words by Junauda Petrus
photography by Asha Efia
creative direction by Quinn Wilson
“I'm so far from home, still a ways to go,” sung sweetly in three-part harmony, is a simple yet complex demonstration of the many earthly (and other) dimensions penetrated by the music of KING. The lyric is from a song called, “The Story,” the title track of their first musical offering to the world. This simple statement is a prime example of how their music straddles the line between a nostalgia for home (members hail from both Compton and Minneapolis) and the eternal existential dilemma of finding one’s self, of acknowledging and exploring a relationship to the soul.
“Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Mint Condition, Sounds of Blackness-- it's a very rich legacy coming out of Minneapolis,” says Paris Strother, one third of the wunderkind soul trio. Paris speaks of her and twin sister and band mate, Amber's hometown with a mixture of reverence and pride.
Minneapolis is a city that is bordered by the Nile of North America, the Mississippi River, and is home to the highly revered “Minneapolis Sound” - a flavor of Black music from the 1970's and 80's, that, like Motown, ensconced itself incomparably into the fabric of American music, culture and psyche. The group expresses loyalty to the city, and stress their desire to preserving a link to their hometown. “It's been really important for us to connect to Minneapolis,” elaborates Paris. “The Minneapolis sound had such an impact on us.”
The Strother sisters and the third member of the group, Anita Bias (who is originally from Compton), currently reside in Los Angeles, yet it is clear that for the sisters the “City of Lakes” is still in their hearts. When I mention De La Salle, a Catholic High school in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, the twins chat excitedly about their alma mater and were pleasantly surprised that I too, am from South Minneapolis. The twins begin to quiz me on my neighborhood and my high school, disclosing that they grew up in the Washburn neighborhood. In short time, we realized we knew people in common in our small, but mighty midwestern city.
“It's nice too, because [Minneapolis] is not a huge city, I think [that] is what Minneapolis and Compton have in common. What I feel in Minneapolis and what I feel in Compton is a sense of community,” says Paris.
Paris has been playing piano since age two, her musical inspirations proving to be both curious and extensive from early on. In addition to the musical richness of her hometown, Paris was inspired by everything from the lilting bossa nova of the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the limitless expressions of soul and consciousness of Stevie Wonder, to the grandiose and saccharine emotionality of Disney movie ballads. Despite having a voice that could smooth the edges off of a jagged cliff, Amber did not participate professionally in music until the inception of KING.
On a Tuesday afternoon in early August, the three women are cozied on a couch during our Skype interview. Amber, Paris and Anita are poised and unified and every bit as regal as their band's moniker would connote. Each of them is dressed casually, a break from the eclectic and funky style they are usually rocking in performances and photos. Between the three exists a spectrum of crown-like hair-dos. Paris is seated at the center, an easy and warm smile punctuates her quick and poignant answers to each of my questions. Amber is seated to her twin's left, in a pair of thick-framed glasses, locks cascading down her shoulders and a reserved and concentrated knowing all her own. Anita, wearing a casual, denim button-up shirt and a swirl of braids nestled on her head is perhaps the most reserved of the three, and is the embodiment of the saying, “Still waters run deep.” These three forces combine to make KING; each member fluidly expresses her own individuality, and together they create an extraordinary alchemy based in the power of their union.
Over the course of the interview it is clear that they are comfortable with themselves and with each other in ways both disarming and refreshing. Having had their horns tooted by some of the most innovative and experimental artistic geniuses of our time after the release of The Story--Prince, Erykah Badu, ?uestlove, to name a modest few--the women remain humble and focused. They are unyielding in their love and passion for their music first and fully and would likely remain so even without the accolades.
Their name was inspired by the members' mutual interest in retaining an unquestioned ownership over their music and thusly, their lives. “It is so good that there [are] three of us--a built in network, a perfect support system. It allows us to know who we are and have a united front against anything we don't want to do,” shares Paris. “It is as simple as: we want to do this, we don't want to do this; we think this would be good for us, we don't think this would be good for us.” This stance recalls the iconic words of warrior-poet-feminist, Audre Lorde, “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Among KING's members there seems to be an awareness of the symbiotic benefits of navigating their music careers together, an understanding that they can rely on one another to uphold shared convictions and visions, both personally and professionally.
Anita and Paris first became acquainted with one another while studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston as undergraduates. The two eventually serendipitously crossed paths at a jam session in L.A. after Paris moved to the west coast in 2008. The two began to build creatively together and a year later when Amber visited her twin in L.A. the chemistry between the three was instant, as if it were written in the stars. I ask Anita what her experience has been in working on other musical projects and how she would compare that with being apart of KING. She reflects, “Luckily I've been working with these two for the majority of our music careers. So far, everything has been pretty organic,” says the soft-spoken, Comptonite. This “organic” vibration is evident as everything about KING seems to flow from its own pure source. From the smooth, complex harmonies and tight production of their music, to the way the women carry and adorn themselves with natural grace. With KING, what you see is what you get and what one gets from experiencing their music is the inherent intelligence of the universal, ensconced in the wisdom of the personal journey.
biquitous feeling in the content and tone of their music has been spell-binding to audiences of all ilks.“We have had a really wonderful reception all across the board. All kinds of demographics. It has been really interesting to us. But it is what we strive for,” Paris elaborates on the reach of their music.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
Compton gave the world a snapshot and distillation of the reality of 1980's and '90's urban life in Black America. The expression from Compton was original and fearlessly honest, it was taboo and provocative. The gangsta rap sub-genre gave an agency and a voice to a demographic of artists--primarily Black men--that had never been heard before, which impacted the entire hip hop genre, and the greater hip hop culture as a whole. Compton crystallized an identity of itself in the national consciousness that lives on today.
