The genre-bending singer-songwriter talks creative direction, their family’s rich musical history, and mosh pits during acoustic sets.
While their 2023 debut EP, Scales, features visceral, emotive lyrics describing the pains of growing up and shadow work, all set to grungey melancholic hooks and riffs, Isis Brown – better known as King Isis – is a refreshing ray of sunshine on our zoom call. Smiling in their quirky and colourful room, they apologise for the LA construction noises before coolly easing into our conversation. It was like speaking to a long lost friend with an astute ear for music, an eye for distinct creative direction, and a delicate care for their craft.
Announced as one of the First Fifty acts on the line-up for The Great Escape in 2024, we caught up with Oakland’s genre-bending multi-disciplinary artist to talk Scales, their family’s rich musical history and starting mosh pits during acoustic live shows.
What was the inspiration behind your latest single ‘Make It Up’? What was the lyrical journey that you took to get to the song?
I started that song at the beginning of the year. I was back home in Oakland at my mom’s house, and I was experimenting with production for the first time because usually, I start on my songs on acoustic guitar. This was my first time trying something out on Logic, then the hook came into my head. And then usually I just write without any plan and at the end, I go, “oh, that’s what it means!” ‘Make It Up’ ended up being about a toxic relationship.
It sounds quite grungy. I can’t even put your work in one specific genre, but would you say grunge is one of the genres you’re drawn to?
Yeah, I’m definitely inspired by grunge music, rock music, but also singer-songwriter and R&B. Some of my favourite artists are Yves Tumor, Erykah Badu, Nirvana, Sly and the Family Stone, and Amy Winehouse, but I also really connect with lyrics. For example, Jensen McRae – I like her writing and how she tells stories. And I like to draw inspiration from things outside of music, like books. A lot of Scales was centred on a chapter in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, where she talks about shadow work.
It’s interesting that you cite singer-songwriters and storytelling as inspirations, because I was listening to ‘Taste Of You’ on Scales and there’s a line that goes “I had a case of you”. It made me think of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Case Of You’. Was that a direct reference to that song?
Yes! I actually heard James Blake’s cover of it first, and I was obsessed.
Same! It’s so good.
It hits! So yeah, it’s a direct reference to that cover too.
Your writing is quite visceral and poetic – it’s not common that people read a book and think “I want to turn something from this into a song”. Do you do the same with movies or visual art?
Yeah, more for my music videos or visuals. But I also want to tap into film even more. I love music videos, I love thinking about the ideas and the creative direction, but I want to have a better idea of film references, and just know that world a lot more.
You come from a very musical family. Does that kind of inform the way that you make music?
Yeah, so my mum doesn’t play any instruments, but she’s really a big fan of music. She was very encouraging – if she wasn’t as encouraging as she was, I probably would’ve been discouraged to pursue music.
My great-great grandma was one of the first Black opera singers in Chicago, and my grandpa was a jazz bass clarinet player. When my grandpa moved out to Oakland from Chicago, he brought my great-great grandma’s piano with him, my mum kept it, and my sister and I learned how to play on it. My sister makes music too.
That’s so cool. Would you like to make music with your sister?
We make different music and we’re both figuring out our individual sound but at some point, it’ll happen.
Do you have any dream collaborators for future projects?
Yves Tumor, King Krule, Paramore – Paramore was my favourite for a long time.
Do you think that you’d also want to collaborate with more hip hop artists, and explore some of that sound as well?
Oh, yes. I really love Paris, Texas. I would love to make a song with them. And Teezo Touchdown, Vince Staples, Doechii – those are the people I really like. I feel like I can make something cool with any of them.
You’ve released Scales, you have a new single. Can we expect a full album from you in the near future?
Ooh, yes. I started working on an album in the summer, but it probably won’t come out until next [autumn]. I want it to be all encompassing, so it will be a combination of the darker grunge sounds and the more alternative pop/folk sounds. But I do have an EP coming soon, it’s called Shed, and it’s more in line with ‘Make It Up’. It’s grungier and grittier.
I watched the video for ‘i’m fine, thx for asking’ and it made me feel like I was watching like a coming-of-age film; people at a party when they don’t really want to be there, but still taking part in that youthful ritual. Was that the work of your creative direction?
Yeah, I was the creative director for that video – I came to Cedric [Crisologo, the video’s director] with my ideas and we built it out together. I really care about creating a cohesive world, not just in the music but in the visuals, too. It’s something I’m still trying to work on, but I love being part of the creative direction process.
What should fans expect from the King Isis show?
A King Isis show is loud, with lots of distortion and a thick rumbling bass. I would love to have a mosh pit at the show, it hasn’t happened yet, but I would love that.
Okay, at your London show, I will start it for you.
Okay! Yes. I’m going to play acoustic guitar too, so it’d be crazy to have a mosh pit at an acoustic set.
If you believe, you can achieve. Do you have a venue you’d like to perform at one day?
[Laughs]There’s one in my hometown called the Fox Theater. I saw a lot of my favourite artists there, like King Krule, and growing up, that had always been my favourite venue. So that’s definitely a goal. And then here in LA, I used to work at a venue called the Wiltern, which is also similar to the Fox in that it’s an old [converted] theatre. I literally live right next to it right now. So that’s also a (convenient) goal.
Photo credit: Gianni Gallant