If you aren't familiar with King avriel yet, then that's certainly about to change. I had the opportunity to speak with the songstress back in late May, not long after her track "Caricatures", a single from her recently released Thesis, had dropped. Up until this point, she had been busy wrapping up the final touches on the project. And, although her manager and executive producer, NAPO, and I had become pretty chummy , it had still proved difficult to get up with the notoriously reclusive artist. So, I knew I wanted to make the most of talking with her.
Thesis, which dropped July 31, includes production from The Internet, Oddisee, and Hasan Insane, among others. It is a narrative that plays as smoothly as a novel reads. Empowerment, persistence, and family are just some of the many themes. More important is the mostly autobiographical tale of transformation she weaves. It submerges the listener entirely, with the hopes that you come out of it thinking a little differently about things, properly making this debut less of an album and more of a manifest.
The interview, like most these days. was done over the internet, but we might as well have been sitting right next to each other. Hundreds of miles separated us, but on that particular afternoon in May, the weather was beautiful in both Virginia and, of course, California, and when the monitor cameras went off standby, it was all smiles.
To my surprise, Avriel was as excited to speak with me as I was with her. For a moment, after all the formalities, she stepped away to open the blinds in her loft and let a little more light into the room. In retrospect, this place spoke volumes of her; there were guitars, a keyboard and plenty of books, but no television in sight. Everything seemed to be in its right place, and while many songwriter/musicians are admittedly cluttered, this room mirrored the serenity of a yoga nook.
Avriel's poise, as welcoming as it is, reflected that of someone focused, hungry, ready to make the moves to get the message out, yet also equipped with much-needed peace of mind. We began to talk and, much like her album, she opened up like a book – placing all vulnerability aside. We talked about fake friends, gender boundaries, and the sweet sound of silence.
EARMILK: A lot of my friends that have read posts on you and have been following EARMILK's coverage sometimes approach me as if you just fell out of nowhere. With the coverage from Spin, The New York Times, and so forth, I don't think they realize that you've been at this for a while. So, could you give us a little history? Tell us about King avriel.
King avriel: Yeah! I started acting when I was two. My older sister was in the [entertainment] industry, so I just kind of followed in her footsteps. Her agent took me on and I did my first commercial; my first paid work at two. Like, I was SAG and everything – really proud about that [laughs]. But, yeah – just a lot of commercial work. I was on MAD TV and other sketch comedy shows.
KA: Yeah… all when I was really little. And then, obviously, there was Hey Arnold and Hannah Montana and stuff like that. Then, I got too big to go out for the kid roles because I had a growth spurt and I looked older than I was. I started getting some smaller roles in short films and independent stuff, but that's when I really switched gears into modeling.
A runway show producer scouted me, L.A. Models signed me, and then that all happened. I was doing that and hanging out in studios, and there were a couple of different people who were trying to manage me or get me production deals or whatever, but I was just working trying to hone my craft; producing, at first. That's what I started out doing, eventually writing, and really just focusing on my own project as an artist.
I don't know, I guess after a while, I put some music out with Cooked Classics in 2009 and that whole experience was just kind of the last straw with me because the attention I was getting was not the attention I wanted. I didn't really feel like I was being taken seriously as a person, which is the same reason I left modeling. I didn't feel like I was being taken seriously as a human being, I was just kind of like an object. So i was just like , fuck it, I'm going back to school, because if me being intelligent on my own isn't enough to convince people I have a brain and have ideas, then maybe getting a degree from a university will do that. I thought I needed that validation.
EM: The "friends" you were making and the people you were around had other motives, more or less.
KA: Yeah, it's not fun, but now I feel like I'm very empowered to kind of write my own story, and I know enough about the industry because I've been in it for so long. On top of that, I have this theoretical background studying how everything we consume affects us and the psychology behind all that, which is super fascinating. It's just been such an empowering and fulfilling process this time around.
EM: Awesome! So you feel a lot better about it?
KA: Exactly. And that's why the "King" is appropriate. King avriel has other meanings besides that, but, I mean…
EM: I read somewhere that your music was 99% autobiographical, and in the case of your track "Judgement Day//Valley Idols", there is a lyric where you say: "As time goes on, he's further from my thoughts/ His cheek bones make me cringe/ The way they sit there/ Strong, molded, smooth, dark and dewy/ A proclamation of the man he would of grown up to be/ The day he slips loose from my thoughts/He reminds me of his omnipresence." Who are you talking about here? A childhood friend? A brother? A lover? Could you explain your writing process?
