As big sisters are prone to do, Paris Strother blames it on her younger sibling. “Amber came out to L.A. for her 23rd birthday, and we just started messing around,” Paris recalled. “The three of us together sounded so special. We decided to keep it going.”
That’s the quick story of how her heavily buzzing new R&B/synth-pop trio King came to be — not all that unusual a tale, except Paris had never really pursued a pop music career despite a rich, diverse musical background.
Before King’s inception, the Minneapolis native had taken a circuitous route from Berklee College of Music in Boston to the Bay Area jazz scene and finally to Los Angeles. When she got to L.A., she planned to pursue work in film and TV scoring while also gigging as a jazz pianist and landing a job at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
That’s all noble work, of course, but not the kind of gigging that gets you a Rolling Stone new-artist-to-watch nod or buzz from NPR Music and the hipster music blogs Pitchfork and Stereogum, all of which raved about King’s debut record upon its release last week.
“This group from the start has been a daring journey into the unknown for all of us,” said Paris, 29, by phone two weeks ago from Los Angeles. “I’m glad we followed our instincts.”
A lot of other people are happy about that now, too, including Prince, Erykah Badu and Questlove (all vocal supporters of the group). Chanhassen’s royal rocker was one of the first to bring King to people’s attention when he hand-picked them to open for him at Los Angeles’ Forum in 2011 — their first public gig.
“To go from only playing in living rooms to playing to 17,000 people was just surreal,” recalled Paris, who said Prince “is still a great ally” and “obviously a hero of ours, given our Minneapolis roots.”
After spending several years perfecting their oddly alluring new record, titled “We Are King,” the trio is finally playing out more in the wake of the album’s release. Its coast-to-coast tour includes an overdue homecoming gig for the Strothers at Icehouse in south Minneapolis on Friday.
Meticulously loaded with thick layers of lush, cosmic synthesizers, crazy-sexy-cool electronic grooves and stylish neo-soul harmonies, “We Are King” at once sounds retro with its ’80s-style synths and ’70s-style, Stevie Wonder-esque vocal interplay but also has a futuristic, interstellar vibe.
“I’m not sure how the record manages to evade the feeling of fetishizing the past,” the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff wrote in his rave review, comparing it to Wonder’s 1972 album “Music of My Mind,” Patrice Rushen’s “Straight From the Heart” and “Prince ballads and Luther Vandross party songs.”
You can add classic Nintendo and Sega Genesis video game music to the list of influences, Paris confirmed.
“I was always weirdly fascinated by that stuff,” she said, pointing to the new video for the intoxicating single “The Greatest,” featuring old-school, pixelated video game graphics. She’s also old-school in her choice of instruments, favoring bigger, clunkier ’80s-era analog synthesizers over sleeker digital instruments.
“It just feels special holding the instrument that all your heroes were playing. There’s a special warmth to their sound. We still use other digital instruments and digital recording, but using analog instruments just seems like a purer way of getting to our sound.”
Paris is the primary writer and keyboardist/beatmaker in King, while Amber shares lead vocalist duties with Anita Bias, whom Paris became friends with after her move to Los Angeles. The sisters went to DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, but Paris credits her musical training to Ramsey Fine Arts Elementary School and especially St. Paul’s Walker West Music Academy.
“I started at Walker West when I was almost still a toddler,” she proudly recounted. “Looking back, it was a gift being so immersed in the arts at a young age.”
Their mom, Helen, is a social worker for Minneapolis Public Schools, and their dad, Curtis, is a hairstylist and part-time musician. Curtis’ brother was well-known Twin Cities bluesman Percy Strother, who died in 2009 after influencing many younger musicians — including his nieces.
“We would go see him play a lot, and it was really cool to be that close to him and see all that happened with him,” Paris said. “He would get that vocal groove kind of feeling. I’m sure that influenced what we do.”
Another big steppingstone in Paris’ musical path was the Dakota Jazz Club, where she was a waitress in her teens and returned to perform with her own jazz trio a few times. She apparently was better at the latter job than the former.
“I wasn’t all that good a waitress because I was usually too into the music and wouldn’t pay attention,” she laughingly recalled.
A name fit for a king
Several of the songs on “We Are King” are based around the bandmates’ different paths that led them to the group. One of the best tracks, “The Story” (which was also the title track of the trio’s 2011 EP), is specifically based on Amber’s journey.
“She had a thriving cosmetology business back in Minnesota and was doing really well, so it was kind of a real daring move for her to pack all her stuff in a car and come out here without any idea what exactly we were doing,” Paris explained.
The trio’s seemingly underthought band name is also built on the concept of the members taking charge of their lives.
“The idea was we wanted to be the kings of our own musical kingdom, and are claiming authority over the music we’re making,” she said, sounding very much like our other locally reared artist with a royal moniker. However, there’s also a certain amount of gender leveling in King’s name.
“We like to challenge the notion of who people think about when they hear who’s in charge,” Paris added.
In the end, the members of King will have no one to blame but themselves for whatever success follows. Sounds perfect.
Chris Riemenschneider 612-673-4658