Jacquire King: The Nashville Music Producer Behind All of Your Favorite Bands
By 2008, Kings of Leon had cultivated an enviable reputation as the thinking person’s boy band. Yet for all their critical acclaim, the group’s black-humored recordings failed to penetrate the Top 40. All that changed when the alt-rock foursome recruited Nashville sound man Jacquire King to produce their make-or-break fourth album. Produced, engineered and mixed by King, “Only by the Night” showcased the producer’s shrewd musical supervision, framing seductive, sable-hued melodies against vocals of Olympian grandeur. The album rocketed to the top of the international charts, with the single “Use Somebody” nabbing three Grammys, including Record of the Year honors.
Jacquire King had arrived.
“That was a hugely important record for me,” says King, whose first name is pronounced jah-KEER. “The band’s sound was evolving, and they were becoming important in terms of how they were projecting themselves. I wanted to maximize that. I wanted to make a record that would make people feel the size of their live performances. Just a small gesture like that can really make something stand out.”
While “Only by the Night” gave the impression that King had materialized out of nowhere, in fact, the Virginia-born sound man had been beavering behind the scenes for over a decade. His career commenced in earnest in 1997, when he served as an engineer on Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut album. Two years later, King captured a Grammy for his work on Tom Waits’ delectably demented album, “Mule Variations.” In 2003, he earned a second Grammy for his contributions to Buddy Guy’s album, “Blues Singer.” Jazz-pop chanteuse Norah Jones tapped King to produce her audacious 2009 album, “The Fall.”
The son of a publishing company account manager, King was raised on a sprawling parcel near Great Falls Park, Virginia. When his parents separated, 12 year-old King took refuge in music, attending performances by D.C. hardcore bands and plumbing his mom’s record collection. “She had The Beatles, David Bowie, Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan,” he recalls. “I would listen to those records for hours.”
King’s initial forays into sound sculpting involved taping imaginary radio shows on a cassette recorder. “I had to figure out where to place the recorder to capture songs off the stereo,” he says. “Those were my first experiments with mic placement and recording levels.” Adrift after high school, King shocked his family in 1987 when he quit college to attend a six-week course at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio. Today, some 30 years later, that impulsive decision seems like the savviest of career moves.
Producing records with modern masters like Waits and Guy can be exhilarating, but the job has its pressures. In discharging his duties as a recording overseer, King says he must be equal parts technologist, song selector, arranger, sounding board, and, perhaps most awkwardly, constructive critic. “I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings, but sometimes I have to be very straightforward,” King says. “I have to show the artist that I’m willing to do the work, but we must have a common understanding about where we’re at. It can be uncomfortable … but I have the same goal as the artist, which is to make a great record.”
King’s breakthrough work with obscure and unknown artists have helped transform him into an A-list producer. In 2012, he teamed with the Icelandic folk band Of Monsters and Men to record “Mountain Sound,” a single so bursting with mug-hoisting exuberance, it gives the impression of having been recorded in a rollicking Irish pub. The track was certified platinum for sales in excess of a million copies.
In 2015, he lent his production to James Bay’s debut album, “Chaos and the Calm.” Though the album generated the hit “Let It Go,” it was another single—“Hold Back the River”—that really illustrated King’s studio mastery. The track opens with Bay crooning softly to guitar accompaniment, gradually building to a cascading finish in which Bay and his accompanists summon the hallelujah fervor of a Southern gospel combo. The platinum-certified single helped Bay capture Grammy nominations for best rock song and best new artist.
Like most Jacquire King productions, Bay’s album isn’t an ultra-modern, cutting edge recording—but that’s precisely the point. Though he has an appreciation for “collaged music”—his description for tracks created via cutting and pasting—King prefers capturing intimate, real-time performances that spotlight an artist’s character.
“The integrity of the artist is paramount to me, and I’m always trying to identify a unique sound palette around that,” King says. “I don’t have a sound that I fit artists into. I think people look to me to do something that’s organic—something that captures their essence as an artist, but also wraps their music in a recorded presentation that can appeal to a broader audience. It’s balancing the commercial with the artistic.”
This year, King was enlisted to co-produce Shania Twain’s hotly anticipated return album, “Now.” The producer was also tapped to record some songs for the solo debut by Niall Horan, the One Direction singer who just happens to be an admirer of one of King’s most famous recordings.
“Niall is a huge fan of that Kings of Leon album,” King says.