He’d rise at 5 a.m., make a pot of coffee, a couple eggs, then find himself on the back porch of his old house with breakfast, a side of cigarettes and an acoustic guitar. First came a melody, then a chord progression and, with any luck, some lyrics.
That’s how Josh King wrote his debut solo album Into the Blue, due for national release on Friday. The Greensboro musician is best known as a member of indie-rock sextet House of Fools, and Americana band Roseland.
As a solo artist, his sound veers into pop-country, rock and roots territories. Thematically, King drew from experiences with substance abuse, small-town idleness and the piquant sadness that comes when friends “move forward” with their lives.
“With House of Fools, we’d come home and in the down time we all started drinking a lot, and when you’re in the same place for a long time and you’re drinking a lot, other drugs pop up and that’s where it went off into the deep end,” King says. “I would go on benders, and one put me in the hospital…. I stopped everything for almost a year. Once I felt like I could grab hold of it and be able to go out with my friends without going to that next level, I started drinking some again and so far so good. It’s a slippery slope that’s for sure, being in a small town like Greensboro knowing everybody and everything’s at your fingertips.”
Sobering up and support from friends, including previous bandmates, sparked his desire to start composing again about 18 months ago.
“Whenever you get clean, even if it’s for a brief period of time, you’ll find yourself finding this incredible clarity that you never felt before and didn’t know existed,” King says. “So I was waking up in the morning with more energy and clarity that any drug could ever give me. I’d crank out songs all day and then go straight into the studio… which kept me focused. I had no need for anything else; it filled that void that I needed to fill.”
He took the demos to former bandmate Jordan Powers, who became one of the album’s producers and also plays guitar on some tracks. Joel Kiser, another running partner, lent his talents on the guitar for Into the Blue.
King says he devoted time for introspection and meditation before songwriting so that he could sincerely translate his inner dialogue and day-to-day lived experiences into song, so it’s no surprise his friends made the cut.
“[The song] ‘Friends’ is about the friends that were right there, that stayed through everything,” he says.
His then-girlfriend, now-wife and musical heroes like Elliott Smith and Tom Petty played just as big a role in his recovery and studio return.
“[Petty] is a really big influence, especially for this album,” King says. “If we got stuck in the studio I’d ask, ‘What would Tom Petty do?’”
Josh King plays an album release show with Caleb Caudle and the Carri Smithey Band at the Blind Tiger (GSO) on Aug. 17.
It shows, especially on songs like “The Well.” King, sometimes soft-spoken sometimes belting during orchestral ballads, occasionally lets out the faintest countrified twang that seems cribbed from the Petty songbook. His rock sensibilities lend structure to four-minute tracks that swell into catchy choruses reminiscent of early-aughts pop-punk. There’s no pretension to be found in the simple rhymes and back-to-basics chord progressions on King’s 11-song debut. On the whole, Into the Blue is daydreamy record, universal enough in narrative for just about anyone to project their own neuroses, joys and redemptions onto it.
He wrote the title track first.
“It was a weird song because I started writing months before I had to go to the hospital; I had the first verse and first chorus,” King says. “It was a downer, more like a confessional…. When I decided to start writing again, I picked up that song first. The second verse is about the whole experience that I went through. That’s one where I can still remember the scene when I wrote it, the scent of my surroundings: coffee and cigarettes.”
But neither his own soul nor that of his debut album are really about drugs and alcohol: This is a story about isolation and selfishness, disillusion and the ebb and flow between self-loathing and healing.
“For the first time in a long time, I can actually tell people what the songs are about because I was writing for a purpose instead of just writing to write a song,” King says. “I’m 35 years old, I’m married and I have a baby coming along. Now’s the time to really go for it. I can’t do it like we used to do it, sleeping in Walmart parking lots, but I want to support my family and I think there’s ways to do it that I can pull off.”