There is an air about singer Emily King that is effortlessly cool.
While talking on the phone about her upcoming intimate, cabaret-style shows at Evanston’s SPACE, the songstress is strolling the streets of San Francisco, with seagulls and trolley cars somehow providing the perfect background soundtrack to the conversation. It calls to mind the subtle nuances that made her latest album, 2019’s “Scenery,” so spectacular.
With a calm mix of jazz greats like Sarah Vaughn, the breezy R&B pop stylings of the xx and Sade and the songwriting consciousness of a young Joni Mitchell, King has become a queen of new indie. Upon its release last February, “Scenery” was hailed by everyone from NPR to Pitchfork and ushered in a remarkable year that brought sets at Coachella and Lollapalooza. She ultimately garnered two Grammy nominations for best R&B song for the single “Look at Me Now,” and best engineered album non-classical, for the album itself.
“We didn’t win, we lost twice,” King says, laughing as she recalls attending the awards ceremony in late January. “But alas I really didn’t expect to win. I was surprised to even be nominated, and I was just happy to go and be in the same room with these incredible musicians.” Attendees included many of the people that she has toured with and who have praised her relentlessly, including John Legend, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5 and Sam Smith, who has hailed King as “an unreal talent.”
The Grammy moment was just another highlight in an incredible career year that could be described, she jokes, as “having to put on more makeup than any other time in my life.” But the singer is not ready to close the chapter just yet.
After having her songs remixed on the “Change of Scenery” EP — with fresh takes from Taylor McFerrin and Machinedrum, among others — King released “Sides” on Jan. 17, which offers acoustic versions of songs from “Scenery” as well as her other releases, 2011’s EP “Seven” and the 2016 album “The Switch.”
“We’ve been on tour these past few years and the songs have kind of taken on a new life in front of audiences. We’ve experimented with arrangements and different tempos, so I thought in the meantime before writing a new album, it would be fun to have fresh versions of these songs,” says King of the urge to do “Sides” with her longtime partner and producer Jeremy Most. Contributions from lauded strings arranger Rob Moose reveal the unplugged versions are the focus of her new tour.
One of the tracks is a pensive new version of “Teach You” featuring friend and frequent collaborator Sara Bareilles. “Sara is an amazing creature of the Earth, just a lovely person and artist. I was lucky enough to join her tour about five years ago,” recalls King, who has accompanied the accomplished singer on the road twice, most recently last fall, culminating in a coveted date at Madison Square Garden. “When we got off [the first] tour it turns out we were neighbors in New York City. And so we just started hanging out.”
King grew up in the heart of The Big Apple, the daughter of a singing duo who would often bring along the budding artist to their gigs.
“It was everything to grow up around them; they are the whole reason that I became a singer and songwriter,” she says, recalling her parents playing music around the house, singing a cache of ’50s and ’60s rock and folk over jazz composers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “It was the Great American Songbook — those songs are so well-crafted with the melody, and the lyrics are so perfect in terms of playing up emotions. I was lucky to have that as my musical basis even though I didn’t really understand it at the time. I was more interested in the hamburgers and french fries that came with playing a gig somewhere. Which hasn’t changed.”
Many critics have assessed that “Scenery” in fact is King’s coming-of-age album, inspired by the artist’s move from the buzz of the city to upstate New York.
“I think that’s definitely a fair take,” she says. “I was a bit of a late bloomer moving away from home and being on my own for the first time and learning how to live on my own and live in the country — all these extra things I didn’t know about. And I had to learn how to drive, which was really new and scary, so there was a lot of coming-of-age growing pains. But it was an adventure.”
Whatever it is will be unapologetically authentic to her true style. “As a creative person, no matter what you do, you really hope that if you’re creating from an honest place that will translate to somebody else,” says King, a previous winner of the Holly Prize from The Songwriters Hall of Fame. “In the beginning of making this record, that was the goal — just try not to overthink the process and write from my own experience rather than retelling someone else’s story. That’s the music that resonates with people more, so I have to keep living hopefully and remind myself the point of this is to have a good time.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.