The following feature appears in the October 2016 issue of NYLON.
I’ve never seen someone light up a room quite like Elle King: The 27-year-old country-rock-pop singer bear-hugs me when I open the door to the Ludlow Hotel suite in Manhattan where we’re photographing her, grinning from ear to ear and clutching a sugar-free Red Bull as her big blue eyes (beneath matching blue hair) scan the room. “Do you mind if I have a cigarette really quickly?” she asks. This habit explains that charming rasp of hers, but the roughness in her voice is also a side effect from her performance just a few days ago at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where she opened up for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
You probably recognize King from her Grammy-nominated song “Ex’s & Oh’s”—the first single off her album Love Stuff—which played nonstop on the radio and became a catchy, pop-rock girl-power anthem for women across the world (likely because it was based on true stories about three of her ex-boyfriends). Before we actually start talking, however, she kicks everyone out of the room. “Thanks guys, sorry, I get self-conscious,” she says. This seems strange considering that King had just been showing me a video of her and Dierks Bentley performing a duet in front of thousands of people at the CMT Music Awards (which aired to millions around the world), where she oozed nothing but confidence. The layers start to unfold.
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Born Tanner Elle Schneider to comedian Rob Schneider and model London King, the musician started playing violin at the age of four, when she was told she had perfect pitch. But it wasn’t until she was 10 that she picked up a guitar and learned how to play her first song, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd—making her aforementioned Sturgis debut a full-circle moment. “I knew I had a job to do, and that was get the crowd pumped for Lynyrd fucking Skynyrd, but the audience was tough—I knew I had to work harder to gain respect from them, just for being a female musician,” she says. “But I proved myself for over an hour, in front of 20,000 bikers, who were mainly men, and got their approval. I'm still buzzing from it. Sorry, I had to get my girl power moment in somewhere.” King smiles, and looks down at her arms, which are covered in a mix of American traditional tattoos and other random inkings (like one that just says “fuck you”), kept in pristine condition thanks to her obsession with coconut oil (she later asks me touch her arms to prove how soft her skin is).
“You know, there are these little boxes that I've been ticking off the last couple years of my career: I got to sing with Ronnie Spector at Glastonbury, then I got to sing with Wanda Jackson—who I have a beautiful friendship with now—she’s the one who taught me how to sing with a rasp.” I inquire more about this. “Well, she taught me how to yodel,” says King. “But when I would listen to her music when I was younger, I would try to mimic her sound, not knowing that if I eventually drank and smoked enough, I would get my own rasp, too [laughs]. While we were driving in her car, she looked over at me and said, ‘The boys will try and get you down, but you just have to sing louder than them, and know that you're as good as them.’” King interrupts herself. “Can I say something? For years, a lot of people asked me, ‘Have you ever had any hardships or speed bumps about being a woman in rock ‘n’ roll?’ And for so long, I was like, ‘No way, man, everybody's cool!’ But it wasn’t until I reached a new level of fame that I realized men started acting like dicks to me. From that moment on I was like, ‘I’m going to sing and play music better than any man ever thinks they can!’ I had never identified as a feminist before this, but it just took one thing for me to change my view.”
I segue our conversation to her eyeliner, since she had previously mentioned Ronnie Spector, the queen of cat-eyes. “I’ve always done big eyeliner, just like The Ronettes and Amy Winehouse did,” she says. “But I can’t do a smoky cat-eye; I love a clean line. I have two favorite cat-eye looks I do: I've got the “full cat,” a really sharp pointy liner. Then my second favorite, I call it the “shark fin,” is a three-quarter-length, really sexy bedroom eye. I think anyone can pull off a cat-eye. You just have to find which one works best with your eye shape.” Her secret weapon? “M.A.C Fluidline Pen in Retro Black, it’s my absolute favorite,” she says.
Before she leaves to meet up with her fiancé downstairs, King slips her fringed leather jacket (which reads wild child on the back, her own custom design) over her grungy, mermaid-hued locks. “I'm getting married next spring and I want to dye my hair back to blonde for the wedding, so I’m having fun with the blue while I can,“ she says. It’s nice because having [colored hair] isn’t so taboo in the music industry anymore. Plus, the blue makes my eye color pop. I’m in love with it.”