Marcus King: Soul Stirring

Dean Budnick on June 3, 2024
Marcus King: Soul Stirring

photo: Geoff Tischman


Just when the ending appeared bleak, an auspicious moment presented itself.

This is both a description of Marcus King’s past few years and the album that gives voice to that emotional trajectory.

Over the 11 songs on his new record, Mood Swings, King shares a frank and forthright account of his mental struggles accelerated by the collapse of a volatile romantic relationship.

The story reaches its nadir with “Cadillac,” the final song on the album, in which the narrator expresses his suicidal ideation.

King reveals, “Not to romanticize it in any way, but I decided to go out in my Cadillac, here at home in my garage. Hank Williams died in his Cadillac, so I figured it was good enough for me. I was in a really bad place and a really dark period in my life. I kind of came head-to-head with a lot of demons I had been suppressing for a long time and I couldn’t keep them down anymore.”

The song ends with King’s plaintive intonation:

Should have known I’d go alone

And that’s for the best

So now I wait in my V8 for my final rest

That would seem to be it for the narrator, but then these words give way to a voicemail, in which King says, “Call me in the morning, wake me up.”

This simple declarative statement dispels the image of a definitive last act and offers the promise of another day.

That’s true not only of the song (and the album as a whole) but also of King’s personal path, as it is the actual message he left for his future wife Briley, shortly after they first crossed paths—a chance meeting that would eventually help the musician jettison much of his despair.

“When I hear it, there’s a subtle upturn, there’s hope garnered from that voicemail,” King acknowledges. “It was me calling the woman that I’d marry, who would inevitably kind of pull me out of it. I knew that I wanted to close the album with ‘Cadillac’ because there was really no other way. In my mind, every other song on the record is kind of building to that. That’s how I planned to go out. So lyrically, it was the last thing that I had to say about how I was feeling in that period of my life. Then that voicemail adds a little twist of optimism at the end.”

The aptly titled Mood Swings can be soulful and soaring. Still, it is grounded in a stark, subdued darkness. Yet ultimately, it bends to the light and points to a shimmering future.


Mood Swings originated with a phone call from Rick Rubin in late 2019. On September 4 of that year, King had made his Grand Ole Opry debut. Introduced as a “23-year-old, fourth-generation musician [who’s] simply a phenomenon,” King lived up to that billing with his performance of “Goodbye, Carolina,” which showcased his soulful vocals and stinging guitar leads along with his facility as a songwriter.

At the time, King was pursuing a new publishing deal, and after Rubin watched a video of the appearance, he reached out in that capacity. King soon struck an agreement with Rubin’s American Songs. Eventually, after King’s Fantasy Records contract lapsed, that initial dialogue led the musician to sign with Rubin’s label, American Recordings, which issued 2022’s Young Blood. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced that album after collaborating with King on 2020’s El Dorado.

However, as the material on Mood Swings came together, King started working directly with Rubin. This began during the lockdown, prior to the release of Young Blood, as Rubin helped channel King’s energy. The guitarist later remarked in the initial Mood Swings press announcement: “He helped me view mental health as a writing partner, in a way. I’ve learned it can give me that creative spark.”

“Through Rick, I discovered my own path and my open-book, therapy-session writing style that I try to have now,” King now elaborates. “A lot of the writing was trying to find my reason for writing. It turns out that was for resolution, absolution and trying to get some things off of my chest. I think I needed to address some things within and spend some time alone with that.

“At first, I thought, ‘I’m on Rick’s label now, and they’re expecting a hit record. I’ve never written a hit song. How do I write a hit song? Maybe I should call some hit writers?’ But that would be writing for the wrong reasons. I think Rick recognized that and put me through a year-long writing process where I wrote until I broke some bad habits of writing with the audience more in mind than myself. I’ve heard him say that if you’re making music for anyone other than yourself, it’s just commerce. That doesn’t sit right with me and it goes back to the earliest advice I ever got. Whether they know music or not, audiences can smell bullshit a mile away. They won’t know why, but they will.”