KA: In terms of the deeper meaning of "Judgement Day", I'm going to lay all that shit out when the project comes out. [laughs]. I promise, I'll make it very clear, but I want people to sit with it a little longer and come to their own conclusion. But, as far as my writing process, I feel like silence is very underrated.
KA: I sit in silence a lot. In my apartment, I rarely have anything playing on the TV. Or, when I'm in the car, if I'm not listening to an audio book, I'm usually not listening to anything. I spend a lot of time by myself in silence.
I think that me being in my head all the time is where a lot of my song ideas come from. I'll just jot down my concepts or a lyric for a hook or an opening line or a scene with a character that I want to develop. Then, I'll come back to it with music. But I think a lot of my song ideas form in the car, because I spend so much time on the fucking 405 in traffic [laughs]. Which makes sense why there're so many street names and references to landmarks and shit in my songs. Those things trigger me to think about past experiences.
During this project I ended up being really stressed out at school and not really being able to cope with it, and I started going to therapy for the first time in my life. A lot of those songs come out of those sessions with the psychologist. She would give me her perspective. I felt a lot clearer about certain things. It's hard to write about things that are very emotional and traumatic, but once there's some distance between you and the event, you can come back and look at it objectively; it's a lot easier, I think.
But I don't really start with anything. It's just whatever piece of story comes to me first. I just take that, run with it, and let it happen how it happens. I feel like as an artist, I'm a vessel. There's no way that this inspiration is my own every single day. This shit comes from somewhere else. I just accept that, because that's the only thing that makes me feel… sane, in terms of pressure to create content. I just stay open to that and let things flow through me how they flow through and then make sense of it all afterwards.
EM: There is another line from the "Valley Idols" portion of that song that goes: "No one's suppose to be their own role model/looking at the socialites and coked out models/ I made it out alive with a heart so hollow/worshiping the shallow in the valley of the fake idols." You've grown exponentially as far as your songs and being recognized for them in the last year and a half. With the stigma of Hollywood, is there a fear of falling back into that lifestyle? Where do you see King avriel in the years to come? Do you want to be a staple in the pop lexicon, or do you plan on, more or less, following your own niche?
KA: That's funny. I still haven't gotten over my social anxieties. I avoid a lot of parties. I don't really go out. Again, I stay in my apartment, in my thoughts, and people get really mad at me for that, too, because I'm never around. But I feel like I can get away with it. Because of the internet, people still know about you, even though you're not on the scene all the time. So there's that, and as far as in terms of growing, The New York Times is cool, Spin is cool, and I'm so appreciative, but I'm still lower level in terms of Los Angeles hierarchy at this point. I feel like once Jay-z and Beyonce are inviting me out to dinner or something, that's when I'll come out and mingle and shit. [laughs].
But I do have a grander vision for myself, not in terms of celebrity or fame, but in influence. I realize that in order to have the kind of impact on shifting the cultural paradigm that I want to have, celebrity and fame have to come because you need that visibility, but that's not the angle. The angle is to be on a bigger platform to talk about some of these things, which is why, as multi-layered and deep as the lyrics are, I really try to make it accessible and not too progressive or experimental, where only a niche in the following crowd will get it. I hope that I can evolve from there into something more accessible and more commercial and still have that depth underneath it.
I'm not trying to stay underground forever. I want to shake some shit up, and you have to have visibility to do that. I feel very blessed; the fact that I did have a career as a model. The fact that God gave me this face and this body, I'm not gonna sit here and not realize that. A couple of years ago I was very much like, no one's going to see my face. I need people to just pay attention to what I'm saying. [laughs] But I kind of grew into being comfortable embracing all the tools in my toolbox and using all that shit to my advantage.
EM: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
KA: Definitely! I believe in male and female equality and just gender equality in general. Im definitely a feminist. I don't know why that word still carries a negative connotation? [laughs]
EM: Right! I was a little hesitant to ask that question, because for some reason it does carry a bit of negative connotation.
