Although far from a household name, neo-R&B trio KING has been a known entity in the music industry since the release of its 2011 EP The Story and debut album We are KING, dropped earlier this year. Consisting of Anita Bias and twins Amber and Paris Strother, the rising artists create music that meshes dream pop and tranquil R&B with ethereal waves of synth, balmy vocals and ingenious lyrics about everything from romance to self-discovery. The result? Something both entrancing and transcendent — so much so that KING has caught the attention of artists like Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar and the ears of thousands of listeners.
Now, KING is on tour in support of We are KING, including a stop at U Street Music Hall tomorrow. Diversions Editor Josh Magness chatted with Paris Strother ahead of the concert about her musical inspirations, the meaning behind KING's moniker and what it was like to meet Stevie Wonder and Prince.
The Diamondback: What drew you to make music?
Paris Strother: I just always loved it. I've always been really drawn to it. My earliest memory of being in love with a song was watching Disney Sing-Along [Songs] and then just going through the sound trying to pick up melodies.
DBK: So how did the musical partnership in KING come to be, considering it's you and your twin sister, Amber Strother, and another person?
PS: Yep. It's us and Anita Bias. She's a good friend of ours and she and us are really best friends. Working together is really like working with family. We met briefly at the Berklee College of Music and then once again when I moved to L.A. It was just a random happenstance. We just started hanging out from there, and whenever we hang out we make music because that's what we're really into.
DBK: So when did you realize that KING could be something?
PS: When we first got together — when Amber and Anita came together for the first time — it felt like something I had never heard before. It sounded really one-of-a-kind. Back then, I'm not sure our scope was as big as it is now or we can even imagine what it could become in the future, but at that time we realized it was something special and we wanted to share it.
DBK: Could you talk about some of your biggest musical inspirations that show up in the group's sound?
PS: I grew up with a lot of Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington and then kind of got into storytelling music like Joni Mitchell and Donny Hathaway. We just love all music. There's a big jazz background, but there's also touches of a lot of pop and a lot of R&B. We also have a love for orchestral music, for soundtracks and for musical theatre.
DBK: Talking about the R&B influence, one of the things I liked most about your album We are KING is that it doesn't sound like anything that is happening in the genre right now. Did you set out to create something that is unique or was that just the product of an organic process of making music?
PS: It's just kind of the sound that fit to the melody of the songs and the lyrics. There's always been a drive to want to be original. I would say it comes naturally but we are also conscious of using unconventional instruments and arrangement techniques.
DBK: You've received critical acclaim for this album, but also shout-outs from the likes of Questlove, Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu. What is it like to receive this high-profile recognition with just one album under your belt?
PS: It's amazing, really, knowing that your music has been passed on to people that inspired you. It makes you feel like you are doing something right. It's an incredible feeling really to connect with people that you have always listened to in that way.
DBK: And Stevie Wonder actually came backstage after one of your shows, correct?
PS: Yeah. That was the Los Angeles show at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever.
DBK: What was that like? Is there something about that conversation that you still remember?
PS: He loved the music and it was so moving. He asked if we could work together, which is incredible and I'm still dying over that moment and looking forward to it happening. I heard from people in the VIP section that he was standing the whole time and dancing around. It's just an honor.
DBK: That has to be a great feeling. You also opened for Prince. What was that like?
PS: That was just incredible. The Prince thing was so surreal because he reached out to us very early, like weeks into the time after our EP [The Story] released in 2011. He was one of the first people to reach out to us and he took us under his wing and advised us and became like a mentor. It was incredible to open for him. That part, the show, was amazing, but the real beauty of that time was rehearsal when we were dancing around and having the meetings where he was telling us what he thought for us. It was all a beautiful experience, but even just the time around that amazing show was incredible.
DBK: Talking about one more interaction you've had with an established artist, Kendrick Lamar sampled your track "Hey" on his song "Chapter Six." Can you talk a little bit about how you reacted to that?
PS: You know, I just heard it somewhere. [laughs] I'm not sure how I heard it. He's such an amazing artist and monster musician so it was very interesting to hear his take on it and what that music inspired him to say.
DBK: Let's talk about your group's name and the inspiration behind it. One thing I found interesting was that it could have been QUEEN but you chose KING. Was that sort of a feminist statement or what is the meaning behind the choice?
PS: It was the first name that occurred to us. It just felt right. And I feel like we've been growing into the many meanings and the strengths of that word. I think we realized the irony that we are women called KING, but I think even more so now it's making a statement. Back then, we wanted to narrate the story that we really were creating our own path and making our own decisions as rulers of our own musical kingdom, because we saw the music as this tangible land and if this land is governed by anything, it's our music. That's how we decided on the word KING, but growing into it we started realizing the power in it and having to live up to our name. That's actually one of the things that Prince first said to us — "Are you ready to live up to the name KING?" So it's always something to aspire to.
DBK: In your group, the three members write and produce the music as well. What is the songwriting process like for you three?
PS: It happens in a bunch of different ways. It could very well be Amber or Anita coming with a lyric or a melody or a line, but sometimes it's me coming up with an instrument or a chorus or a drum pattern. The songs are born in many different ways … but the common denominator is all of us getting together and putting our best ideas forward and building off of each other.
DBK: I saw online that your album We Are KING was set to come out originally in 2014, but it came out this year. So how long have you been working on this album and what caused its prolonged creation?
PS: We've been working on the record really since the EP came out [in 2011]. I think that it really ended up coming out at a great time because we were fully able to represent what we wanted to say musically. To us, self-producing and releasing the debut album, we knew we wanted to live with it forever and be something that we would always love. So we really left no stone unturned when it came to recording the album and the ideas in it. There was that, but there was also coming to the conclusion of how we wanted to release the record, and ultimately doing it independently was the best route for us.
DBK: So what are some of the major differences in style between your 2011 EP and We are KING that you noticed after working on the record for those years?
PS: I would say that the album is definitely a deeper look into the EP. It still contains the EP songs but they have been reworked with intros and outros, and it has a bunch of new tracks that we were really more comfortable stretching out with sonically and musically. We love that you can really feel the flow between the two records but also loved that the EP felt like an introduction and [We are KING] felt like the main course.
DBK: It might be hard to choose, but what are one or two songs on We are KING that are your favorites?
PS: I would say "Red Eye." It's a song straight from our imagination. It has that dreamy quality and it really sounds like you are listening to something not of this time. We spent a lot of time and had a lot of fun with the arrangement trying to create the path for that song. I really love that one — but I love them all. Second would be, I guess, "Carry On" right now? I mean it switches because they are all really my favorites.
DBK: You're currently on tour right now, including an Oct. 20 stop at U-Street Music Hall. What is your favorite part of these live performances?
PS: Really just getting to see the crowd's reactions. We've seen so much love in all the different cities. It's incredible to see that we somehow reached all these people. Even just having people sing along to our songs is such an honor.
DBK: Does it ever feel like a dream that you have these fans who know your music?
PS: We have those surreal moments when you look up during a show and you're like, "Wait." [laughs] Even back as far as, "I live in Los Angeles?" [laughs] To see what this has become, I feel like a lot of things in my life were leading to contribute to building KING with Amber and Anita. So to see it all come to fruition is an amazing feeling.