Marcus King is the first to admit he's an introvert. That label doesn't bother him at all. In fact, he embraces it. He's a lot more conflicted, though, about being deemed a prodigy, which is something music critics have been calling him since he began playing the blues alongside his father, Marvin King, as a preteen.
"I've never really identified with it," he told me in a recent phone interview. "I think it's never really suited me personally. It is what it is. I see other young people lots younger than I am, doing incredible work, but I'm careful not to call them prodigies because I know how it made me feel. It made me feel good for my age. I just wanted to be good, period. I wanted people to respect me for the music I created."
That time has obviously arrived. King, who will take the C2G Music Hall stage Wednesday, May 23 at 8 p.m. with his four-man band - Jack Ryan on drums and percussion, Stephen Campbell on bass, Dean Mitchell on saxophone and Justin Johnson on trombone, trumpet on backing vocals - now has two much-lauded albums to his credit and just finished with his third, Carolina Confessions, which will hit shelves in September.
And, even though he's still very young - he turned 21 this year - people rarely comment on his age. They focus instead on his talent, drive and originality.
Veteran slide guitarist Warren Haynes has said that, while King is obviously influenced by the blues, jazz, rock and soul also play roles in his lyrics and arrangements, all of which belong to King alone.
"You can hear the influences, but it all comes through him in his own unique way. He has one of those voices that instantly draws you in, and his guitar playing is an extension of his voice and vice-versa."
Back to the introvert idea. King is a very shy young man. Social gatherings are not his favorite things, but he has found that when he's on stage he comes alive and he can finally say exactly what it is he wants to say.
"I feel more at home on stage than I do elsewhere," he said. "I generally keep to myself, and I get really paranoid if I think that maybe I've been rude to someone. I'm not very social, I guess. I do love meeting people, but I really just like to listen in those situations. The stage gives me an opportunity to speak, and it's cool because I get to do it with a microphone and a really good band behind me."
King sees his music as a form of therapy. His songs are there to help his fans and to help him as well. Some of his songs are autobiographical. He works through his problems as he writes. The magic really happens when fans listen to those songs and see themselves and their own problems reflected in the words. King feels lucky that he's been able to comfort others through his art.
"A lot of my music goes to some really deep places, and when I get there and I'm writing from that spot, I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I've had bands come up to me after shows and say that my music helped them in one way or another. One person even told me a song of mine kept them from committing suicide. That was a really powerful moment and reminded me of why I do what I do."
King grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, the only son of blues guitarist Marvin King. As a youngster, he idolized his dad and soon began playing not only electric and acoustic guitar, but pedal and lap steel. He studied jazz and jazz theory for two years and began performing in an around Greenville at age nine. In 2014, he put out his first album, Soul Insight, when he was just 19. He followed that up with The Marcus King Band which, unlike Soul Insight, made use of a full horn section. He said he hopes Carolina Confessions will display his development as a writer, guitar player and vocalist.
"We all try to grow as much as we can as human beings and artists, right? We learn as much as we can everywhere go. We meet new people and have new experiences that help us grow as writers. I think Carolina Confessions is proof that I'm working all the time to be better."
King spends much of his time on the road these days. When I caught up with him, he was touring with Chris Robinson as part of the month-long Black Crows retrospective, As the Crow Flies. King said he actually likes road life. It gives him the time and inspiration he needs to write, and he gets to be alone a lot with his thoughts. Good fodder for the blues and the soul alike.
"For the past few years, a lot of my writing has gotten its start on the road. Bits and pieces of songs will come to me, and then, when I get home, I put them together. Experiences, you know? Losses and all that stuff. It's ongoing."
It doesn't hurt that King always has his guitarist dad to turn to for advice.
"We're really close still," King said. "My dad's the best. He's my best friend, actually. I talk to him all the time. He's my first call. That's a pretty cool thing to be able to say."
It also doesn't hurt that King and his band get along - and fight and make up - like brothers.
"It's an incredible thing to spend so much time with somebody that you basically adapt to their behavior so much that you almost speak second language with them," he said. "Music is our second language, of course, but we understand and communicate with each other on multiple levels. Our minds and spirits just sort of mingle. Also, we have a great time. We all have this odd sense of humor, so we get along really well."
"It's like siblings," he added. "Everybody fights with their brothers, right? I never had any brothers growing up, and now I feel like I finally do. It's really an honor to see the world with these guys."