- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

Tick tock. Tick tock. While sitting through her high school classes, Manhattanite Emily King heard life and opportunity slipping away. So with the support of her parents, jazz musicians Marion Cowings and Kim Kalesti, she decided to be proactive.

She got her GED and began writing songs and recording demos at age 16; landed a deal with J Records at 19; and released her debut album, “East Side Story,” this past summer at 22. Now the singer-songwriter boasts a Grammy nomination and burgeoning career.

Speaking from her cell phone while heading to a gig, Miss King remembers the days before music became a full-time job. “I just wanted to be around people who felt the same way I did,” she says. “I wanted to find the situation that would help this little bit of — whatever it was — to grow, and I wasn’t feeling that in school. I had to get out of there.”

Making her first album was an education of its own. Miss King worked closely on the project with multiplatinum R&B; and hip-hop producer Chucky Thompson, a man she calls her “college course replacement” in her liner notes. The biggest lesson he taught her? “Maybe not to push too hard — just to let things come naturally,” she says. “There’s a point when you’re grinding it out so much that it’s just grinding into dust.”

Miss King also learned how to adjust to writing under deadline, to cope with label pressures and expectations and to stay true to her convictions. “I was put into a lot of situations by the record label,” she says. “They wanted me to collaborate with a lot of different people for this album, and a lot of times, I wasn’t comfortable … I didn’t want them to put words into my mouth. I wanted to be myself.”

During the recording process, Miss King even turned down songs by Sean Garrett (co-writer of Usher’s “Yeah” and Ciara’s “Goodies”) and Ne-Yo (co-writer of Beyonce’s smash hit “Irreplaceable”). She wanted it to be her “East Side Story,” and it is. With the exception of a Bill Withers cover, the artist has solo or shared songwriting credits on all of the album’s highly personal tracks, which feature lyrics both sweetly sentimental (“U & I”) and socially conscious (“Business Man”).

The record’s overarching sound is best described as R&B;, although much like the brands that John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae peddle, Miss King’s tugs at the edges of the genre and stretches it to suit her mood. It makes sense, then, when she lists influences as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, Radiohead, the Beatles, Nas and Lauryn Hill.

“East Side Story,” Miss King has said, is a good summation of who she is as a person and artist. So, who is that exactly? Well, for starters, she’s a storyteller who uses her guitar and Alicia Keysesque voice to captivate audiences. The disc’s words, styles and emotions also reveal a young woman who is driven, confident, open-minded, compassionate and inspiring — and, as she articulates in the song “Colorblind” (about growing up of mixed race) she’s someone who is, quite literally, comfortable in her own skin.

When quizzed about what she had to overcome and how long it took to get such solid footing, she says: “Every day I wake up in the morning faced with that same challenge. Sometimes I’m really feeling myself, and sometimes not so much. That’s why I have mantras that I just repeat when I need to and just kind of build up my confidence. I don’t know that I’ll ever totally get there, but you can slowly start.”

Miss King’s recent trip to the Grammys was another major boost to her self-esteem. The trip out to Los Angeles for the ceremony was “really quick, but so fun,” she says. “I got to dress up real pretty, see all these musicians.” She didn’t get to meet any of her longtime idols but did “cross paths” with Yoko Ono. “She rubbed my shoulder, which is cool.”

Considering that last year, Miss King was rubbing elbows with the likes of the Wu-Tang Klan’s Ghostface Killah as a fellow performer at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and R&B; phenom John Legend as his opening act, it looks as if she made the right decision when she walked out of that high school classroom for the last time. One imagines that her former classmates might be a tad envious of her alternative education path.

Miss King performs Wednesday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns (www.bohemiancaverns.com).

Jenny Mayo

Glen Echo seeing Red

Fusing Cajun, swing and traditional jazz and blues comes naturally for the Red Stick Ramblers, winding up an East Coast tour tomorrow with a stop at the art-deco Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo. The all-ages dance, sponsored by the Washington Swing Dance Committee, is scheduled for 8 p.m. to midnight. Admission, at $15, includes a beginner swing dance lesson from 8 until 9 p.m. (www.glenechopark.org).

The five-piece band hails from Baton Rouge, La., and features twin fiddles. The band and producer Dirk Powell have garnered critical accolades for “Made in the Shade,” the Ramblers’ fourth disc and first on the Sugar Hill label, issued in September.

Although the Ramblers play clubs, concerts, cafes and summer festivals featuring genres from jazz to eclectic bluegrass, they only occasionally get to play dances in venerable halls such as the circa-1933 Spanish Ballroom.

“Luckily, even at a festival, we play in a dance tent most of the time,” says Linzay Young, one of the band’s fiddlers and lead vocalist. “But only a quarter or maybe a third of the time are we in a real nice dance hall.”

Mr. Young says the Ramblers prefer to perform for a dancing crowd, as they draw energy from the dancers.

“It’s sort of a symbiotic relationship,” he says.

Jay Votel

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