Josh King, from House of Fools and the Ends, puts the finishing touches on a solo record
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
Twang and harmonies. A subdued rocking drive, and a sense of loss and struggle that’s kept in check by an ‘I’ll-get-through-this-too’ attitude. Those are some of the qualities that shine through on Josh King’s material. The Greensboro-based singer and songwriter who’s been a part of local favorites Roseland, House of Fools and the Ends is at work on a solo record, an album’s worth of tunes that he wrote in a blur.
King is 34, and he’s been playing in bands since he was 15 or 16, for more than half of his life. He followed that semi-familiar trajectory of getting into skating and punk and then working his way back toward a different sound.
“I was all into the punk stuff, and then I picked up an acoustic guitar and wrote the songs that that acoustic guitar allowed me to write,” says King about his first stabs at songwriting. It’s less that his sensibilities changed and more that something different was drawn from him by the instrument he was working on.
Changing gears might be part of the process for King. House of Fools was a steady-going band for about 10 years, but that started winding down in 2014. (House of Fools never actually broke up, the members just drifted to different places. And the band still periodically plays special shows — benefits or holiday events. They have one scheduled for December. “As long as everybody’s around and still likes playing their instruments and singing, I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t get together every once in a while,” says King.) After playing in a band that toured 10 months out of the year and then in a band that gigged as many nights as possible, playing three-hour sets, King was ready to spend a little less time on stage and more time with a guitar, a pad and a pen kicking around song ideas. Spending years with House of Fools playing those long sets meant that King was performing most of the time.
“For most of the past four years I was doing nothing but music,” says King. “But six months ago I started working a full-time job as a carpenter.”
A few months before that King and his fiancée had moved into a new house, and he devoted some time to working on songs.
“I took a life change,” he says. “Now I spend more time writing than playing, I guess. I ended up writing about 30 songs in a couple months. That was the beginning of a new life for me — a new house and focusing on writing.”
King, who had helped produce a recording by his friends in the band Old Heavy Hands, was already thinking about how his own songs might sound beyond their basic parts. House of Fools bassist Jordan Powers was involved with the Old Heavy Hands album, and he’s been working on King’s solo recordings as well. Part of the work has involved zeroing in on vocals.
Kings was raised listening to church hymns in a family of singers.
“We’d get together as a family and we’d sing, and my mom would give me a harmony part that I had to sing,” says King. “That’s why I love it. I grew up with it.”
The experience gave him a taste for the sound of multiple voices working together.
“I love doing harmonies,” says King. “If I could, I’d put harmonies on every word on a song.”
His fondness for layered voices sometimes even affects how he crafts the contours of a song’s main tune, before the recording process begins.
“There are certain parts of a song where I’ll write the melody to fit a three-part harmony,” he says.
King has been working on finishing up the tracks at home, sometimes doing vocal takes when he gets home from work in the evening. The result is a batch of 16 songs that — though not finished — have a lot in common with some of King’s musical inspirations over the years, artists like Elliott Smith and Tom Petty, both of whom point back to Beatles-y songcraft but with a hint of either deeper sadness in the one or jittery energy in the other. The Jayhawks might come to mind as well.
But the tunes and the harmonies, the shiny tremolo on the guitars, or the glimmering 12-string — none of it masks the fact that King is singing about a sense of deep strain, about a fatigue over where things stand.
“It’s a selfish album,” says King. “Every song is me trying to forget about what I was feeling or get out what I was feeling. Getting it out and leaving it out.”
On a song like “Follow Through,” that means singing about feeling like he’s crawling out of his own skin. “I hit a wall/I think I’m done,” goes one line on the song.
Pain, loss, decline and endurance are part of the title track for the proposed record, “Into the Blue.”
King says he hopes to finish the record and do something significant with it, more than just pressing copies and playing a local release party.
“I would love to get back on the road again,” he says.
In the meantime, he’s still writing more songs, chipping away at lyrics and melodies in the hours when he’s not working his day job. And he’s test-driving some of the songs that come out of this new phase of his life, showing up for open mics or other informal events.
“When you write a new song,” says King, “you can’t help but want to try it out.”