Elle King really loves to make people cry.
Buzz has been steadily building for King since the release last fall of her single “Ex’s and Oh’s,” a crunchy Southern-rock bit of tough love for clingy exes. (The track was nominated for a Teen Choice Award for best break-up song last week.)
If her banjo-heavy classic rock sound isn’t enough indication, King isn’t a huge consumer of modern pop culture. She mostly listens to oldies radio (“It’s the only thing that doesn’t give me anxiety”) and she doesn’t own a computer or television. But she does let some modern influences creep into her work. Plus, she does a mean cover of rapper Khia’s 2002 ode to oral sex, “My Neck, My Back.”
“I’m obsessed with that ‘FourFiveSeconds’ song with Rihanna and Kanye,” King says. “I listen to that on repeat. I think Eminem is a genius. I think Dolly Parton is a crazy lyricist. Even Reba! I’m really moved by a nice tone of voice and good lyrics.”
But mostly what inspires her, she says, is the work of an honest performer who lets herself be vulnerable in her songwriting. That’s what she’s trying to be.
“I write when I’m going through something,” King says. “Music is the one thing that helps me. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about things and then five months later I’ll write a song about it and then I’ll come back to it and think, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on inside your head, that’s what you feel.’ It’s cool — it’s like a conversation with me.”
Given the way she wears her heart on her sleeve (she cried when she met bluegrass giants Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn earlier this year), it’s surprising to hear that King has yet to cry onstage. But she’s come close. The track that closes her album, “See You Again,” is an acoustic ballad about an old relationship that King just couldn’t make work. King says it’s the only time she’s ever told someone she wrote a song about him.
“The first time we played it live, I choked up a little bit,” she says, sounding a little choked up even now. “I wrote it for a really special person who I loved a lot. It’s a little emotional. But other people cry for me at the shows, so that’s good enough for me.”
U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW; Sat., 7 p.m., sold out.
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