The last time the Dallas Observer profiled Madison King was in 2014, just before King released her second country record, Onward & Upward. In March, King released her third record, the EP Livin’ Right. In the intervening years, King says, she has drifted further from music and closer to another love: cooking.
King, 31, is a sous chef at Frank Underground, a private supper club founded in 2012 by MasterChef season 2 finalists Jennie Kelley and Ben Starr. The schedule of dining events is usually three weeks on, three weeks off, King says, and her meal prep and service duties vary depending on the themed menu for each event.
“I might spend eight hours making tortillas, or I may be baking bread all day,” King says. “Yesterday, I peeled 8 pounds of ginger.”
Yet King derives a joy from culinary work that music, as a professional pursuit, tends to siphon.
“I’ve been doing music my whole life,” says King, who started playing guitar at 8 years old and was playing solo shows around Dallas by age 20. “The reason that it’s changed for me is because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do in music. I was playing music all the time, but I always knew what level I wanted to be at, and I wasn’t getting there.”
After the 2010 release of her debut album, Darlin, Here’s to You, King vied for a spot on NBC’s The Voice. This year, she auditioned for MasterChef.
“I made it pretty far, and they didn’t end up bringing me out, which is probably for the best since I’m getting married this year,” King says with a laugh. “I might try again next year. We’ll see.”
Inside the home near Casa Linda that King shares with her fiancé, Zachary Fox, and their two Boston terriers, King is refreshingly honest about her feelings: of failure about music, of vulnerability and self-doubt, and of deciding to forge a more fulfilling path in her life.
“I got faced with a decision where I could either sell everything I had and tour the country out of my car, or move to Nashville and try to make these connections and get to the next step. And I didn’t want to do either of those things,” she says. “And once I reached that point, where I wasn’t trying to ‘make it’ anymore, then my focus starting shifting to, ‘What else? What’s next?’”
She pauses, considers. “I guess it’s been about three years since music was a daily thing for me," she continues. "Food is a daily thing for me now.”
“It’s very practical,” she says of her cooking style, which she also captures in colorful, mouthwatering photos on her Instagram page. “I love the service industry. I love that connection you make with people, and I think the food that I like cooking represents that. It’s not trying to impress; it just makes you feel good.”
The latter statement also could be used to describe King. Disarmingly direct, unpretentious and appealing, King has amassed a large community of fans and friends, many of whom are local musicians, during her many years tending bar, first at Capitol Pub, her first job at 20, then at City Tavern, where she worked and played music for nearly six years.
Now King works about three shifts per week at Twilite Lounge in Deep Ellum. Next month marks her fifth year there.
But City Tavern, where King will return to play a show Saturday before the bar moves from its longtime location on Main Street to a smaller space a few blocks away on Elm, was King's musical home.
“I had my first CD release show there. I met my first band there — I actually met every member in my current [band] at City Tavern like 10 years ago,” King says. “It’s special place because back then, there were hardly any venues in Deep Ellum. We all were at City Tavern to see shows all the time; we were there every night. It was a special time for music and for getting into the bar industry.”
The past decade also holds some painful memories for King as she felt conflicted over how to proceed with her budding music career. She recalls feeling allergic to the business side of music, especially touring and self-promotion.
"I’ve never been able to conceal how I feel about anything. I wear my emotions right on my face," she says. "And it was just very apparent to everyone that I hated what I was doing.
"People would tell me, ‘You need to post on social media four times a day, at these times,’ and I was like, ‘I literally can’t,'" she says, laughing. "I don’t have enough pictures of myself. Where do you get all these pictures of yourself?’
“Even in the times when I was making the most happen, like when I was touring with the Old 97’s, I knew that I didn’t like it very much,” she says. “It was this dream that I had because it’s what I’ve always done. But the people who know me the best know that I wasn’t super passionate. I was just like, ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to do. I don’t know if I can put any more eggs in this basket than I’ve put in right now.’ It was really hard.”
While working at Twilite, King met Kelley, which led to King beginning work at Frank Underground a little more than a year ago.
“It was an opportunity for me to be around food more, and meeting those people was such a breath of fresh air,” King says. “It was the first time I had been exposed to passionate professionals [in the culinary field]. I’d been exposed to that in music my whole life, in several instances, but this was a new thing for me, with food."
Although King says she enjoys working at Twilite as well, being behind the bar has crystallized for her an unavoidable fact: that what she’s most known for around town — being a talented singer-songwriter — is a mold that hasn’t been so easy to shed.
“At the bar, I have to talk about my music all the time because it’s the only thing almost anybody knows about me,” King says. “I get asked about 100 times a night how my music’s going. And they say it like that: 'How’s the music going?'”
“A lot of people, because they don’t know you, are only seeing this tiny slice of something that they think they know about you," she says. "So it’s hard when you think that people aren’t going to believe you when you say, ‘I don’t think I want to do this thing anymore.’ But then it’s also like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good at other things.’”
King says the Livin' Right EP came to fruition because her friend and guitarist, J. Michael Smith, offered to record some songs in his home studio that they’d been playing for a while — and King had written years ago — but had never recorded.
“It’s weird when you’re the star of your show because I never learned how to not be that, or how to be utility person for someone else,” King says. “I haven’t done very much outside of my own music. So I think moving forward, if and when I have opportunities to do something different, I’d love to use my abilities to contribute to somebody else’s creative process for once.”
Despite her urge to step out of the spotlight, King expects she'll always want to write, play and perform music in some way.
“Country music, at its best, is honest and straightforward; it’s supposed to appeal to everybody,” King says. “And I think part of the reason why I’ve always had so much support, and why I have such a large community of friends here, is because I can connect with people easily and can have a genuine ‘I’m here, talking to you’ moment with somebody. I think my songs have always reflected that, too. They’ve always been direct and vulnerable.”
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Raised in Lake Highlands, King has lived in Lakewood, the Cedars, Deep Ellum and now Casa View, in a house with a garden and a guitar-filled room for playing music. King is proud of her East Dallas roots and says if she were to open a restaurant, perhaps in 2019, it would be on the east side. First, she has a wedding to plan.
King and Fox will marry Oct. 14 at the second Twilite location in Fort Worth. Danny Balis — co-owner of Twilite, radio personality on The Ticket and a friend of King's who also sang a duet with her on Livin' Right ("He's like my big brother," King says) — will officiate the ceremony, and Balis’ band, Bastards of Soul, will play the reception. Kelley is one of King's bridesmaids.
King smiles. “It’s going to be a homegrown affair," she says.
King plays at 2 p.m. Saturday at Legacy Food Hall in Plano and at 9 p.m. Saturday at City Tavern in Dallas. No covers.