Nothing about Nashville’s Ernest K. is easy to classify, and that’s the point. Growing up making beats while most kids made paper airplanes and learning banjo while listening to rap, he’s always bent the rules and eschewed the predictable. With a passion for various genres of music, Ernest K. is set to change the way we look at the sounds and songs that emerge from Music City – and maybe just rattle the industry to the bone.
Adopted at three weeks old and the victim of a freak heart attack his senior year of high school, surmounting ridiculous odds has always been a gift, not a curse, for Ernest K. And that’s probably because his love affair with music began early. He learned banjo and guitar before he was a teen, and quickly found his passion for hip hop and RnB after discovering the Space Jam soundtrack in the 3rd grade, and getting a burnt CD compiled of “The Marshall Mathers LP” and the “Slim Shady LP” from a friend the year after.
“I learned all of those songs, and in fourth grade I knew way too much language,” he laughs. “But I could form cadences I wouldn’t have been able to form otherwise. I’ve always been passionate about forming rhymes. All of my notebooks from school are full of songs.”
But it didn’t end there. Ernest K. took in everything he could – from hardcore, to John Mayer, to the country classics floating in the air of Nashville – and started to see songs and stories, not just genres. The tendency to classify or pick a niche never really intimidated Ernest K., who wasn’t making music that existed easily in simple categories, anyway. “I can be inspired by a country song one minute and then be totally moved by some Wu Tang,” he says. In a digital, streaming-based world, he could access OutKast as easily as he could Nirvana and Jason Mraz. And he did.
Maybe that sense of fearlessness came from confronting the harsh reality of life head-on. Ernest K. was only nineteen when he suffered a viral infection that caused a heart attack, and, when at college, he also overcame a battle with addiction. It was a chance encounter, back home in Nashville while trying to get his life back on track, when he met his future wife shortly after meeting her little brother, Matt Royer, who became a collaborator, spending countless hours in his basement studio making whatever music they felt like making in a given day. It’s a chain that led to a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, based in part on the strength of just one song, “Blacked Out,” which documented his struggles. Soon, he was getting cuts from the likes of Florida Georgia Line (“Dig Your Roots”), under the tutelage of Nashville songwriting royalty like the Warren Brothers.
With his growing country catalogue, it made sense for Ernest K. to try his hand at something that fused those twangy sounds with his love of hip hop, but he soon realized that his strengths resided in creating something not at all bound to a genre. Brave and daring, what came out of that moment was an approach that blended everything he knew and learned – that effortlessness of Eminem’s wordplay, the complex cadences of modern hip hop like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, and an enterprising pop spirit – into something thoroughly unique and infectious. He also dug into his island past – living almost a year in St. Thomas and writing music daily, those tropical beats mingle easily with his southern roots. And while his songs may be danceable, there’s always a story resting beneath the surface.
Now working on his first releases, Ernest K.’s creative journey will be a complete one – from the aesthetic look of his album artwork, to his collaborators and inspirations, it will be unlike anything currently afloat in Nashville. And for Ernest K., that’s what makes it worthwhile: to belong everywhere and nowhere at once. “It would be unfair to say I am a pop artist or a hip-hop artist,” he says. “I don’t have a genre. I have a lot of genres. Sorry if that’s bold.”
But Ernest K. is bold. Rather than make music that exists easily within lines or parameters, he’s pretending they don’t exist in the first place.
“I’m not going to compromise,” he says. “And, besides, the songs speak for themselves.”