“Alright, everybody. You gotta dance with us,” says Anita Bias, one third of KING, as she surveys the crowded room in Pontiac, Mich. “Just a little two-step.” The pitter-patter drums of “Oh, Please” — a cut off of KING’s recently released debut, We Are KING — reveal themselves, Anita grins, the lights dim and the crowd starts moving obediently. Like almost every other song during the set, KING extends “Oh, Please” far past its four minutes and 51 seconds, with Anita and Amber Strother — the two lead singers —freestyle scatting and Amber’s twin sister Paris — the group’s mastermind and instrumentalist — modulating chords and jamming with a smile of absolute delight spread across her face. Afterwords, the women stay around to sign CDs and take pictures, most of which pose the fan hugging one of the members of KING with total reverence and joy. Effortlessly cool but exceptionally intimate, KING’s music, presence and authenticity is palpable — the hugs from their fans were more than just for the photo, they were signs of gratitude, of admiration, of the shared experience KING’s music evokes, of the warm feeling it produces in your stomach.
Much of that magic is contained within We Are KING — produced completely by Paris and released independently by the group — a smooth, tender, funky, explorative and deceivingly complex collection of flawless harmony, heartfelt message and radiant and communal warmth. The New York Times called it “a musicians’ album,” and they weren’t wrong; We Are KING recognizes its ties to the same patient, deep, intricate strain of R&B that produced Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones while also calling on everything from video games, dream-pop and ’80s electronica to reach a sound that is ultimately impossible to classify within genres, from both the future and the past, all in the name of simply making some damn good music. Paris took a moment the morning after the show to talk with Not Mad about being inspired by Stevie Wonder and Disney movies, the benefit of making independent music, creating uplifting art in tough times and always staying authentic.
This is your first headlining tour. Is it scary? Fun? What do you feel like your live shows add to your music?
You know, it’s been a lot of fun, just getting out here…This is the first time we’ve been playing to crowds that have our album, that know all the words, that have the new songs. For the last couple of years people had been coming to shows, but the only time they had seen new songs was clips of other shows on YouTube…so now we get to hear the difference between the recorded elements and the live elements and all the different arrangements we’ve done between the live show and the album.
Your first project, The Story EP, dropped in 2011 and it caught fire instantly — everyone from Prince to Erykah Badu to Questlove shouted you guys out. And then you waited four years to come back full force. Did the popularity of the EP overwhelm and surprise you? Did you feel pressure to follow up with something great right away?
The EP was a surprise…we didn’t expect that at all, but it did kind of raise the bar, and we knew that it wasn’t to our benefit to rush and release anything that wasn’t as well-thought out and as carefully made as the EP.
I hear Sade and Janet Jackson in your music, but also deep strains of electronica, Phil Collins even…lots of 80s vibes, but also sounds like it’s from 100 years in the future. Who did you guys idolize growing up and how have those influences seeped into your music?
Stevie Wonder is a big one. Like every decade he put out something that changed the shape of sound…every album had its own mark of the time. You know, In Square Circle was very 80s, Music of My Mind was something completely different, but they all had the common thread of being Stevie Wonder. Of course, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, best known for the early Janet stuff. Just anyone who takes care to really marry the music and the lyrics and the vocals, melodies, harmonies, rhythms. That’s a big inspiration. Lots of soul music — Patrice Rushen, Brenda Russell, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock…also, like you said, the 80s — XTC, Cocteau Twins…even interests going towards Disney films and video games. We like to keep things really interesting. We’re kind of born of the last of the Analog age, so I think that’s what you’re hearing in the music.
In a world where so much shit is going wrong, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear an album flowing so deep with joy and love. How important was it for you guys to make a purportedly “happy” album in a time where your peers, from Blood Orange to Kendrick, are making music that reflects the immense difficulties of not only living in America today, but living as black Americans?
I think that there’s a multi-faceted experience, and there’s a lot of creative stuff going on, but we’re really proud to contribute to what people can turn to when they want to feel uplifted and hopeful about everything. I think a lot of our themes are exploration and love and self-discovery, but also love for community and just kind of celebrating the everyday things, the ordinary in life. So I think it’s absolutely necessary [to have] someone like Kendrick, or anybody who is making that political statement…I feel like ours is more in the mix. “The Greatest” for us is a statement in itself — while all this stuff is going on in the world, we wanted to do an anthem for young black kids to be unapologetically confident in themselves… [in a world] where everyone can be telling you ‘your life doesn’t matter’ we wanted to counter that by saying ‘I am the greatest.’
I was lucky enough to see you guys perform with Solange, Devonté Hynes and Moses Sumney at FYF in 2014 for a cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” I feel like you guys are part of an incredible burst of R&B off-shoot talent springing up right now, and Solange’s Saint Heron movement fully embodies that. What do you feel is special about the way independent music is growing and spreading right now?
Well, it really goes back to the fact that no one is telling you how to make your art. I think it’s something that people recognize almost immediately; people can hear the authenticity…they can hear when it’s actually an original thought, you know? It’s really cool that people can just get started on the internet and can just say, ‘you know what, this is what I’m going to do’ and then do it without the need to have huge backing, huge labels. People have gone and created platforms like Soundcloud and Tune Fork and Facebook and Twitter that level the playing field.
How does the collaborative process work between you three? There’s a lot to consider – harmonies, instrumentals, lyrics – what comes first? How does it flow? Considering you three are three distinct individuals, is it hard to find universal experience and thought between you three?
No, you know, we find that getting to know each other better, we’re really on the same page, we’re on the same wavelength…so that’s a really cool part that’s been born of this friendship or sisterhood — me and Amber are twins — and kind of adding Anita to that has just been amazing, it feels like we’re triplets. The songs are all kind of born differently, some will start with rhythms, some start with melodies, some start with lyrics, sometimes we’ll start with chords…but the common core is the three of us sitting together in a room just putting out our best ideas.
It’s incredible how independent you three are, in so many ways. You produced and wrote every track, released the project on your own label and seem to have little care to conform to contemporary standards whatsoever. How important is it for you guys to cultivate “KING-ness”, whatever that is? Has it been difficult to stick to your guns, especially with a sound that is so different than 2016 pop or even R&B?
It’s been really important for us to stay true to who we are. Luckily, the three of us are so strong in each other to the point where outside opinions don’t even really penetrate…and I think also what it does is kind of pave a way for [us] to be unapologetically creative. People are going to tell you a lot of times that it’s in their own interest for you to change to do something that they can benefit from or that they personally would like, but we always knew that this music is for whoever loves it. If you don’t love it, then it maybe wasn’t for you. Laughs.
Jackson Howard is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Not Mad. He needs a new foam roller.