Two and a half years ago, Elle King and her songwriting partner Dave Bassett were deep into the creative process for the tracks that would make up her debut, Love Stuff. But the song that would eventually become her breakout—the hot, rockabilly-inflected “Ex’s & Oh’s“—happened as a lark. “We wrote it as kind of a joke,” says the 26-year-old. “He was like, ‘Hey, Elle, who you been dating?’ And I was like, ‘Well, this guy’s mad at me, and I was really mean to this guy, and this guy’s a loser but he still calls me.’ And we just started laughing and writing this song.” King’s label, RCA, however, took the tune seriously right away and selected it as the album’s single, which slowly snowballed into a hit.
Despite releasing the track in 2014, King has become a sleeper star this year and the track earned two Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. In November, the platinum- certified tune finally cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, where she’s bringing a bad-girl,’50s-style rock & roll flair to a field dominated by Drake, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift. “I am literally having the time of my life,” King says. “And I feel sorry for people who can’t say the same. They get inside their head or they overthink things. It’s like, ‘Chill out! Oh my God! Please, please have fun!’”
Having a blast has always been one of King’s guiding principles—and she’s proud to admit it. As a teen, the L.A.-born, Ohio-raised singer-songwriter got her start playing in New York City clubs, where the biggest perk wasn’t a paycheck. “I learned at a pretty young age that you got free beer if you were on stage,” King recalls. “So I started playing at clubs in New York and I was like, ‘Oh, they won’t card me if I’m playing? Awesome!’” But that’s not to say King lacks a work ethic. She credits her parents—her mother is a model-turned-doula, her stepfather is a musician and painter, and her biological father is comedian Rob Schneider—with inspiring her to follow her creative impulses. “I watched all three of them work really hard to get where they are now,” she says. “That was a big driving force for me as a young girl to want to do it on my own. Nothing was handed to [my parents], that was really important to me. And I know that I can come off like a big, dumb idiot, but I busted my ass.”
With “Ex’s & Oh’s” showing no signs of slowing, King is ready to hit the road in February, opening for Vance Joy. But one of the best parts is hearing from the dudes who inspired her smash. “The song is about four guys, and I’ve spoken to three—and everyone is mad at me,” she says with a laugh. “But I don’t care! I’m not a terrible person, but it went platinum!”