The process was also complicated in its early stages as King languished due to mental health issues. He discloses that some of the songs on Mood Swings were immediate reactions to his deteriorating partnership with his then-girlfriend.

“Songs like ‘Bipolar Love’ or ‘Me or Tennessee’ were written in real time,” King recounts. “With ‘Me or Tennessee,’ you move out of state with somebody and you start saying to yourself, ‘I don’t have anyone here that I know other than you, and we’re fighting.’ It was all written in real time about that relationship. Then when the relationship ended, I was really broken and I kind of dipped into my extracurriculars to the point where I couldn’t even write; I couldn’t focus on that. I was even having trouble performing—it felt like I just didn’t have the energy. Now that’s no good because it’s my favorite thing to do.

“So a lot of it was written retrospectively because I wasn’t able to get there in the moment. It helped that some of the writing process took place when we were locked down, as unfortunate as that was. I was locked down at this beautiful space in California where it was just me and a guitar or a piano, where I had some extra time.”

One of the ways that the making of Mood Swings varied from King’s work with Auerbach was its term of duration. King explains, “I came to Nashville and learned the Nashville way, which was: ‘We’ve got to move.’ We finished El Dorado in three days, and I was completely blown away with the results because it was done so expediently and so assembly-lined, but with so much thought and attention to detail. It wasn’t rushed; it was just right. Going out to Malibu, you set your internal clock to the waves and the moon. Everything moves a bit slower and you subconsciously become a little slower. Compare this album, which took two years, to Young Blood, which we completed in six days. That’s a pretty substantial difference and it’s the true essence of Rick not wanting to rush the process. I just had to trust in that process.”

During the two-year period of writing and recording, King spent time at Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu and also at his Italian villa. Rubin is often likened to a guru, with his devotion to meditation and his minimalist creative aesthetic. This is satirized on the second season of the TV show Dave, in which the show’s namesake is led by Rubin’s assistants into a sensory deprivation tank.

“That was a funhouse image of Rick,” King observes, “and he’s got a great sense of humor about this yogi master presence that he has. But when you unpack it, it’s almost like you gain mindfulness through osmosis. He does take more of a spiritual and philosophical approach to the writing and the production style, but we weren’t meditating together. We would listen to music together, though, and I really admire the way Rick listens. He completely delivers his full self to the song. I’ve never seen somebody listen to music that intently and intimately.”

King then shares his initial connection to Rubin’s production efforts, which he experienced while growing up in Greenville, S.C. “Although my dad was a rock-and-roller—he still is—my grandfather was a country-and-western purist. Johnny Cash’s last recording was the work he did in Rick’s living room. I remember that being on CMT, the video of him doing “Hurt” [from American IV: The Man Comes Around, the final non-posthumous studio album from Cash]. I was a kid and I didn’t realize that was a Nine Inch Nails cover. I also didn’t know that Rick produced it until much later, but Rick seemed to have a hand in everything I liked. I always loved the Beastie Boys—their style, their diction and the way they phrased things was really influential to the way that I phrased things melodically on the guitar. I really loved New York hip-hop singing—the same with Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Pete Rock or Craig Mack—the lyrical flow was really influential to me melodically, and Rick had a huge hand in all that.”

King also reveals that another way he connected with Rubin was through their mutual appreciation of stand-up. “Every comedian I know runs and listens to music after the show, and me and a lot of my peers run and listen to comedy podcasts after our shows,” he says. “So they’re very finely connected and I think we should bring them back together more often. A lot of times, I’ll put on that classic Bernie Mac live at Def Jam set with the DJ. I went and saw Bill Burr in Atlanta—he’s a kindred spirit who warms up by playing drums.”

