Emily King infuses “Special Occasion” energy throughout KCRW’s Annenberg Performance Studio.
Video directed by Angie Scarpa, all photos by Larry Hirshowitz.

Emily King: KCRW Live from HQ

Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.

Intricately layered R&B examinations of the human condition are the name of Emily King’s game. The three-time Grammy nominee — with nods extending back to her 2007 debut LP East Side Story — hits us with highlights from fifth LP, 2023’s Special Occasion, alongside a few back catalog cuts. King and her spare-yet-mighty backing band — Randy Runyon on guitar and Tim Smith on percussion — perform “Medal,” “This Year,” “Special Occasion,” and more with an unrivaled spirit of generosity and spontaneity. 

Plus, the New York-born artist joins Morning Becomes Eclectic co-host Anthony Valadez for a chat with big “old friends catching up” energy where they talk impromptu outdoor shows, moving to LA, and processing pain through the creation of art. 

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The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

KCRW: Talk about the Special Occasion album art. It’s very … Emily King, “prison pose.”

Emily King: [Laughs] Well, okay, so that's a selfie. It was taken in a mirror. I remember it because I had a lot of photoshoots, and I couldn't quite get it right. My dear friend Shervin Lainez is an incredible photographer, so it was a collaboration between us … But I think it [ultimately] represented this loneliness I was feeling throughout the making of this record. 

So that paired with the title — Special Occasion — was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. When I wrote the song [“Special Occasion”], I was in tears, because I was heartbroken. So I had the thought of trying to celebrate these moments where you're not feeling 100%, just acknowledging that what you're going through is important. I’m getting sweaty trying to explain this though. Let's just say it was [a prison pose]. That would be more interesting.

It’s pretty apparent listening to this record that you were going through something while making it. How do you push through the difficult experiences to process them as a songwriter?

Thank you. It sucks, you know? Life is hard, and relationships are more nuanced than we see in the movies. Also [break up] songs that I've heard [in the past] don't always describe the reality of the situation. It’s not always, “he broke my heart, or she left me…” Sometimes things just change. There's no reason, and it hurts, and you don't know how to repackage this relationship. We're lucky as human beings that we have this tool to express ourselves. I figured I should take a break from feeling sorry for myself and try to write a song.

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There seems to be a lot of spontaneity involved in your live show. For example, what led to your impromptu set on Venice Beach before joining us here at KCRW?

We needed to practice [Laughs]. When I first got together to practice with Randy and Smithsonian [Tim Smith] for our tour, we were in Brooklyn. It was a beautiful day, and we go into this practice room that smells like socks. So I said to the guys, “let's just go sit on the stoop outside,” and they were so into it. So today was sort of a repeat of that. 

Randy's idea was, “let's go play on the beach.” There weren't that many people around, we found a little spot and it was great. It's just fun to sing outdoors. It's very serendipitous. … You'll be listening to music, and things will happen in the rhythm of music. And you're like, oh my god, we're jamming with the world. Actually we were doing one song, and a biker came by and rang her bell — right in time with the break. And it was magical.

All photos by Larry Hirshowitz.

You’ve recently moved from New York to LA. Having grown up as a lifelong New Yorker, are you finding the new environment changing your songwriting practice at all?

I really needed to have a private space outdoors, which I think is more common here in LA than in New York. When you're outdoors in New York, you have to look cute. Everybody's on all the time [in New York City] — I feel like I'm on stage when I leave the house. I like to go hiking and be in nature, it's good for the soul and for mental health. I definitely need space. 

It's helped my songwriting a lot. I think it's been a wonderful experience. I still love the city. I go to the city all the time, because I have to get culture. That's the only thing about [the geographic trade off]. The cities are where the culture is, and I feel most comfortable in a diverse place such as this.

What keeps you going?

Ignorance, stupidity, naivete… [Laughs]. No, really though. People [around you on your creative team] are afraid for you. So they would say, “this is now or never, this is the shot…” But I play basketball, so you should see how many shots I miss. And that's also my career.

The reality of my experience is that I actually have had a lot of opportunities that I'm very grateful for. I’ve definitely failed a lot, and I felt in those moments like I’d ruined everything for the rest of my life. Like, big, important people that you think you have failed. And maybe I did in that moment, but I had my family support. I cry on their shoulder, and they keep me going. My brother's always been a huge support to me. I hope everybody has someone like that, because you shouldn’t expect to do it alone. It's definitely been a group effort, and it's the best thing ever. 

It can be very solitary to be writing and recording this stuff… But the light at the end of the tunnel is always there so it’s like, okay, just do the work. You're going to get it out there, and [eventually] have this exchange with other people. That is the most gratifying thing. You realize that we are all the same, and we all go through the same things. Those moments where we can connect just feel so good. I'm just grateful. I’m grateful to be here, and I'm grateful for you because you've been supporting me for many years now.

More: Explore KCRW Live From sessions


KCRW Music Director: Anne Litt
Interview: Anthony Valadez
Video Director / Editor: Angie Scarpa
Camera Operators: Vice Cooler, Dalton Blanco, Angie Scarpa 
Recording / Mix Engineers: Hope Bush
Assistant Recording Engineer: John Meek
Executive Producer and Interview Editor: Ariana Morgenstern 
Event Producer: Liv Surnow
Producer: Anna Chang
Lighting Design: Jason Groman
Art Director: Evan Solano
Digital Producer: Andrea Domanick

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