The R&B Queens Prince Loved
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes good sound spreads organically.
By Andreas Hale
Five years ago, twin sisters Amber and Paris Strother and their friend Anita Bias released a trio of songs recorded in the twins’ bedroom. The compilation was meant to be intimate — just a sense of what it was like to jam with the girls. Little did they know that the collection would spread like wildfire on the Internet and change the course of their lives forever.
The charmingly unintentionally viral nature of the Strothers’ and Bias’ success is quintessential for them. That elegant collection of love songs titled The Story went against the trend of hypersexualized R&B. No straightforward or crass lyrics. Instead, King, as the ladies are known, tapped into something we didn’t know we were missing: a bohemian, angelic, poetic kind of R&B, bedazzled with soothing synths and twinkling keys, that channels more ’80s soul and less hip-hop. “For them to be so young at the time, there was a level of detail, refinement and maturity in their music that went way beyond their years,” says Phonte Coleman of Grammy-nominated soul collective the Foreign Exchange.
They were — are — regal. Which makes it fitting that our late, great Purple One, Prince, brought them into the royal court of pop-culture consciousness.
Prince discovered King on YouTube, and was so captivated that he had his manager track them down. They met in North Carolina. Three months later, after playing in front of small crowds in a Sherman Oaks bar, the ladies opened for Prince before 17,000 people at the Forum. Then they went dark, to make new music — and now they’re back. The Strother sisters, 30, and Bias, 27, are on the road promoting their long-awaited and critically acclaimed full-length album We Are King, which took nearly six years to make. The album is intentionally poetic, says Paris, just before playing in their hometown of Minneapolis.
”The spirit we have dictates that we’ll never put out anything before it is ready,”
King, the name a feminine twist on masculine royalty and power, has been building for a few decades. Paris and Amber grew up in a two-parent household in Minnesota, surrounded by music. Their father always kept musical instruments around the house as a hobby, which inspired Paris to start playing the piano at the age of 2. Amber only dabbled in singing, but was far too shy to showcase her talent in front of large crowds. (“I didn’t get comfortable singing publicly until I was around Anita and Paris,” says Amber. “I never had a strong desire to be a solo artist. That’s why working with my best friends works for me.”)
Their love of music took the twins to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where they would encounter singer-songwriter Anita Bias, of Compton, California, during a rehearsal on campus. “I heard this group of background singers, and this one voice just stood out,” Paris recalls. “I singled Anita out and asked if she could sing for me. She did, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re incredible. Bye!’ That was it. But I never forgot her.” Bias didn’t stick around on the East Coast for long — she headed back to California (“It was cold!” she says), and the three didn’t reunite until a few years later, when Paris and Bias once again hit it off.
Paris was, at 24, spending her days as a special programs coordinator at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles; Amber worked as a manicurist. At night, the duo wrote songs and rehearsed, and Paris played piano for small crowds at the now-closed jazz bar Cozy’s. But after meeting Bias, Paris began working on her sister to turn their act into a trio. They made their debut as a group quietly, unassumingly, on those evenings at the bar. And it was those sessions that became their three-song catapult into accidental fame. It wasn’t just Prince who spotted them when their music started to bleed around the web organically — before him there was the Roots’ Questlove and Erykah Badu.
But just as soon as they appeared, they virtually vanished. Instead of oversaturating the market with more viral propaganda, King disembarked from the hype train. They released songs sporadically, every few months, with little warning, occasionally popping up in collaboration with another artist. The ladies say they were focusing on learning the music business. They say they rejected advances from major labels for fear of compromising their product. (They released this album independently.)
Still, there were lingering concerns about whether they’d ever release a full album. It was a dangerous tactic. “Every artist has their Cinderella moment when all the eyes are on them, so it would definitely have been in their best interest to strike when the iron was hot,” Coleman says. “The window of opportunity is small, and sometimes it can be a case of too little, too late.”
Fortunately, King’s full-length has found a home with fans who have endured the excruciating wait. From the gorgeous vocal distortion of the dreamy “Love Song” to the hypnotic tale of the smoke and mirrors of dating on “Mister Chameleon,” We Are King, like the title says, is a formal announcement of musical royalty. And the ladies promise that their next album won’t take nearly as long. “The spirit we have dictates that we’ll never put out anything before it is ready,” Paris says. “The best way to expose yourself is with something you put your entire soul into, and there’s no reason to ever do that prematurely.”
The women are doing as their guardian angel in the royal court of music wished. “The first thing Prince said to us,” Paris recalls, “was that he doesn’t want us to change anything about our music or ourselves.”