As for Rubin, he produced multiple albums by Andrew Dice Clay in the early ‘90s and released them on American Recordings. More recently, he worked on a Rodney Dangerfield documentary project and described himself to Marc Maron as a “deep comedy nerd.” King comments, “It was really interesting to hear the way that Rick worked with comedians and how it was comparable to how he worked with me as a musician.”

King’s affection for stand-up runs so deep that he recently brought Dean Delray on tour with him, harkening back to a practice that was more common in the ‘70s when comics like Robert Klein, Steve Martin and Albert Brooks opened for rock bands. He remarks, “I really love comedy and I’m always looking for ways to combine the two. Dean did a great job. Some nights were more challenging than others in trying to capture the attention of a rock-and-roll crowd, especially if it was an all-standing, general-admission show, because people who go to a rock show aren’t planning on laughing. But I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of doing a variety show and having people come and be entertained no matter what the medium might be.”

This last sentiment might cast King as something of a throwback, but he divulges that this descriptor rankles both himself and Rubin, particularly when it’s applied to his music. “We both have disdain for the term throwback. Just because something is performed on an instrument that’s been around a long time, or it’s reminiscent of older music, doesn’t mean it’s a throwback record. So he and I agreed that given my style of performing, we wanted to include a modern element, so that it would feel like a present-day album. That didn’t need to be instrumental, it could be lyrical. The thought was that the lyrical content, combined with my style and approach, would bring us into the modern age because people never really spoke openly and non-metaphorically about the things that I’m talking about.”

This is certainly true of songs like “Bipolar Love” and “Fuck My Life Up Again.”

What’s more, just as Mood Swings closes with King’s voicemail message, it opens with a spoken-word sample from the 1959 short film, The Faces of Depression, in which a patient compares his experiences to a life in hell. The words “hopelessness” and “terror” are then repeated, as King’s guitar chimes in.

“It was really interesting working with Rick when I went to Italy because it was just me,” King says, in describing how this sequence originated. “We were working 12 hours a day and Rick and I would spend two or three hours together listening to music and what we had to work on for that day. Then he would kind of drift off and I would get to work with the engineer. With Rick being a famous hip-hop producer and one of the forefathers of hip-hop—he’s not a stranger to working with samples—I wanted to find something. My original idea was an intake interview with a mental patient. At the end of the day, I’m a mental patient—I’m just an outpatient, like a lot of us are. Putting it in those really black and white terms was interesting to me. So I wanted to find an interview from that era with that Transatlantic accent because I wanted to show that people were struggling with the same thing back then, just as we are now—it was just looked at though a different lens.

“When I came across that particular interview in the documentary, I was struck by it. So we clipped it and put it at the top of the song. Having never worked with samples before, I wasn’t hip to the idea that they have to clear. It was the only thing we were waiting on at the end because we couldn’t get clearance. I was kind of distraught about that. We tried to have someone recreate it but I was like, ‘No, that’s just not it.’ Finally, in a last ditch effort, I wrote a letter to the son of the doctor who conducted all the research in that film. The son is the keeper of the estate and the reasoning was that it was meant for educational purposes, not entertainment. So I explained that this album was as much for entertainment as it was for mental health advocacy and spreading awareness. I pointed out that this clip really captured the essence of depression, and they finally granted us the clearance, thank God, because it beautifully opens the album.”

While that last sentiment might seem at odds with itself in describing a beautiful passage about the horrors of depression, Mood Swings is such a powerful artistic statement because King is so forthright and true with his intent and execution.

Beyond King’s collaborative relationship with Rubin and engineer Jason Lader, his goals were realized through the contributions of keyboard player Cory Henry (Snarky Puppy, Quincy Jones, Vulfpeck) and drummer Chris Dave (Robert Glasper, D’Angelo, Meshell Ndegeocello), who appear on a majority of the tracks.

“Cory Henry is someone I’ve admired from afar for a while. We’ve crossed paths many times, but never to this degree,” the guitarist says. “Just to have him in the studio and watch him work was really moving. It’s like watching one of the greats paint a masterpiece in front of you. He’s beyond gifted and so blessed with talent. It’s flowing out of him effortlessly.