Anita, born and raised in Compton, admits that the sound of KING is a different vibe than what people might associate with the city she is from. “It is good showing people there is more to the city than what is portrayed in the news or movies. We are out here trying to inspire creativity,” says Anita.
With her grounded and peaceful demeanor and arrestingly compelling vocals, I can't help but consider the music that Anita makes with KING as a sort of conversation, a call and response to the defining sound of her hometown. Anita, through her music with KING, offers an expansion of the Compton experience and artistic voice. “I come from a very tight-knit family, just hardworking people… My parents exposed me to music. I was always in vocal ensemble and things like that so I had a pretty positive upbringing,” says Anita.
“He sent us an e-mail,” Paris explains as to how the group made their acquaintance with the fellow Minneapolis royal. As she tells me this, I can't help but giddily imagine, His Majesty in front of a laptop, drinking coffee and googling. Prince's influence on the music industry includes otherworldly and vast musical genius, an irreverence for gender conformity and performance conventions, as well as a knack for pushing boundaries with his bold and vulnerable expressions of sexuality. Prince has also been vocal about wanting to maintain control and ownership of his artistic exploits, having questioned and agitated a system that has historically disenfranchised musicians of color from material benefit and creative recognition.
In 1995, Prince publicly protested his contract with Warner Brothers in ways both thought-provoking and magical. He became the unutterable “symbol,” in an ultimate O.G. move requiring a preface of “The Artist Formerly Known As…” before any mention of his name. It is certain kismet that the freedom-loving, genre-transcending trio would find a harmonious mentorship with another music royal hailing from Minneapolis. As Paris recounts his presence throughout their career, it seems almost precious to imagine the often deified artist giving the ladies encouragement and advice, seeming more like a supportive musical uncle, than a mystical, melodic god.
“I think the overall thing he gave us was this immense confidence. You have someone who is an 'icon,' one of the greatest who ever did it, telling you [the music] is great the way it is, to just stick to your guns, and that he loves it. [It] meant a lot to us,” says Paris regarding the group’s professional relationship with Prince. “He has been a great support, a great sounding board, we can ask him anything, and he offers his experience and advice. We really couldn't ask for anything better.”
During their career they have had opportunities to work with musicians that inspire them and have been met with mutual admiration. “It's great because each and every artist we have worked with--or most of the times even meet--they have so much respect for us, you never feel like you have to change or switch up your vibe. Everyone of the people we have been fortunate enough to work with thus far has been extremely excited to work with us and the feeling is mutual. So coming together with that energy, you never get the tension or friction,” says Amber.
GOT A STORY TO TELL
The forthcoming, highly-anticipated, full-length album is an elaboration on the narrative that began with The Story, their debut EP. In order to make this album, the inherent chemistry of the group was central. “It's truly collaborative, we have such similar musical taste. It kind of makes it difficult, to pinpoint the nucleus of the ideas, I feel like once we share it amongst one another it grows so much… it just gets stronger, so it just feels really heightened,” expounds Amber about the process of creating music for KING.
Amber goes on to say that the song-writing process for the trio is creatively seamless, an idea multiplies beautifully once brought into the cipher of the three women who collectively nurture a piece to fruition. she punctuates her point with this yummy analogy, “It's like blueberries and making an awesome blueberry pie. You don't necessarily recount the actual blueberry, but you know it turned out to be jammin',” she says with a satisfied smile.
“Mr. Chameleon” is the first single from the upcoming album and is a great example of the fruits of their labor. The vocals on the song are sweet and playful while unequivocally calling out a lover who is unreliable in character and frustratingly, shape-shifting. The song starts off being both sweet and sassy and evolves into a grown and conclusive groove. It intertwines the impressive vocals of the trio, while resourcing the spectrum of acoustic to digital instrumentation, under the confident and multi-faceted scope of Paris’ production.
In addition to things being organic in creativity, there is also a patience for the ripeness of their work that seems to be fiercely protected by the women. It is nice to see how they light up while reminiscing about the creative process and the ways that each song was a surprise. “It was really experimental, but in the best sense, you know? Just really being able to weave ourselves in and out of each song,” says Amber.
When asked if there are any prevailing goals for their music, the ladies express a deep and simple desire to continue to share it with the world. “We just want everyone to experience it the way we feel when we are making it,” says Paris. The pure and genuine sincerity of their mutual ambitions to continue making music is reminiscent of yet another lyric from “The Story,” and could serve as a poetic manifesto to the trajectory KING is designing for themselves, “Charting my journey to a different star, got a story to tell. Goodbye, farewell."