Marcus King’s been living his dream since the release of his debut LP Soul Insight in 2014.. But a lot of the periphery, the stuff that surrounds his dream—the equivalent of night sweats, car horns blaring, and insomnia—flat out sucks. Being a musician is often unrewarding and shitty, and King—whose band is called The Marcus King Band—has only found things to get uglier and uglier the more success he finds.
Following that logic, things may get cosmically bleak for the 22-year-old wunderkind. Noisey is premiering the stream for King’s crushing new LP, Carolina Confessions, and the record is astounding and triumphant, a gut-punch and a nut-kick. But with this success comes the paradoxical slither of unending problems. “The business side can allow you to lose focus of the therapeutic side of it. It does become a lot of work. There are a lot of really shitty days, but every night that I get to stand on a stage and make music is a blessing,” the Greenville, South Carolina native explains over the phone from Indianapolis, where he’s preparing for a gig. “I can let everything out there. But the business side really does start to bring you down after a while,” he adds.
It’s a classic unsolvable situation for many artists that peddle in confessional songwriting. The heart of Carolina Confessions is “Goodbye Carolina,” a wrenching ode from the point of view of King’s friend how committed suicide. Mixing commerce with the need to infuse art with personal, intimate expression is one of the risks King is forced to engage with. But the songwriter is able to justify these uglier sides of the business with the very simple fact that he’s spending his life doing what many only fantasize about. “Just writing down everything that’s troubling me and then being able to shout it at how ever many people will listen every night is very therapeutic.”
King also drew the attention of legendary country producer Dave Cobb, whose ascended to Nashville royalty after working with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and more. “I was a really big fan of work he’s done but I never really put any thought into who produced those records. When my team told me Dave Cobb was interested in working on the record, I looked him up and realized the work he’d been doing,” he explains. The album came together quickly, and the record’s ten songs are tightly woven together, stitched to each other through themes of loss and blame, failed relationships and forgiveness.
“Homesick” is a Muscle Shoals-style swamp funk track, not necessarily giving into the weariness of its title as much as shooting it up with a dose of positivity and Daptones-style horns. King’s voice is warm and rich, and his words reflect something he mentioned in passing during our conversation. “I love being on the road, but shit, being home feels pretty good too.”
It’s easy to lose track of how mesmerizingly powerful King’s voice is, with his band often stealing the show with gorgeous swirling organs, classic country guitar riffs, and crisp drums that sound like a distant cousin of the legendary Wrecking Crew sessions. Then every once in a while he’ll come through with a vocal delivery that can’t possibly make sense—it’s too beautiful, too emotional—and the record is his to dance upon once again.
Even though King’s been a professional musician for nearly half his life, he’s still blown away by any success he’s garnered. He’s an aw shucks Southern boy at heart, and his voice swells with pride every time he talks about being able to play these songs on the road, 250 days out of the year for three years straight. “I haven’t really had time to sit down and look at anything. It’s been non-stop these past three years,” he explains with a chuckle before adding, “But I’m so appreciative and really surprised.” The genuine awe in his voice is odd, because if I had an eighth the talent he does I’d be running around telling everyone what a genius I am. King’s nothing like that. There’s a precious delicacy to his work, even on the most uproarious tracks featured on Carolina Confessions. It all circles back to “Goodbye Carolina,” which somehow, someway treats a tragic death with grace, care, and sensitivity. “That song is a reminder of the good that writing can do in expressing one’s pain,” King muses.
As the money and the fame and the relentless details constantly bear down on him—stressors that will only grow with Carolina Confessions—King has to spell out his reasons for doing it. Not for us, but for him. “I just have to continually remind myself why I’m doing it. This is a band, a collaborative effort. Everyone’s pulling their own weight,” concludes King, before adding, “I just like making music, man.”
Will Schube lives for swamp funk. Follow him on Twitter.