroom (Appearing with Alabama Shakes)
July 23 — Chicago, Ill., Thalia Hall
July 25 — Austin, Texas, The Parish
July 26 — Houston, Texas, White Oak Music Hall
July 27 — Dallas, Texas, Trees
July 29 — Phoenix, Ariz., The Crescent Ballroom
Aug. 1 — San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
Aug. 2 — Los Angeles, Calif., El Rey Theatre
Aug. 3 — San Francisco, Calif., The Chapel
Aug. 5 — Portland, Ore., Doug Fir Lounge       
Aug. 6 — Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern
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