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A 'galaxy' of sound: L.A.'s King makes R&B on its own terms

A 'galaxy' of sound: L.A.'s King makes R&B on its own terms
Amber Strother, from left, Paris Strother and Anita Bias of the L.A.-based R&B trio King. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

No one rules the members of King.

Based in Los Angeles, this crafty R&B trio writes, performs and produces its own music, a rare instance of artistic autonomy in a world defined by behind-the-scenes direction.

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What's more, twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother and their friend Anita Bias handle the business side of their band as well. When King was ready to release its debut album — this year's tender and spacey "We Are King," recorded at the group's own pace at Paris Strother's home studio — it didn't turn to an established label or even a tech giant like Apple, as singer Frank Ocean did recently with his long-awaited "Blond." Instead, the women put the record out themselves, through their company King Creative.

"We're just doing what comes naturally," said Paris Strother, who plays instruments and produces while her sister and Bias sing. "I mean, who knows what we want better than us?"

Yet if King has become a model of self-containment at a moment when the traditional record industry no longer promises artists much help, the trio's music keeps reaching outside ears — some famous ones included.

Before he died, Prince was known to talk up King, whose songs he said he discovered on YouTube. Stevie Wonder is a fan (and a clear influence). And there amid the high-profile veterans on jazz pianist Robert Glasper's Grammy-winning "Black Radio" album — think Erykah Badu and Meshell Ndegeocello — were these emerging mavericks lending their lush vocal harmonies to "Move Love." (Glasper tapped the outfit again this year for an all-star tribute to Miles Davis.)

Asked what these endorsements mean for a group determined to make its own way, Paris Strother said, "It means you're on the right track." Then she got a bit metaphysical, as befits King's trippy electronic soul.

"It's wavelengths, you know? If your favorite artists are on a wavelength and they start reaching out to you, then you're like, 'Wow, we've arrived at this particular frequency.'"

That arrival wasn't rushed. King, which is set to perform Thursday night at the Troubadour, started taking shape around 2008, when Paris Strother moved to L.A. following her graduation from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Strother's goal at the time was composing music for television and commercials. But a run-in with Bias, a fellow Berklee alum who'd returned home to Compton, planted the seed for a different idea, one nourished when Amber Strother came to visit her sister.

"Paris dragged me onstage at this open mike in Hollywood," remembered Amber, at the time a cosmetology student in Chicago. "That night I sang with Anita, and it was like magic."

Soon the three were playing regularly around town, including one gig at which they impressed the cult-fave R&B singer Van Hunt. "He emailed me and said, 'You guys need to take this seriously and record something,'" Paris Strother recalled. "I was, like, 'Huh, that'd be cool.'"

Yet the musicians took their time crafting songs. "The concept of wanting to create a musical land or experience — that's something that united us right away," said Strother. "We want people when they're listening to be able to fall into the music, to be completely enclosed by it."

In 2011 King released an impressive EP with dreamy words about love and destiny set over hypnotic grooves that cleverly meshed played and programmed elements. The reaction was swift and overwhelmingly positive; Prince even invited the trio to open one of the concerts he gave that year at the Forum in Inglewood.

"That was crazy," Amber Strother said, shaking her head at the memory.

Paris Strother acknowledged she could feel the demand building almost immediately for a full-length album. But as the women worked away in Strother's studio — often in the wee hours, depending on when inspiration happened to strike — they again were careful not to hurry their process.

"You can say you want it by next week, but if the song isn't ready, it isn't ready," Strother explained. "We learned to tell people, 'We'll call you when it's done.'"

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On "We Are King," which came out in February to rave reviews, that commitment to detail is easy to hear in tunes like "The Right One," a slow-mo ballad with complex harmonies, and "In the Meantime," whose soft but sturdy beat echoes music by two of the musicians' heroes, Babyface and Luther Vandross. There's also "Supernatural," with a sumptuous orchestral arrangement seemingly inspired by old-school Disney musicals.

"It's a sound, a texture, a galaxy that we're creating here," Strother said.

The depth of the music — and the youth of its makers — has led some listeners to inaccurate conclusions, the women said.

"People will say, 'Who produced your album? I know you didn't,'" said Strother. "I think it was important to make this a statement: 'We did this.'"

They're still doing it too. Following Thursday's hometown show, King will spend October and November touring the U.S. and Europe. And the group has already started creating new music — and on a slightly more conventional schedule.

"I try to wait till, like, 8 a.m. to call them now," Paris Strother said, turning to her bandmates. "Have you guys noticed?"

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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