Raised in rural Ohio, King pinpoints the day her life changed to her ninth birthday, when her stepdad refused to get her the album by the pop-reggae star that she wanted and instead gave her the first album by hard-rocker girls the Donnas. “I put that on and that was it,” she says. “I wanted to play rock and roll and be a girl and do it. I started listening to the Runaways and Blondie—all the rad chicks.”
She moved to New York City at age 10; after getting kicked out of school, she headed to California, then returned to New York, and then to Philadelphia for art college. In the midst of her far-flung and hell-raising travels, King started playing guitar at age 13 (“a friend of my stepdad’s taught me, and I learned stuff by, like, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Otis Redding”) and then later picked up a banjo, inspired by the Hank Williams and Earl Scruggs records her family listened to.
It was during her time in Philadelphia that her music took a different turn, and her songwriting got more serious. “I was living on my own, getting into way too much trouble, and really getting my heart broken for the first time,” she says. “I’ve never been shy, but that’s when I started singing in parks and busking.”
King also had an epiphany about her approach to her instruments. “When I picked up the banjo, I would play country music,” she says. “But I saw a band in the park one day, and these guys played the banjo just as an instrument, not stylized in any kind of mold, and I got it—just play it because it’s beautiful."
The songs that started emerging got her noticed and led to the making of The Elle King EP. But even after relocating to Brooklyn and pursuing a music career in earnest, King was no more able to settle down. “I haven’t been able to sit still since I could walk,” she says. “I followed a country singer to Nashville, got my heart broken again but decided to stay there and try to figure it out. I took a year to really think, and then left and I haven’t stopped—I drove 30 thousand miles in the first six weeks. But if you can’t handle that, you’re not gonna make it. I want to put my feet in every country, I just want to go out and play. I’m a gypsy.”