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KING<i>The Story</i> So Far: an interview with KING, Prince's new proteges

This month, the tiny St Pancras Old Church played host to one of the finest soul gigs London has seen in a while as LA-based trio KING paired dusty, psychedelic arrangements with transcendental, extended harmonies to a sold-out crowd that included London singers Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas and Paloma Faith.

KING first turned heads back in 2011: their three-track EP The Story gained them fans such as Erykah Badu, Questlove and Prince – who has since become their mentor and backer as they’ve been working on their debut full-length album, also titled The Story and due for release this summer. FACT’s Alex Macpherson talked to the trio, made up of sisters Paris and Amber Strother and their friend Anita Bias (Amber and Anita are responsible for those glorious harmonies, while Paris is the group’s producer and instrumentalist) before their show.

You’ve released just four original songs in three years – and you’ve managed to keep anticipation of your album pretty high.

AS: It really speaks to the power of the music, I guess. People are so awesome and encouraging. There’s not a lot of ‘hurry up, hurry up’ from our fans – there’s a lot of anticipating but it’s kept very nice.

It seems apt for your music, which also takes its time – your sound is very patient and languid…

PS: I think that’s a big part of our spirit: you don’t want to ever do anything unless it’s right. The music does represent a lot of who we are as people. We’re letting the music speak to us and through us.

Why did you choose the name KING for yourselves? It’s a hard word with hard connotations, while your music is soft and smooth. Was there an element of subverting expectations?

PS: Such a big part of our sound is the fact that the three of us do everything together. It was increasingly evident that we were the rulers of our own musical kingdom. And so when we were choosing a name for ourselves, we really wanted to exude that strength.

AS: When you think of the word “king”, you definitely don’t think of people like us. It was that element of surprise that comes with people not knowing what to expect…

PS: And the challenge of it…

AS: We really wanted people to think: Who is that? Who dares call themselves KING?

It’s a funny coincidence that you’re now mentored and supported by Prince.

PS: It’s funny because we joke about the whole royalty thing. His name is Prince and we named ourselves KING…we had no idea we’d ever cross paths with him.

AS: He told us when he first met us we needed to live up to our name. He said, I hope you guys are ready to do that.

He reached out to you after The Story EP blew up online. You’ve said that you only put it on Soundcloud so that friends and family could hear it – how did it feel when famous names started to pick up on it?

PS: Looking back in hindsight, it’s incredible. At the time, every single day was overwhelming. Overwhelming gratitude…we worked on that EP for little over a year and just having that validation that anyone liked it was amazing. Even one fan, let alone Erykah Badu, Questlove, Phonte, Prince…

AS: Meeting Prince was so interesting. He flew us out to North Carolina because he was doing a residency there. We were watching him perform for over two-and-a-half hours – and then you’re so overwhelmed at this amazing, iconic star. But when he got backstage he was so humble and gracious, a total gentleman. Not that you wouldn’t expect that, but there was no air about himself.

“Prince and Kiran both understand that great art takes time. They’ve made a safe haven for us to really create what we want to do as artists.”

And he’s been financially backing you since – and advised you to take as much time as you needed to make the album. Do you feel lucky not to have any time pressure on you – as you perhaps would if you were signed to a label?

PS: It’s nothing but a blessing. It’s an amazing opportunity.

AS: It’s really great to work with an artist who knows the importance of time. Prince and Kiran [Sharma, Prince’s manager] both understand that great art takes time. They’ve made a safe haven for us to really create what we want to do as artists.

PS: Our intention was always to make music and then to see where it went. We didn’t set out to get a label deal, stat. We set out to make an album because we really love to make music, you know? We wanted to start it with us as the centre, and anything else that came out was because of the music.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing talents since The Story – you collaborated with Robert Glasper on ‘Move Love’ (from his Black Radio album) and with Bilal on ‘Right At The Core’ (from his latest A Love Surreal album). How was working with them different to working in your tight-knit trio?

AS: It was definitely different – I found out that working with these two is like working with yourself! There’s a lot of unspoken stuff. With others, that had to be spoken. It was a fun exercise to work with someone you admire, who you’ve listened to forever, staying true to your sound and to their sound and learning from them. And it was so big, it felt so wonderful to be welcomed into a community of people we admire on the Robert Glasper album [which also featured Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegéocello, Shafiq Husayn and Ledisi].

Paris and Anita, you had quite a serendipitous meeting – a brief encounter at Berklee College of Music in Boston, then a chance reconnection a few years later. What were your impressions of each other from the first meeting?

AB: The first meeting was just a quick rehearsal. I was singing backgrounds. It was a “hi” and “bye” type of thing, but we remembered each other when she moved back to Los Angeles and we met at a jam session. We’ve been hanging out together ever since.

PS: My first impression of her was: I was just astonished. She only sang maybe two words but everyone just stopped. “Hey, you, what’s your name? Sing again!” It was so simple, but her tone was so beautiful to me. That must have been in 2007? It was maybe one-and-a-half to two years later that we met again. It was my senior year – I graduated, moved down to LA, and met her in a club.

AS: I remember that day you guys had a rehearsal together. Paris, you called me – you said, I heard this girl with a crazy tone.

Did you plan to meet up in LA? Had you stayed in touch via Facebook or anything?

AB/PS: Oh, no!

PS: I saw her, I was blown away, then I kinda forgot! I was sitting in this jam session just hanging, and she walked in. She came over to me and was like, “Hey, are you Paris, do you remember me?” That’s when we established our relationship

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‘In The Meantime’ was one of my favourite songs of last year. I particularly loved how it celebrated the beauty in impermanence, in relationships that are usually seen as fleeting or lacking meaning.

AS: It’s not your typical love song. But part of love is understanding and supporting what your other half needs to do. A relationship where…things don’t always dissolve in anger or hatred, sometimes they dissolve in love. There are so many ways to go about human connections.

