Published Jan 16, 2020Marcus King never wanted to be a guitar hero.
"This whole guitar-blues moniker that I kind of received, I never really went after it," the South Carolina native tells Exclaim! "I was never a big guitar nerd. When I was a kid, there was a really conscious period that I remember where I quit listening to guitar players altogether, because I didn't want to sound like a guitar player. I just wanted to sound like me. What I heard in my head and in my soul, I wanted to get out, and the guitar was the main form of instrument that I had to do it."
King's reputation as a six-string shredder is nowhere to be found on El Dorado, his first solo album. With only a handful of electrified licks across the 12 tracks, and only a couple of those lead lines lasting more than a few bars, it's a far cry from his previous work under the Marcus King Band — the band have released three full-length albums since 2015 — but that's exactly how he wanted it.
"This record is kind of a step into myself as a singer and as a writer, showcasing those two things and letting the guitar speak for itself, and just kind of saying I feel as comfortable singing and writing as I do playing now, which is a new feeling for me."
That feeling was part of King's motivation to work on a solo record, much like two of his favourite frontmen in the '70s and '80s. "This is kind of my Full Moon Fever or Laid Back," the debut solo records released by Tom Petty and Gregg Allman respectively. "When those records came out, the Allman Brothers were still relevant, and the Heartbreakers were very much still relevant. It's just important to do things that excite you musically."
There are a number of departures on El Dorado. While King's guitar takes a backseat throughout, his vocal attack is notably less aggressive. On records with the Marcus King Band, his voice had a palpable bite — still soulful, but with a certain blues-y growl. "Boisterous" is the word King used to describe it. But, he says, that sound was always less of a singing style and more of a survival tactic.
"Coming up, the only way I knew how to sing was just really loud, because you had to combat a really rowdy bar, where their first intention to be there was to drink, and their second intention was to maybe listen to some music. The band were loud, the P.A. was inadequate, so I had to sing as loud and powerfully as possible, and that's how I started singing this record."
What you'll hear on the album is a much different vocal approach, and a vulnerability for which King thanks producer Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys. "We got to the track called 'Break' — I recorded it and I was a little tired, and I'd been singing really hard all week. So, I just sang it falsetto really softly into the microphone, and when I came back into the control room, Dan said 'I hope you're ready, man. We're re-cutting all the vocals' because that was the approach."
There was no fight from King; they'd stumbled upon the softer sound he says they were trying to craft. "Man, everything Dan said — it wasn't that I was just blindly following his direction, they just all sounded like good ideas to me."
King called working with Auerbach "a blessing" and says he put his faith in the Black Keys frontman from the beginning. "Dan's got a tremendous wide scope. He's got a big picture in mind at all times. It's really nice to watch him work because you can really see him envisioning what's to come. You kind of got to trust him in the foreground, and it always comes to fruition in a really nice way."
The album's first cut is a song called "Young Man's Dream," something King says he's still chasing, even though he knows he'll never quite catch it.
"It's like that city, El Dorado, you know? It doesn't really exist. It's more the journey that's important. That's the way I see it, that the destination is the journey. If you just keep working for what you want to get, you'll make a lot of great experiences along the way."