KA: It's not for "some reason". [laughs] We could break that down too.
EM: Please! Why? Break it down for me. I don't know.
KA: Well, anything that challenges the status quo. I mean, for example, lets take the Black Panthers and how they were criminalized and talked about as if they were terrorists. They weren't fucking terrorists, they were just challenging the status quo.
With feminism, its the same thing. We're challenging patriarchy and male privilege, but not to the demise of men. It's not about putting women above men. It's about creating equality, and of course it's going to get demonized. And how does that get demonized? It's through what we see. We get these images of feminist being bra-less people with hairy armpits, holding men's heads on stakes and shit. That's not feminism [laughs].
So, yeah, I'm definitely a feminist. And I know you said you were going to ask me about my name, but the "King" thing isn't, like, I'm better than all these other niggas around here. I call all my male friends "King". If you hold yourself in that regard, then you deserve to be called that. It shouldn't matter what gender you are. A woman can be a king just as much as a man can.
EM: There are writers who have grouped you with contemporaries like Kelela and FKA Twigs for your alternative, trip-hop, R&B sound. How does that make you feel?
KA: Both of those women are so talented. Especially what they are doing sonically is really progressive. I think it's super cool. I feel like the last couple of songs and what you'll hear on the album will be the parts from that. It's not this kind of spacey, electro, bedroom R&B stuff any more, but it was fun to experiment in that, especially with the first few releases that I put out.
EM: So you like the fact that people group you with that, but you definitely want to differentiate yourself a bit?
KA: Yeah, I mean… I feel like my focus is not on sounding progressive. My focus is on crafting compelling narratives and getting my story out there. I think that is a big way I differentiate from some of my contemporaries. And, that's just because I consider myself a writer moreso than I consider myself a musician. I think if I was more vested in being a musician, then I'd be more focused on pushing the sound forward. I love that they're doing that, but that's just not where I'm at right now. Everybody's got to fill a role, and I feel like mine is pushing this narrative forward.
EM: Who are some producers or artist that you see yourself working with in the future ?
KA: Hrmmmm. I mean…there is a lot of people So, I love Kanye West – especially new Kanye. Everybody hates new Kanye, but I love new Kanye. I think Yeezus was awesome. I feel like when I become comfortable and more ready to push myself sonically , that would be the person I want to go with. Him and Pharrell.
EM: What do you hope to achieve with Thesis?
KA: So, it's really interesting, but everyone I've played the project for so far has been dudes. This industry is full of dudes. I've met with like two female A&Rs this entire process, but whatever. [laughs] Anyways, all the men that I play the project for always tell me, "Man! Girls are gonna relate to this so much" or "you're gonna speak to women so much," and they're sitting there with tears in their eyes and shit, so I'm like, y'all are relating with it, too.
But anyway, my goal with the project, because it's ironically male focused. Right before I started working on this project, it was like 2011-ish. Frank Ocean had just come out. I think Section 80 had just come out. The Weeknd had just come out. Drake was buzzing super hard. So, it was like this narrative of all these black men talking about women that needed to be saved. It was kind of like holding a mirror up to the fucked up state of women right now.
I'm not going to deny, there are a lot of girls who are really lost – me being one of them at one point. But it was like this deficit view, and I felt like there wasn't anybody doing the reverse. So, I wanted to hold up this mirror… and I really do love men. That's why it's so important for me to discuss what feminism really is, because I don't want people to get it twisted. But I feel like we're not going to be able to progress unless we make these cross-boundary connections, if that makes sense. So, I'm holding up this mirror, like, these are the things that happened to me because of the way you have been socialized. Because of the things you have been programmed to think about women are not okay, they are holding all of us back.
If you're going to hold up the mirror to me and say, [for example] don't be a stripper… which is ridiculous. You can't tell somebody not to become a stripper, but that's a different topic. [laughs] But, you know? If you're going to do that to me, I have to do that to you in some capacity. I hope that women relate to the project definitely, but I also hope that men become introspective a little bit after hearing it. Even if you're not the type of person whose done the things that the men in my life have done to me, at least take ownership in the fact that coming up in this world as a man conditions you to perpetuate some of those things.
You can explore the entire Thesis project on SoundCloud, and go even deeper by reading King avriel's liner notes.