Marcus King has rock and roll in his bones: He comes from a family of famed guitarists in Greenville, S.C. With his raspy falsetto and guitar licks, he’s been hailed as a revival of B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But Marcus King is making a name for himself. In 2019, he joined stalwarts like Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck at Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads Guitar Festival. King’s own festival — the Marcus King Band Family Reunion — just celebrated its third year in Black Mountain, N.C., headlined by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Yonder Mountain String Band and, of course, two sets by the Marcus King Band.
Now, Marcus King is releasing his debut solo album, called El Dorado. NPR’s Scott Simon spoke with him about growing up with music as his babysitter, the tragic event that inspired him to start writing songs and what it was like to collaborate with Dan Auerbach. Listen in the player above and read on for a transcript of their conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Simon: As we noted earlier, you come from a family of musicians. Your stage, though, was the church.
Marcus King: I grew up in church. My father had a strong sense of spirituality, as did my grandfather — but in the South, I think we refer to that a little more as “religion.” That’s how I was brought up: with a very strong set of morals and principles that I would take into my life. I was born later in my father’s life, when he was [in his] early 40s, so that’s when he hung it up, musically, for a while, got back into church and that’s how I was brought up.
What role did music play in your life, particularly as a kid?
It’s taken on a few different titles — the first one I can remember it being is “babysitter.” When my father would be at work, I was just at my grandparents’ house, and I’d just be in a room for hours playing guitar. And later it would become my therapist, and it still is. It’s just the only thing that truly listens without ever saying a negative word back.
When you talked about the difference music made in your life, it would be a kind of therapy — could you help us understand what was going on in your life?
It’s always been there for me. When my parents got divorced, I just spent a lot of time alone, so my companion was my guitar. And when I was in school, I felt a little bit felt as an outcast, you know. I was into very different things. The only person at this middle school who understood me was this girl; [she] was the first girl I really felt so connected to. And we were 13 years old and she passed away in this violent car accident and it became a really heavy thing for me to try to cope with. That’s when I started singing, because up until that point, the guitar was a place for me to truly express myself in its entirety. And at that point, I just couldn’t express myself any further. And that’s when I started writing and singing and I felt much better.
You carry these things with you, but through music, it allows you to take it and put it out into the world and disperse it around in a positive light.
You spent a number of years as leader of The Marcus King Band. Now you’re going out on your own. How much of a chance is that?
[It’s] just kind of a departure from what became comfortable to me. When I started working with other writers, it was kind of a foreign thing for me because I had never really done that. I was always just perfectly okay with just writing about something that meant a great deal to me, and if it didn’t rhyme, that’s just how it was supposed to be. But working with others and finding these structures and guidelines to follow, it was a learning curve, but in a really great way.
That was the beautiful thing about this record, were all the people that came in without a lot of past knowledge about my upbringing or anything. And the songs that would come out were all quite autobiographical.
I think music is always something that should offer a sense of hope, a sense of relief, in a way. We spoke earlier about music being a form of therapy for me, and I’d like to think that my music could be somewhat therapeutic to other people.