New Yorkers think in terms of subways and buses more than streets when they talk about where they're from in the City.
So when blues singer/songwriter discusses her Brooklyn origins, she immediately calls out train lines and bus numbers. It's all the more impressive given that she now lives in the south of France.
King's a fascinating collection of idiosyncrasies like that. If you were going to build an archetypal blues artist, she'd probably be the opposite of what you'd create. Born in Brooklyn to a Dominican mother and Panamanian father, she went to school in upstate New York before crossing the country in a Greyhound bus. After stints in Alaska and Los Angeles, she wound up in Paris, eventually settling in Arles, brought their by a romance. When the relationship ended. King decided to stay, now in love with the Provence region.
The story isn't Muddy Waters moving to Chicago, but it's King's story, and one listen to her music, like her album Woman Mind of My Own, (review here) and you'll instantly hear her deep, serious connection to the blues. Her path is different, but her sound is classic.
And other than the lifestyle, France offers some business opportunities not available in the States. "It's the size of the country," she says of France. "It's much smaller than the United States and there are not many Americans, and so when we come with our music, and we really lay it down, they really love it. And whereas in the United States, everybody's American, and we're all kind of... I don't think we're all doing the same thing. Everybody's authentic, but it just seems to be more appreciated here. So I roll with that."
King hasn't forgotten her American roots, though (nor her mastery of public tranportation). On Woman Mind of My Own, she covers John Mellencamp's iconic "Pink Houses," a quintessentially American song. There are many things that make King's version special, but one thing that jumps out is how seriously she treats the song, not as something to mock, because some quarters consider Mellencamp uncool, but as a great song that people pretend to dislike, more as an affect than an informed opinion.
King is very open to all music, though, perhaps due to her growing up in a home where she heard lots of different types of music, although interestingly no blues. She's also receptive to many types of unseen forces, however one categorizes them, be they mystical or spiritual. When asked if she'd ever return to the United States, she answers, "It's funny that you mention that because I put that out to the universe. I'm one of those people who believes in the invisible. And I put that out to the universe, I said that if the album ever does make it like huge, big, and they asked me to go back to the States, would you? And I answered myself, and to the universe, 'Yes, I would.' I would for the music and if the living conditions were right. I think I would."
In this interview, King discusses her songwriting process with producer/guitarist/cowriter Fabien Squillante. She also talks about how she selected some of the album's surprising covers. And she also shares her perspective on the demographics of the blues as a woman of color living outside of the United States. King is a strong songwriter and performer, and this interview shows how her openness—to the universe, new experiences, and plenty of influences—has helped to sharpen those skills.
Writing Woman Mind of My Own
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process for Woman Mind of My Own?
Natalia M. King: I don't know if I have a process. I just kind of live life and I go through different experiences, and then, as these experiences happen, I just kind of write them down.
So I have this little book where I jot down things that happen, or words that come to mind, or phrases that come to mind because of a certain experience. And then, when the day feels right, I pick up the guitar and I try to make something of it. Sometimes it flows automatically. And when that happens, I think it's just like, me being a conduit to some something. But sometimes it's searched for.
It took a while. It didn't all come at once. The album itself, there are songs that date, maybe three years, four years ago. So it's a long process, and it happens in different ways.
WM: How did you work with producer/co-writer/guitarist Fabien Squillante?
King: Fabien, he came in pretty late in the process. The songs were already written, and they were in a demo space on SoundCloud, with just voice/guitar. And that's what was handed to him by the label. And he loved it.
And then at that moment, from from the guitar/voice process, he did his own arrangement. So it came like really, right before we recorded; I would say his participation, his arrangement, took about a month and a half, close to two months. And then we actually got in the studio. So it was pretty late. But he understood what I was trying to get across. He understood the spirit of it, he understood the mood and the soul of it. So that's what really counts.
WM: Did you have a lot of back and forth with him as he was arranging? Or did he send you completed ideas?
King: No. There was a lot of back and forth. I'm kind of picky. I'm really picky. I'm not gonna put myself down, but I'm kind of a pain in the ass, and if I don't like what I'm hearing, I'll tell you direct. I'll tell you, 'That sounds like shit.' No, no, there was a lot of back and forth, between in-the-studio, phone calls, sending each other musical things by guitar, by voice. And then face-to-face, saying, 'That's not going to work.'
I would say it was a collaboration. But he gave it a touch of his own, and that's what you're hearing. Although the foundation is myself, without sounding arrogant, he gave it a touch of his own.
WM: And what would you say his own was? What elements when you listen are you like, 'Oh, that's Fabien?'
King: It's a way of playing the guitar, it's a way of interpreting, because he's French. But he has a way of interpreting American music, really down to a tee, to tell you the truth. He really understands that, he's really influenced by it, and he has a way of playing his beautiful Gibson guitar, and this way of playing which kind of tied together all the songs. It's him. It's this French guy, really interpreting American music in just a marvelous way. And with a specific sound.
