As kings of their creative castle, L.A.-based electro-soul group KING has free rein to make music their way, and that’s just how musical icon and pop legend Prince wished it to be. KING opened the final, sold-out show of Prince’s 21 Nite Stand in Los Angeles concert series, which was part of his “Welcome 2 America” tour back in 2011. But KING’s involvement with Prince was more than just a one-night event.
“We didn’t just open for Prince; he really took us into his home and became our mentor,” says Paris Strother, music producer in the KING trio. “He gave us advice and directives on the business. He was always into being independent, and not having anyone own you or your intellectual property. He just wanted us to be ourselves, to grow up in the music and be comfortable. He said he wanted to emancipate us from the pressure an artist usually receives when they come out and they’re trying to figure things out on their own.”
Prince’s enthusiasm inspired confidence within KING. They shared with him their demos and, later, the final mixes as they were being done for their debut album We Are KING, released in February 2016 on record label KING Creative, LLC. “The way that he enjoyed our songs made us so excited about releasing them. It made us really glad that he was around when we released the album,” says Strother, noting that Prince’s passing in April was a huge blow to the music industry, but the loss was perhaps felt most acutely by KING. “He was really warm and welcoming and super generous. He was somebody we knew would always be there for us and so it’s been a really hard few months.”
KING is a collaboration of writer/producer Paris Strother, and writers/singers Amber Strother (Paris’s twin sister) and Anita Bias (the Strothers’ musical sister). KING’s sound blends atmospheric swells from vintage synths with lush vocal layers. Classic analog drum machines by Linn Electronics, Roland and Maestro Rhythm King provide the head-nodding groove. The result is a retro dreamy pop sound that’s mellow but by no means sleepy.
Strother says, “For many of the songs, the foundation comes from the vocal arrangement. It’s been so much fun pushing boundaries and getting creative with different ways to use the voice as an instrument. We’re always trying to use different elements and synths in unconventional ways as well.”
Strother’s studio is populated with synthesizers, both old and new. Among her favorites are a Select Series Minimoog Voyager, a Nord Stage Classic and a Stage 2 Compact, a Dave Smith Instruments Tempest (a hybrid drum machine and synth), a Dave Smith first-generation Mopho and a Mopho X4, a Fender Rhodes Mark I Seventy Three, a 1980s Hammond home organ, a Hohner Bass Synthesizer, a Korg R3, a Moog Little Phatty, an ARP String Ensemble SE-IV Electronic Music Synthesizer, and an RMI Electra Piano beloved by Ray Charles.
“I need to stay off of eBay,” she laughs. “I’m always looking to buy rare, cool synths that I know aren’t being produced anymore. I feel like if I can find it now, then I should get it because I might not be able to find it so easily again. I’m trying not to become a hoarder, but it’s hard. Each new sound introduces a new song almost, so we have a lot of fun in here.”
That spirit of fun comes through on We Are KING. Background elements and accents on the track “In the Meantime” are reminiscent of retro videogames. Strother explains: “My sister and I are obsessed with Nintendo and SEGA, and so we’re always joking that if our album was like Super Mario World, then ‘In the Meantime’ is the underwater level. Also, I’m obsessed with Disney films, so I was trying to channel how I felt the first time I watched The Little Mermaid, without being too cartoony. That was a very loose influence on this track.”
Growing up, the Strother sisters took piano lessons together at age 4, along with their brother and cousins. Of the group, Paris was the only one to stick with it. Her sister Amber had an affinity for singing, but Paris felt comfortable at the keys. “I was sounding things out and playing by ear when I was barely able to walk, so I think I was about two years old when I started playing piano,” she says. “I’m not sure exactly when I knew I wanted to make music seriously, but I just found an essay I wrote in fourth grade that said, ‘I want to write songs. I love Stevie Wonder.’ It’s been the only thing that I’ve ever really wanted to do.”
Strother attended Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, at first majoring in Music Business but eventually switching to Contemporary Writing and Production. One of her first pieces of recording gear was a MOTU 828 audio interface, which she used to record vocals. While that particular piece of gear is still in her studio, it’s been upgraded to a more current iteration, the MOTU Traveler, which she paired with Shure KSM44 mics for tracking vocals on We Are KING.
Working at KING Creative Studios in Los Angeles, Strother records, edits and premixes in Apple Logic 10, and is also exploring Ableton Live for the group’s live shows and future albums. She says, “Much of the album was started five years ago when I was just learning the ropes. The way that I was doing it just worked for us and so we kept that going through the album. For the next album, though, we’re going to want to expand the studio.”
While at Berklee, Strother met singer Bias briefly during a rehearsal. “I was the music director for another singer and Anita [Bias] was a background singer. I was just getting ready to leave as she was arriving and I heard her sing for a second. I stopped her and said, ‘You’re amazing! Who are you?’” recounts Strother. Years later, after graduating and moving to California, Strother met Bias again at a jam session. “I saw her and remembered her voice. We started hanging around each other and being friends. She and I both love music so much, so we were making music. Then Amber came into the picture. The sound of the three of us together was something really special.”
When it comes to writing songs, Strother says ideas can start with a keyboard part, lyric, or even a drum part. If the trio isn’t sitting down together creating the songs, then they’re collaborating remotely, emailing samples and ideas back and forth. “The songs evolve and are born from this very layered process,” Strother explains. “Three songs from our 2011 EP made it onto the album: ‘Hey,’ ‘Supernatural’ and ‘The Story.’ Those three songs happened together, but the rest of the songs on the album were born in pairs.”
We Are KING was mixed by Neal Pogue and mastered by Brian “Big Bass” Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood. Strother notes, “Every favorite song you’ve ever had, Brian probably mastered it. By the time we finished mastering our album, it was his last day. He retired right after. So that’s a really cool piece of history. It was such an amazing experience to work with people who are so seasoned and who knew exactly what we wanted to hear.”
In addition to producing music for KING, Strother collaborates with other artists. For Corinne Bailey Rae’s 2016 album The Heart Speaks in Whispers, Strother was a co-writer, producer and keyboardist on “Tell Me,” “Green Aphrodisiac” and “Been To The Moon.” Additionally, she co-wrote and played keys on “Horse Printed Dress” and performed on “Laserbeam.” Of her experience in working with Rae, Strother says, “Some people play instruments, and some people sing, and then some people are music, and I feel Corrine is one of those people. Whatever instrument she is around, she uses. It’s such a cool thing to be around an artist that you really respect.”
Strother’s other credits include producing and performing on Bilal’s “Right at the Core,” from his release Love Surreal, co-writing and vocal producing “Move Love” on Robert Glasper’s Grammy-winning album Black Radio, and a songwriting credit on Jill Scott’s “So Gone.”
“Anytime you work for someone else, it’s about working for someone else,” she says. “You want to get their sound out there. All life experiences that come into your orbit come out in the music. The KING sound is still very much the KING sound, but just hanging around people like Corinne and experiencing how she records, I’ve definitely learned a lot. Some songs I co-wrote and some songs I played keys on. It was like us getting together and sharing in any way. She and her producer Steve Brown were a really great team to work with.”