“The same for Chris Dave. I’ve been a fan of his since I was 13 or 14, listening to albums that Chris played on. I remember when I was a kid, all the great gospel and jazz drummers in town started wearing really big cowboy hats like mine. They started asking me where I was getting my cowboy hats, and I eventually learned it was because Chris Dave had started wearing one. So I got to connect with him on that and we laughed about it.”

King recalls that there were some nerve-wracking moments during these sessions. “Rick was working remotely at that point, so they were looking to me for guidance, and I was a little intimidated,” he admits. “When we did the song ‘Delilah,’ I played piano and sang at the same time, and that was my first time playing piano in the studio. I use piano as a medium for writing, but I don’t really play it. So I had to play piano while I was looking at Cory Henry in front of me playing Hammond organ. Man, that was really intimidating, playing piano in front of him.”

King also had someone else in proximity, whose presence added some pressure to the situation. When he had first returned to the road after the lockdown restrictions abated, the musician was actively struggling with his mental health. He remembers, “If I didn’t go out in my Cadillac, my plan had been, ‘I love playing music. I love all the things that I do in addition to that. So I might as well do that in excess, until it goes wrong or I overdo it.’ None of that was a good plan, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But then, on the second show of that tour, I met Briley, who became a beacon of light for me at that time.”

The two began speaking regularly and she helped assuage some of his inner turmoil. However, given King’s tour itinerary and her own responsibilities, they were not able to spend much time in the same room together.

“Then, for our third date, this wonderful woman came out to those recordings,” he reminisces. “We all had a fine time together at the studio. It was also a little overwhelming, though, because on that third date, I wanted to impress my love interest while keeping up with these musicians.”


By the time King appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this past March to preview a song from Mood Swings, Briley Hussey was no longer his love interest; she had become his wife. The couple was married in Nashville on February 19, 2023, at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Meanwhile, King continued to nurture his mental health, a process that began during the recording of Mood Swings. He affirms, “I’ve been growing through therapy and grounding myself through mindfulness practices like meditation, being in the sauna or the cold plunge, and microdosing.”

So when he took the stage on Fallon behind a piano for the solo introduction to ‘Delilah,’ his jitters were mostly behind him, as he embraced the moment. This continued as he walked over and picked up his guitar to complete the song with his ace touring band, who share a common spirit. The performance was potent and powerful, leading the audience to break into spontaneous mid-song applause, a rarity in this setting.

Looking back, he says, “Man, that meant a lot. I just wanted to go out there and approach it as honestly as I could. There was no reason for me to do that other than I love what I do. I’m thankful that people received it the way that I intended it.”

King then pauses to speak about the musicians who joined him onstage and will continue to do so on tour well into this year, including an extended fall European run.

“I’m so blessed to have members of my band who have been with me for over a decade, and have gone into battle with me, as it were,” he says with humility and respect. “They’ve been with me since we were sharing beds, since they had to carry me out of some of these clubs, and since they had to keep me from getting into fistfights with the owners who wanted to short us on money. They’ve stuck with me through everything. It’s a blessing to have people in my group who really ground me, and also inspire me and constantly push me to be the best version of myself on or off the stage. To be able to create with them is really inspiring.

“I’ve spent a lot of nights thinking about how we’ll integrate the new material into our sets. For me, I want things to be ultra tight because it’s a large band. I love James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. I love these really tight outfits, but I also love the Allman Brothers, and I love fluidity where there are different interpretations and improvisation. So the show’s not going to be the same every night, but there are going to be evergreen moments that people can enjoy. It’s only going to get tighter every night and I know I can count on my boys for that.”

They certainly delivered on Fallon, an appearance that came with extra import for King, as it took place on the guitarist’s 28th birthday. He acknowledges, “That was challenging because, right before we started taping, Jimmy caught wind of that and he had The Roots sing me ‘Happy Birthday.’ I love The Roots. They’ve been some of my favorite players since I was young. Playing piano in front of them was equally as intimidating as playing in front of Cory, but I knew I had to put up or shut up.”

