King Isis is starting anew

Cordelia Lam meets King Isis to talk faith, identity and new EP, 'shed'.


Oakland-born singer-songwriter King Isis has channeled the pain of unraveling past traumas and shame directly into their new EP, ‘shed’. “Tapping into yourself, doing that shadow work, isn’t cute or easy. It’s very hard to do”, they tell The Forty Five. “It’s painful and you can hear that in the music. You hear it in the dissonance.” 

King Isis joins us from a hotel room in Salt Lake City, where they’re on tour for the first time ever, opening up for Mehro across the US. They made waves last year with ‘scales’, their bold, futuristic and genre-bending debut EP. A defiantly introspective work that explored themes of selfhood and self-doubt, it danced seamlessly across rock, punk and R&B. Now, a year later, they are back with follow-up EP ‘shed’, the names of the two projects together forming an ode to the serpent, which sheds its skin in a process of constant reevaluation and reinvention. The project – dark, grungy and ever-unplaceable across musical worlds – delves headfirst into the artist’s messy but transformative journeys through spirituality, sexuality, gender and personal growth. 

This EP, ‘shed’, has such an interesting and evolved sound. You’ve described it as a companion to ‘scales’. How do these projects relate to each other? 


I like world building. Both of these projects were inspired by a book called ‘Borderlands/La Frontera’ by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, which talks about shadow work and presents the serpent as a symbol of divine femininity, of going into parts of yourself that you had repressed and coming to terms with them. 

I knew that I wanted these two projects, which each showcase different sides of me, to coincide in that same world of the serpent. ‘scales’ was the beginning, a kind of “warming up”. ‘shed’ is its darker, grittier and perhaps more vulnerable counterpart, with more going on in terms of instrumentation (whilst ‘scales’ feels sparser and lighter), and with me going deeper lyrically and sharing more of myself, even if it’s painful. 

What parts of yourself do you feel you have shared on ‘shed’?  

It’s about a lot of things. Above all, my journey to being fully OK and comfortable in my own queerness and gender identity, and ultimately, in myself. There’s also past experiences from my life around my blackness. I grew up in white schools and white communities, being surrounded by an idealised societal norm of whiteness that I spent my childhood trying to unlearn. It’s also about my experience going backwards into a toxic and abusive relationship from my past and healing myself from it, and from the silence and shame that I felt in that relationship. 

It sounds like your journey with your own identity is really intertwined with music. What kind of role has music played in your life?

I started learning classical piano when I was very young. My mom really loved music and she wanted me and my sister to do it, which I did for a long time. In retrospect I’m glad I had that training, but at the time I was in a really strict programme that didn’t feel the best for me. 

Beyond that, I always wanted to be a musician. I’d always found solace in writing stories since I was little, and when I taught myself guitar in high school, I began writing songs as well. 

Growing up in Oakland, where we have so much musical and cultural diversity – from Bay Area hip hop to funk rock and a big jazz community, too – I became very comfortable exploring different sounds. I have a love of clashy, gritty music too, which probably comes from listening to a lot of alternative rock in middle school and high school. My favourite bands were Fall Out Boy and Paramore, and definitely with a bit of screwball mixed in as well. I also loved the singer-songwriter style of lyricism. And my mom loved Erykah Badu and OutKast. All of those influences really show through in the music I make today. 

There’s a big theme of religion and faith on this project. Has that mirrored your own experiences with spirituality at all?

Yes, definitely. ‘333’ is an exploration of my own spirituality, and ‘Monki’ is almost a rejection of what I was experiencing and hearing from people in the past in the way of religious beliefs.

My mom has very traditional, religious values. Even before I came out to myself, sexuality and gender were always things that we did not align on at all. Eventually when I did come out to myself and, in turn, to her, it caused a lot of issues between us and our relationship was really strained for a couple years. We’re in a way better place now. I feel like she’s kind of taking a step back from some specific religious perspectives. 

Growing up, those conversations made me want to distance myself from religion, even before I started thinking about my own identity. But I’ve always been spiritual in a way that you don’t have to believe in all aspects of religion to be. I had to unlearn and de-condition myself from what I was told was right and wrong, in order to feel OK with myself. Being on my own and accepting all parts of me has allowed me to rediscover a relationship with spirituality that I’m grateful for. 

You’re on tour for the first time. How’s it been going and what have you learned? 

Going on tour was a big goal of mine this year, as I’ve always wanted to go on the road and play my music for new people in new places. And it’s been so beautiful and wild. We drove through a blizzard yesterday getting here to Salt Lake!

It’s been a learning experience. First things first, I’ve definitely overpacked! We’re driving around in a tiny little Prius and I’ve brought too many coats. I’m only really wearing one outfit. That aside, it’s been crazy to hear people connecting with my songs, which are so personal to me, and finding their own meanings in the lyrics that I’d written about my own experiences. 

What does ‘success’ as a musician look like for you? 

It’s kind of already happening – people connecting with my songs; hearing and seeing themselves in the words. Being able to reach people in that way is so special to me. 

Also, just being present in exactly how things are right now, for real, and not taking things for granted. Obviously this is a journey – there’s so many things I still want to do and places I want to reach, and there’ll be ups and downs throughout that. But I just want to be present in the fact that I’m doing what I want to do right now. If I saw myself a couple of years ago, I’d be like, “Damn, this bitch is going off!” I’m very proud of myself for getting to where I am at the moment.

‘Shed’ is out on 21 March via No Matter/Dirty Hit