You can hear it throughout the whole album. There's this guitar, the Gibson, that really just rings out the whole time. And I don't know, I guess it would be hard to say to you, because you don't know Fabien, but once you know who he is and how he plays, he can be playing another song that's not mine, and I could recognize the guitar playing because it's him. It's the sound. I don't know how to describe it. It's his sound with his acoustic.
WM: Is there a reason you didn't play guitar on the album?
King: Well, I really wanted to, just for once, let the voice kind of have a red carpet. I'm 52 and since the age of 27, 28, when I first got signed, I've been the one with the guitar and laying it down and doing the arrangements and making sure that people could hear the way I wanted the guitar/voice thing to come out. It's fun work, don't get me wrong, but when you have someone that says to you, 'Just give us your voice, I'll do the rest,' it feels good. It feels real good. And I was happy to do that.
WM: Getting back to what you were saying before about Fabien, and how well he interprets the American idiom, I was curious about "Woman Mind of My Own," because that was so raw. Did you always envision it as a Delta blues? Or was that something Fabien brought in?
King: Yeah, absolutely. When I sang it, it started a cappella. And then when I picked up my own guitar and gave him the background, it was Robert Johnson. I wanted to give that kind of blues feel that went back to the '20, '30s, even before electric started to hit the scene. And he got it down right. [I told him], 'Give me a Robert Johnson feel, that type of guitar that you would hear at the crossroads.' And he did it.
And if you hear the lyrics, a lot of them are from that period [sings a Delta blues groove]. That's blues as they say, down to the bone and he picked it up. He picked it up right. Which allowed me to to sing it the way I did.
WM: How did you keep it so stark? Where did that restraint come from?
King: I think if we would have tried to add any other instrument to it, it would have taken away from that rawness that we wanted to give. We made it the first song for a reason, and it was to say 'Okay, the foundation of this song is from a woman's mind of her own who wants you to hear the blues, where it's all coming from. All this Americana, all this folk, all this bluesy, all this rhythm and blues.
When you listen to [a track like] "Forget Yourself", it all comes from one foundation. And it's the blues. And I think the restraint came from believing that if we put anything else but the voice/guitar inside, it would have taken away from that message. It would have taken away from that introduction that I really wanted to emphasize as blues. And the raw blues.
Ain't that America
WM: And the flip side of that: how did you decide to cover "Pink Houses"?
King: In all honesty, it was a guy from my label, Andre, who's like, 'Natalia, you've been here for years. You've been in France for years. But don't forget where you come from. You got here when you were 28, 29, and you are American.'
And it's true, man, I listened to John Cougar growing up. I listened to, you name it, back in the States, from the Eagles to Led Zep. And he said to me, 'Why don't you try an Americana song.' And I was just like, 'What?' I haven't heard one in years. And he put on several. I can't name them now, but each time I had a smile. I said 'Oh my god, I listened to that when I was in college, and in university.'
And then he put this one on. He put up "Pink Houses." And something just told me, 'That's the one. That's the one that you're going to do.' And then what happened, once I told him that sounds good, he said, 'Well, let's try to do that [as a] duo.'
And in the beginning it was originally like, try to do to the duo with John Cougar, which I thought was completely impossible, but I believe everything is possible. But [Andre] insisted on it. And so I [wound] up doing it with a friend of John Cougar Mellencamp, by the name of Elliot Murphy. And Elliot Murphy, back in the day when he lived in the States, he kind of had the same status as John Cougar, and he's also good friends with Bruce Springsteen. And so [we] said, 'Well, Elliot's here. We can't have the real thing. Let's ask the next good thing.'
And Elliot, he was very excited about it; he said yes from the start and it gave for a very, very, I think, lovely duo and lovely feel of a very Americana song. I'm very happy with that one.
It was posted by John Cougar Mellencamp himself. He put it on his Facebook at one moment, which which was a very, very, very pleasant surprise, and I think he kind of liked the way we covered it, too.
An uptown boy
WM: And how about "One More Try"? Because that also surprised me.
King: As far as George Michael is concerned, George Michael, I was a huge fan when I was younger. I still am. I just think, one, he is an excellent writer. I think he has a sense of melody that's just impeccable. Beautiful. And the fact that he was one of the first gay artists, icons, to come out back in, I believe it was the 90s, is also something that's very admirable to me.
And the song "One More Try," geez. You're in your teens and you hear that song, I think you're moved. You don't have the experience yet, but you know that you'll live it, as painful as it is. It's something that's I think is in everybody's vein, universally.
And "One More Try" was a song that moved me when I was young, and continued to move me, and with Fabien, we were in his home studio working late, late, late. And we started talking about George Michael, and possibly doing a song by him. When we put that one on, we both looked at each other and went, 'Fuck it. I fuckin' love this song.' And we said 'Well, we obviously can't do it in this way,' and I told him, let's try to make it just voice/guitar.
I came back because [this] was in Paris, and I came back to my home which is in the south, Provence. And I picked up the acoustic guitar and kind of played it, just raw, like that. And then he took it, and he made the arrangement with the melodies that you hear [sings the melody]. But I didn't do all that. I just did a raw version of just G-C-A, I don't remember what it was.
