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King Isis Talks Lessons, Growth, and Inclusivity

Most artists pride themselves on operating outside of the margins. Yet where most artists fail in their attempt to broaden experimental expression is in translating the lived experience of the moment into sonic emotion. For King Isis, creating beyond the confined pretenses of identity and genre comes naturally, authentically born from the vivid internal explorations that she seamlessly illustrates through song. In the California native's most recent EP, “SHED,” King Isis brings her world to life through snippets of her personal psyche, or rather ephemeral memories built by an evolving blend of angsty grunge guitar synths and vocals reminiscent of classic indie records. By ambitiously carving out spaces to process relationships, identity, and the external perception of others, Kind Isis presides over a built-out world that feels dissonant and loud yet all at once harmonious. A combination of both a metamorphosis and a breakthrough, everything King Isis creates sketches the path towards a greater purpose, and we’re just lucky to get a snippet of her brilliance. 

Gianni Gallant ©

Your single “MAKE IT UP” takes on different emotions and directions sonically; what was the main message or theme you wanted to convey through this song?

"MAKE IT UP" is the moment of uncovering the weight of a toxic relationship, so I feel like, sonically, it made sense that it translated into a heavier sound. The droney, dissonant melodies are reminiscent of feeling like you aren’t enough without this person and that this is all that there is for you. At the end of the music video for "MAKE IT UP" and at the end of the EP with the song "NVR RLLY," the message is hopefully kind of unlearning that I don’t actually need this person, and even though it will be a journey to be okay for real, I can “shed” that.

What was the creative inspiration behind the vampire-themed music video for the track? What was it like to see the song come together visually with the video?

I love vampires in general and the gothic aesthetic of vampires -  red, black, corsets, fishnets, etc. I also wanted to visually represent the concept of a parasitic relationship, that person taking my blood, taking away my light and life. But ultimately, like in the end of the music video, finding the strength to walk away, unlearning the co-dependency, and reclaiming myself. It’s always really cool to see the music brought to life through visuals. Visuals are a huge part of music for me, I love world-building so creating the music video for tracks is a really rewarding process for me.

Your music tends to merge different sonic influences and layers, ambitiously refusing to be confined to a singular box. Can you speak to how this reflects who you are as a person and artist?  

Breaking free from labels and boxes that confine people’s identities is something that’s really important to me. For a long time, I struggled with feeling trapped under a lot of different identity markers, what it means to be black in white communities, what it means to be queer in religious communities, and what it means to be non-binary in a gendered world. Learning to have confidence in my own identity, no matter the perception or expectation is something that has been really important to me coming into my own. This translates to the music, not only in a lyrical sense because I write a lot of lyrics about learning to embrace myself wholly, but also in terms of the genres I play with in my sound. I’ve always been inspired by a lot of different kinds of music. Growing up, I loved Paramore and Panic! At The Disco, but I was also surrounded by Bay Area hip hop and jazz in Oakland, and my mom loved artists like Erykah Badu and Outkast. All these different sounds have really influenced the music that I make now and make it pretty impossible to make any singular music genre.

Can you talk about the experience working on the See You Next Year 2024 album with Pigeons and Planes? How was it to work with all the other incredible artists at a place like Shangri-La?

I’m really grateful to have gotten to be a part of this year’s SYNY album. It was really a beautiful experience not only getting to work at Shangri-La - which is a magical place - but also getting to work with and be surrounded by really incredible artists whose work I’ve loved for a while. It was definitely an overwhelming experience at first, coming in initially as one of the only non-binary/femme artists on the project. I definitely felt a lot of pressure and some imposter syndrome and went in not knowing what the dynamics would be like. But I was really excited to work with artists I really admired like Kenny Mason and Monte Booker. I’ve also been a huge Pigeons and Planes fan for a long time so getting the chance to share my music and for them to see my music as something worth putting on the project was definitely a euphoric feeling. It was also a great exercise in songwriting with other people, which is something that I don’t often do and was really excited to try out. I’m really proud of the songs I made for the project, especially "Cesspool" -  I think it explores a sound I haven’t showcased much of yet but that I’m a big fan of.

