"I guess I've always been unafraid," says Emily King. "I always felt that I had something to say. And I feel like that's my job -- to give people a voice, to open myself up and be fearless. To show who I am."
King may be just 21 years old, but this girl is a throwback to another era. The music on her J Records debut, East Side Story, reveals roots that are deep and ambitions that are grand. "I think music is such a revolutionary thing, and that's what it should be," she says. "I'm trying to bring that back." In conversation, King's words are packed with references to the wide range of great artists that inspired her - the Beatles and Nas, Sarah Vaughanand Radiohead, Michael Jackson and Neil Young. "Every record that I've ever heard has been an influence on me," she says.
As the daughter of two singers -- one Italian, one African-American - who performed internationally as a jazz duo, King was exposed to music, its challenges and its rewards, from an early age. (She still lives with her mother in the same downtown Manhattan apartment --"with no doors," she points out -- in which she grew up.) She always knew she would follow in her parents' footsteps. "I had a hard time in school," she says, "because I already knew what I wanted to do, so I was like, let me just get started."
At age 16, King took two giant steps: She got her GED, and she started writing songs. In fact, the very first song that she completed, "Business Man" -- a commentary on heartless capitalists - is a central moment on East Side Story. "I always thought if I write a song, it's not going to be about relationships," she says. "There are so many things in this world to talk about." She quickly advanced from banging around on a guitar in her apartment to performing on the local folk club circuit at such noted venues as the Bitter End and CBGB's Gallery.
Meantime, King, who grew up in the forever-evolving hip-hop era, immersed herself in a culture that would add yet another ingredient to her musical mix. She met producer Chucky Thompson, a member of Bad Boy Entertainment's famed Hitman studio team who had recorded smashes with the likes of the Notorious BIG and Mary J. Blige. Thompson signed her to his production company, and together they began searching for the right sound to capture King's eclectic tastes and styles. After taking her demos to various labels, they signed with J Records and began the process of making a real album.
"We came to the label with a lot of songs that I had written by myself in my kitchen," King says. "They were really into experimenting, and I'm glad we went through that process, but we came all the way around and ended up with those songs that we started with."
With contributions from notables including producer Salaam Remi and Marsha from acclaimed rap duo Floetry, East Side Story brings together King's singer-songwriter foundation with soul-drenched vocals and fluid hip-hop beats to create a truly special blend -- a place where the coffeehouse meets the dancefloor. The lyrics are shot through with a real sense of Emily King's life and personality, from the undulating first single, "Walk in My Shoes," to "U & I," based on the story of her "biggest influence," her parents.
King expresses a particular fondness for "Colorblind," the last song she wrote for the album and the one that most directly addresses her experience as the child of a bi-racial marriage. "I think that song really brings it all together," she says. "It sums up what I'm about, where I'm from, and gives an idea of the passion behind what I'm doing. I wanted it to be like a bio of myself."
Not that East Side Story is all serious business. Other highlights include the gorgeous, yearning "Hold Me"; "Ride," which King describes as "a nice easygoing song with a basement reggae feel to it, and a real Beatles influence;" and a sultry cover of Bill Withers' classic "Ain't No Sunshine."
The album's line-up of songs, King says, feels like a true reflection of her - a portrait of the artist as a young lady. "They all relate to me," she says. "Even the ones where I didn't actually take part in the story, it was about something close to me. I'm really proud of it for that reason - it all kinda sums me up."
A lot has changed for Emily King in the years since she started writing the songs on East Side Story. Her compositions went from baby steps at home to performances alone onstage with a guitar to almost two years of toiling in the studio to bring them to their proper life. But, she says, that time has only strengthened her connection to this material.
"I've always been an observer," she says. "I've always really tuned in to people and their stories, their feelings. So when I started writing a lot of these songs, I hadn't actually experienced these things. But as I've gone through my own personal experiences, they definitely take a different face -- like, wow, I really did go through that, so I can sing it with even more passion now."
Unable to be contained by any one category, Emily King represents the best of what our musical future might look like. Rather than concentrate on the differences between hip-hop and rock, party music and protest music, black and white, she's committing herself to finding common ground. "I'm just finding my own culture within myself," she says. "We have a lot of division in our society, but I was never raised like that. I feel like what I'm doing right now is going to bring a lot of people together."