PS: As humans we’re changing every day – growing and progressing. It’s a beautiful thing to embrace those changes, and it’s nice to do it with someone by your side.

Your arrangements are so detailed and complex – I’m thinking of the horns towards the end of ‘Supernatural’, or the way the chorus of ‘In The Meantime’ surges back in unexpectedly at one point. How do you go about refining them?

PS: Everything on The Story took about a year…we were working on the three songs at the same time, and we were making edits up until the last second. It’s just how we work. But it’s a labour of love. I wouldn’t work on anything for a shorter amount of time.

AS: We try to have a natural flow about it, but we all have a similar sense of taste in music – that surge you’re talking about came very naturally to us. Every song has a process of its own.

PS: It does take time. Our process is listening and listening and listening to how the song speaks to us. Listening and letting what needs to happen, happen. Like, something needs to happen here that completely touches my soul – as a listener, I want to hear that.

How do you know when it’s ready? Would you describe yourselves as perfectionists?

AS: Well, if you hear perfection in it… [laughs]. If the boot fits!

PS: When a song is ready, it’s something that you just know. It’s personal experience, but I know when I’m just overwhelmed by a song, I can’t not cry listening to it. It sounds crazy because I made it, I know everything that’s gonna happen, but when you get to the point where you can remove yourself from the process of writing, producing, arranging, recording and listen to it as a listener, if it really moves my heart, if it’s everything I ever wanted to hear in a song…that’s how I know.

You make music that draws on a lot of traditional soul, jazz and R&B – but it never sounds like a retro exercise or just a throwback. How do you keep your sound fresh and different?

PS: We’re making the music we want to hear. One of our conscious efforts is to not make anything that sounds like it’s been done before – if I may say that! We have very eclectic ears, and we’re constantly trying to think of new ways to use instruments.

AS: What’s cool about that is, it’s not a competition…we’re not looking at the outside world thinking, how can we make our music better, we’re thinking: how can we step it up and outdo ourselves.

PS: We use a lot of analog keyboards…we have a lot of old-school vintage instruments that bring a lot of warmth to the sound. A Moog Voyager, a Dave Smith, a Nord Stage, an RMI, a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes and more…The bottom line of our sound is probably texture, we like everything to stay very warm. Everything’s wooded in the room we record in.

I love the cosmic scope of some of your songs, and the psychedelic aspects of the music.

PS: Whether it’s nature or art or the cosmos – being able to draw beauty from anything we experience will find its way into our music. And it’s good to talk about more than just relationships and stuff. We make music about families, grandparents, kids – and friends. Even the songs people think are about relationships and romantic love – they weren’t necessarily when we wrote them.

“When a song is ready, it’s something that you just know. It’s personal experience, but I know when I’m just overwhelmed by a song, I can’t not cry listening to it.”

I was just thinking that on the way here, listening to ‘Hey’ – it’s written so that it doesn’t necessarily have to be about a lover.

PS: It could be about your child, your friend…

AS: Or self-love. That’s really important to us.

What are you drawn to in terms of art?

PS: The classics, Van Gogh especially – but really, anything you can look into and get completely lost, or be able to put yourself in the artist’s perspective. Not just art like paintings, though: I love geometric patterns, seeing art in nature…

AS: Mother Earth is the greatest artist of all time.

PS: That’s the best thing about LA, too. In Minnesota you can be outside for three weeks out of the year. LA is really amazing and eye-opening – a sensory overload. I moved there because, when I finished school in Boston, I got an internship at the Monterey Jazz Festival. After that, I wanted to be a film scorer; I reached out to Patrice Rushen, who’d mentored me in college, and asked her what to do. And she said, move to LA. I didn’t know anybody – Anita was probably one of the first people I met there.

You all had pretty musical upbringings – Paris, you played the piano from a young age, but Amber, I’m intrigued by how it affected you: you say you “absorbed everything musical from around you”. Could you elaborate?

PS: I learned at a very early age that I was never gonna be like her on the keyboard! My teachers knew before I did, but I eventually learned too. I always used to listen to her practicing, all her scales and whatnot, and it would really resonate with me. I dived into music into high school as my personal space, where I could find solitude – I’d listen to a lot of jazz, a lot of fusion, and that’s where I found my voice.

Anita, was it easy to come into a set-up with these two, who had been playing music with each other for so many years?

AB: Just us being friends in the beginning laid the foundations for everything. What we shared was a love of music; and not just music, but a certain sound. These two are great.

PS: I can’t even put into words how special the connection between the three of us is. It’s insane, not only do we have this really cool musical taste that most fans share with each other, but we have really similar experiences in life and, I’d say, very similar souls.

You’ve composed these complex, layered songs in a studio setting – how hard has it been to translate it to live shows?

PS: yes, we made all our stuff in the studio. It was lovely to have the blueprint of what we wanted the live show to sound like, but we only started performing our set as it is in the summer. Before, we were mostly in the studio working on the album – we did a few live shows here and there, but mostly acoustic. Once we finished the album we had the full scope of what we wanted our live show to sound like.

AB: I wouldn’t say it’s harder, but it’s more fun. There’s still a lot of newness to it. We’re still changing things round.

AS: Even for the songs people haven’t heard yet. Nothing’s ever really done.

Your album’s finally due to be released this summer. What can we expect on it?

PS: I think our sound goes a little deeper – we’ve been really able to cultivate this sound that I think people will be able to get lost in.

AS: We really wanted to expand on the lyricism of the EP, which is on the album – it’s stretching out from those three songs. We’ve progressed tremendously since then.

PS: It’s been amazing as a human experience, too, not just as artists. As young adult women, to have people waiting on your say on music and art and taste is incredible.

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