2023 was really busy for you in terms of releasing your debut EP, signing, and gaining almost instant popularity. What was it like to experience all of that in such a short time period?

It’s been an almost surreal journey because these are things I’ve been working towards and dreaming of for a while. Like, I used to have huge vision boards on my wall about things that are happening now. No matter what, I would always be making music, but sometimes the external validation from signing a deal or my favorite publication writing about my song or artists I’ve admired for a long time telling me they like my music quiets my inner saboteur/imposter syndrome/voice in my head that I’m not enough or that what I’m doing is stupid and doesn’t mean anything - it helps me feel like I’m on the right path. I think it’s encouraging and motivating and just pushes me harder. Also – to be present, step back, and give me space to be proud of me, which is something I struggle with, especially in an industry and city fueled by competition. 

And to follow up, what was the biggest lesson you learned in 2023 in terms of going forward as an artist in this industry?

I think something that comes along with the beautiful and positive aspects of people recognizing my art is also other people having unprecedented perceptions of me and how they can treat me. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is that this can be a really isolating and difficult journey. I did not grow up rich; none of my family has been involved in the industry. I’m a queer black girl raised by a single mother in Oakland who just really loves creating music and has been working really hard to get people to listen. I love the creativity that the lack of a rule book allows, but this industry is messssssssy. I’ve experienced and witnessed a lot of misogynoir, assault, and sexism by people in this industry who continue to be championed. The deeper I get into it, the more grateful I am for my small circle and for the people and love I have in my life.

There are so many layers to your songs, overlapping genres and emotions, what is your writing process like? What do you try to be intentional about when you write

It always starts in my room, usually in bed, with my guitar and a notebook. I try to come up with some chords or a progression that I really like, and from there, I hum or sing some shit until I find a melody that I like. I usually record the whole process in voice notes – like I have thousands of unnamed voice notes that are essentially the same melody with one slight difference.  Once I feel like I have a melody that I really like, I start playing with lyrics - again, with the voice notes, and then when something sticks, I free-write from there in my notebook. I don’t usually write songs with the intention of communicating any specific thought or feeling, things just start pouring out. It’s only once I finish a song (production and all) and sit with it for a long time does the meaning start to show itself to me. I didn’t realize how deeply personal a lot of the songs off ‘shed’ were to my life until very recently; I was like ‘oh shit, yeah that's what this is about. damn.’ 

Along with that, what do you hope listeners take away from your music?

I think something that’s really important to me in making music is inspiring other Black kids, Queer kids, and other people to also make music. I wish I saw more people like me making music when I was younger, so I hope that I’m able to do that for someone else. In a more general sense, I really hope my music can bring any form of catharsis to listeners and help them process whatever they're going through. 

You convey such power and strength in your music; what fuels you to keep creating in this way?

Thank you! I think first and foremost, making music is such a huge form of release for me, I don’t know what I’d do without it. As someone who is naturally introverted and shy, it’s the space I feel the most vulnerable and confident in - the most like me. Hearing and seeing how other people connect with my songs – something that I feel is so personal to me – also fuels me, it’s validating, reassuring in a way. Music has continually saved me and helped me become the person I am today.  I think music is innately so powerful and I think I would always be making music regardless of how it’s received. 

Who is your dream collaboration?

Yves Tumor, Kendrick Lamar, Sevdaliza, King Krule, or Saya Gray. 

What’s next for you? What are you manifesting for 2024? 

I would love to do a couple more tours this year and definitely release more music. I’m sitting on some demos I’m really proud of. I’ve also written a script for a short film that visualizes the world of ‘scales’ and ‘shed’, and I would love to release that this year as well. I’m really hoping to move somewhere with some outdoor space + some trees as soon as possible. In terms of manifesting, NPR tiny desk, COLORS, festivals (hello Pitchfork + Primavera!), European tour, + RuPaul’s drag race guest judge!


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