As the Dulwich singer-songwriter changes clothes following his Flaunt photoshoot, he relaxes into himself, sparking up a cigarette and talking beyond the awkward monosyllabics that come between the camera flashes. His dislike of photo shoots aside, Marshall looks the photographable type, with his pale skin, smooth and taut limbs, a shock of red hair, and mournful, hooded eyes. But he winces at the words “modeling” and “fashion icon.”
“Nah man, I just do these things ’cause the label asks. ‘Fashion icon?’ That’s fucked. I mean, whatever people want.” As we talk in a room full of props and antiquities, Marshall strokes a taxidermied sea turtle and rolls out dry wit and insightful intellect in his eloquently deep register.
“I used to have a lot of aggression,” he says. “But things changed a lot for me this year. Since last September my perspective’s completely turned and I stopped what I was doing and just started again. It was a time when I was flowing with so much work that now I can impress myself with my writing. I got onto a whole new creative level.”
“Easy Easy” is the first single from his debut album, and for all its melodic directness, there is incredible lyrical depth in the theatricality of detail in the starkly sketched scenes and dimly lit characterizations. His writing has been likened to the work of Morrissey and Mark E. Smith. With an album born out of the frustration of growing up, I wonder how experiential it is.
“It’s more lucid than that; it’s dreamlike more than anything. I guess in the last few months I’ve been in a state of flux so that’s what the songs are really about. I didn’t calculate that the songs would gel with each other or tell a story and even though there are the UFO tracks on the record which illustrate a narrative, the album is really all over the place in a dreamlike, metaphorical state.”
Lyrically, his journey through romance, sex, aggression, conflict, and depression are linked to a love of literature, specifically W.H. Auden and E.E. Cummings. “Literature, poems, songs are all very similar,” he says. “It’s all part of the same tapestry. I used to read lots of poetry and sit there for ages trying to decipher the meaning, or work out the narration behind it all, then I found my own form of that. When you read John Donne, and the classics, you can see how their metaphors develop and understand their uses. So really, I learnt to do that for myself.”
Working through jazz, hip-hop, and post-punk styles, he conjures up colorful stories with startling lyrical dexterity. “I like the quick satisfaction of getting your point across in two lines,” he says, yet willingly enciphers them to test his audiences’ intelligence. “I mean, it’s all pretty self-centered but if you do get the meanings then you’ll be my closest friend. You can tell a lot of things about me from the album but I love that people can be free to interpret it in whatever way they want. That’s the beauty of music I guess.”
His noticeably growling vocals are also deliberate, “It’s more a style that I developed from listening to Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and obviously growing up on Ian Dury, so really it was pretty calculated in that sense. Getting that emotional tone, that act and the performance of emotions interested me, so I use it as another instrument but I’ve lived with it for so long now it’s just natural.”
Marshall’s kaleidoscopic approach to sound comes in various guises away from King Krule. His stints on a Rinse FM podcast introduced tracks by Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, ’90s rapper Ahmad, U.K. post-punk act The The, and his own hip-hop side project Edgar the Beatmaker. His mix-tapes from beat-driven project DJ JD Sports to the early ’90s hip-hop beats he provided for his friend Rago Foot, to spit over and collaborations with electronic duo Mount Kimbie, show his obsessive interest in variation.
More recently Marshall discovered inspiration through jazz fusion. “I like the improvisational aspect that you get with jazz and with artists like Herbie Hancock and Brian Jackson, Terry Callier, and Donny Hathaway. The tones and the textures of how those compositions work are really easy to envision for me. I love sampling stuff like Chet Baker and Erroll Garner, too. The live sound and the tone of the chords are expressive in themselves.”
Only a few years ago, Marshall attended Croydon’s coveted BRIT School, a performing arts college that counts Amy Winehouse, Adele (with whom Marshall shares a manager), Jessie J, and Leona Lewis as its alumnus. Given how mainstream the school’s graduates are, it’s curious how Marshall fits into that world. “They didn’t help with my music really, I was doing my own music with [previous alias] Zoo Kid before I got there. My style was always my own and I just didn’t really tell anyone there about it. It was great in terms of education and I learned a lot about history, social science, and getting introduced to world music. That was what was interesting, but they do say the minute you walk in the door ‘I hope you know this isn’t fucking Fame Academy, we aren’t here to make you into Adele,’ and there are some kids who really don’t know that. And the stuff that comes out of there and the way they go about getting fame is something I stay away from.”
Despite the rising amount of admiration for King Krule—with Beyoncé and Earl Sweatshirt among his better known fans—he explains, “at heart, I’m always gonna be someone who loves the underground and hates the overground in the sense that I’ll always shy away from what everyone finds popular and carve my own way, with some individuality, and doing something that interests me.”
He continues, “I never wanted to be famous either. I just want to live comfortably but in order to live comfortably I need to make money and I need to make music, and to do both I need to do this. It’s all a chain of events. I don’t like fame, I don’t like press, but I do really like that my music is out there and people can listen to it. So I guess, yeah, I love the fact that people respect my music. Life can’t get worse than it has been and now that I’ve established this domain of support it’s really nice, man. I’m very happy.”
Photographer: Joost Vandebrug at JoostVandebrug.com. Stylist: Francesca Turner. Producer: Seona Taylor-Bell. Styling Assistants: Giulia Oddi and Hannah Downes.