By Mike Ethan Messick
Austin singer-songwriter Chris King has kicked up a not-insignificant amount of dust over the past couple of years, ascending from erstwhile part-timer to something resembling a full-time, critically acclaimed artist in his own right. Much of this was on the strength of his 2013 album 1983, a burst of country-folk perfection that built on the wry romanticism of his first couple of obscure EPs and landed him on the playlists of several influential Texas radio stations. Songs like “Man Enough,” “Homeland,” and “Native Son” proved pretty irresistible, and even without much promotional fanfare King’s music found its way to thousands of new ears.
Busier than ever, gig-wise, and emboldened by momentum, King hit the studio again last year with largely the same crew that made 1983 but with a batch of songs that skewed darker and more introspective framed by a stormier sound to match. Dominated by electric guitars and spiked with moody synths, the upcoming album Animal — due out March 4 on his own Classic Horse label — is a very different beast than his past work. We caught up with the Runge, Texas native to talk about the evolution.
I can’t say that I had anything particular in mind setting out — I just knew it was time for me to write another album. I had several songs that I’d been toying with, but didn’t really fit together. I set all that stuff aside and decided that I needed to start fresh. There are times where I don’t write anything at all for extended periods of time, and then I’ll have spells where it’s very intense and I’ll write an entire album, like this one. I used to think I could really train myself by writing at a certain time, for a certain length of time, every day. I’ve come to realize that doesn’t work too well for me.
The new album is a noticeable break from your previous sound. Was there anything about 1983 that you weren’t satisfied with in hindsight, even though it was well-reviewed and kind of a breakthrough for you?
As far as the songs and recording process, absolutely not. [Producer/engineers] John Silva and Kevin Szymanski are the best. They really took that batch of songs that I wrote and shined them up really nice. They added parts, showed me how this could go here and that could go there … that was an immense help as I wrote this last record. I have a better idea of how to construct a song now. And I think I’m better at writing moments within the song that make them interesting to the people listening, or at least I hope I am. But I was really pleased with how well 1983 was received; it represented me very accurately at the time, so I can look at it now with satisfaction about all of that.
What were you listening to, reading, etc., while writing and recording Animal?
I’m all over the place most of them time. During that whole process, I was probably even more erratic than usual. I was listening to a lot of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album, a ton of Ray Price, and probably a good amount of the last Dawes album. I also listened to a lot of Beatles, which usually isn’t something I’d go to. But I found myself going to it more and more. And quite a bit now, too. I’m sure some of that stuff oozed into the songs I wrote. If so, I’m glad for that.
What inspired you to take the songs in more of a rock direction?
Everything I write is essentially a folk song, or a country waltz. So, when I sat down to write this album, I made an effort to reach out of my comfort zone a little and experiment with some different things. I didn’t come out of the gate wanting to write an album that sounds the way this one does … I just wanted to find a different way to approach songwriting that wasn’t my norm. The first song I wrote for the album is called “Waiting On Myself.” I kind of dog-eared it because I didn’t know what I really thought about it. Then the second song I wrote is called “Never Make It Last.” These two songs are probably the least informed by my love for country music, and when they came out, I knew where I needed to write myself to.
Which songs are you most excited about taking out on the road?
Probably the two I just mentioned. They’re the ones I think are the most interesting on this album, considering my past material. I’d also say the tracks “Deep End” and “Martinez Social Club”… as I’m about to start writing my next album, those two are probably telling of where that’s going to be headed.