Following the performance, King enjoyed a celebratory dinner with friends and family, then returned to his hotel for a spontaneous viewing party. “The folks in the lobby were kind enough to loan us one of their televisions to watch the playback along with everyone else on the East Coast. [Eric] Krasno was there, our buddy Andy Frasco was there, Kevin Scott who plays with Gov’t Mule was there. We had all kinds of buddies there. It was a grand old time. I didn’t really watch—I cringed the whole time because I don’t like to watch myself, but it was really great having my buddies there with me.”

Then he discloses, “I’ve had my struggles with insecurity and body-image issues. There was a long period in my life where I drank really heavily and threw up every meal. It was a disastrous time. Back then, a few older musicians who I had admired told me that I was too fat for rock-and-roll and that I’d never sell any records. I was told horrible things by these people I had looked up to, and I eventually had to understand that they were broken—someone had filled their heads with that nonsense as well. My goal now is to be as healthy and active as I can, and to lose weight the appropriate way. I want to feel good and to do it for myself, not for other people, and not because of any nasty comments that people leave. It’s not for them; it’s for me. But I still have a little difficulty watching myself. I feel that the only medium where I truly feel confident is in the moment doing it.”

King assuredly excels in that moment. Moreover, his candor and lack of pretension holds sway with audiences who are seeking authenticity within a modern-day culture of contrivance.

He grew up within a family of musicians in South Carolina and came by his craft naturally. “I recall seeing my grandfather, my father, my uncles, even my great aunts and my great uncles when they all would play on my great-grandfather’s porch. I remember how jubilant and joyous everyone seemed to be. Whether I knew it or not, it was music bringing them together. So it seemed like something that created unity, happiness, joy and peace. I also remember these Pentecostal pastors who addressed an audience with such conviction—through their fire and energy they could get these emotions out of people. I was always really moved by that. Those two things really led me to my career path.”

When he attends a meet and greet prior to one of his shows these days, these dual enthusiasms, imprinted on him long ago, often intertwine.

“I’m kind of in the role of an empath,” he states. “I like to engage with the town and feel what the energy’s going to be like that evening. It influences how I’m going to write the set. I always change the set onstage live because my band understands my signals and my movements well enough to change things on the fly, but I take that into consideration.

“Still, the idea is always to make sure that I’m fully scratching my own itch first. To put it another way, when you’re on an airplane, they ask you to place your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. That’s the approach I like to take when I’m writing or performing because I know if I’m having the best time I could be having, then the audience will reciprocate. But if I’m not having a good time, I can’t expect them to have a good time.”

Mutual exuberance is certainly on the docket these days, as King gains self-confidence through his diligent personal work and a supportive partner. As for the songs he’s currently writing, King observes, “They’ve been really reflective. They’re based in self-awareness and accepting one’s shortcomings in life. Before we get back out on the road, we’re going into the studio and cutting some more stuff. So you’ll have plenty to hear out of me.”

He then takes a moment to frame his music within the larger social landscape that’s been so supportive of fellow Nashville-based artists like Billy Strings, Margo Price and Allison Russell, whose work rings true and resonates.

“It feels like we’ve stumbled across this happening that’s not unlike the counterculture of the late ‘60s,” he muses. “People are kind of bucking the stereotypes and doing things differently. It’s like Zach Bryan putting out a 34- song album and doing things that the labels historically wouldn’t be into, but going directly to fans, who are appreciative and want to help. Even clothing’s coming back in style that’s not throwback; it’s just good-quality stuff. People are wearing raw denim because it lasts forever. That’s metaphoric of our relationships and how we approach every day. We don’t want anything cheap, and we don’t want anything that doesn’t last a lifetime. Everybody’s thirsty for what’s real. It’s an exciting time to be alive.”