And from there we had the version that we have and I love it. I love it and I tried to make it so bluesy, but in a folk way, and in respect to his melody, to George Michael's. I think it's good. There's a lot of people who said to me, 'I have all the songs, we love this one almost the most because it's almost like "Woman Mind of My Own."'
It's raw, and it's a vulnerable interpretation, and I think came out okay. And I gotta thank George. I got to thank George. I hope I did him honor, because I do. I respect the man completely.
WM: How did you find the blues?
King: I don't think I found the blues; I think the blues found me. I don't think anyone who says that they found the blues... I think the blues in and of itself is like, I'm not gonna call it an entity, but it's definitely something that's alive, with a lot of history, and a lot of past figures, and a lot of, I would say sound and energy, and you just don't find it—it kind of finds you.
I was thinking about that the other day. I'll give you a story of how the blues finds you. When I started out, I started out singing at an open jam in Los Angeles. It was open jams, with Guinness beers on Sundays, and I would do blues, because that's what I felt. And then time went by and I started doing folk and poppy stuff. But the blues was always there. Always, always there. And it seems like every time I try to move away from it, in some form or another, it comes back.
So the other day I was listening to music and I said 'I would love to just hear a geat guitar disc right now,' And I have some but I wanted something new and I found myself in in one of the rooms where I just stack stuff, and there was this box that's always in the way, and I kicked the box out of the way, and when the box opened, guess what fell out?
WM: A blues CD?
King: A Melvin Taylor blues guitar [album]. And it dated back to, I don't know when. It was almost like the blues was winking at me and I was always there, waiting for it. And when I put the disc in, I actually had that sensation like, I don't know, maybe I'm personifying it, but the blues was waiting for me. And it chooses you; it just waits for you to come to it. And that's what happened, and as time and time went by, and as I got older, it almost seemed like a non-choice. Like, you know, you have to do it. It's in you. It is you. And that's it. But I want to repeat it: You don't choose the blues. It chooses you. And it waits patiently until you come.
WM: Did you grew up with blues in your house?
King: Not at all. I grew up with Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson. I grew up with a lot of different types of music because I grew up in Brooklyn. In the 70s. [My] mother, she showed us everything. We had PBS and from Celia Cruz to Yoko Ono, John Lennon to the Rolling Stones to Blondie to Aretha Franklin. I had everything but the blues.
And it was later on in life, I would say in my 20s, that I really started to discover it, via the classic rock-type blues, you know, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton. And then the guitar playing, Stevie Ray Vaughan, all that came later on in life. But even the classic rock thing, where did it all come from? The Rolling Stones, all that, it's the blues. That's the blues in a different form. The Rolling Stones, they came from that.
And so no, I can't say this. I didn't grow up with the blues. I didn't grow up with it. I just kind of discovered it. But that discovery was, without sounding too religious, I think it was written.
WM: Do you have Dominican ancestry?
King: Yeah, my mother's Dominican. My mother's from República Dominicana. My father's from Panama. And I grew up and I was born and raised in New York, with a bunch of Puerto Ricans, Italians, Cubans. I grew up with merengue. I don't know if you know Spanish music at all, Latino music, but I grew up with salsa and merengue, and different types of music, but the blues is like very far.
WM: Does that music that you heard factor into your own personal sound?
King: I don't want to sound too stereotypical, but I think I got a sense of rhythm that comes from Cubano and merengue music. I mean, it's part of it. My sense of rhythm also comes from my rhythm and blues and even rock.
I can't say that [it's a part of my sound]. I don't know. I think it contributes more to my temperament than to my music [laughs]. I think it contributes more to that than anything melodic.
WM: And where do you see women of color fitting into contemporary blues right now? Do you think it's a good moment or a challenging moment? Or the same moment?
King: In all honesty, I would like to see more. I would like to see more black women picking up guitar and playing the blues or singing. I mean, it's been a long time since I've been here, so I really don't know what's going on in the States, but it doesn't seem like, to me... like when you think blues you always think of the male black figure either singing or playing the guitar. You don't think of the woman one, and when you think of the woman one, she's like way back in the past, like Big Mama Thornton or Ma Rainey or even Janis Joplin. Or Mahalia Jackson. But it's all in the past.
I would love to see a figure like that rise. You can't forget it's a very hard period for African Americans, and I think they maybe were focused on other things, perhaps. I don't think there's enough women blues singers. I wish there would be more, to tell the truth. And ones that play the guitar. I mean, tell me, Steven, because you're back in the States. Are you seeing blues women on the scene?
WM: Shemekia Copeland is probably the one that leaps to mind. And you're talking about old, old school, but Mavis Staples is still around, and she's still doing great stuff. There's a band, Misty Blues, out of Boston, and the front woman is really good, but the genre still feels fairly white. Like white men. I don't have data, but my gut tells me that women of color would be the smallest slice of the pie in terms of like, who's out there and who gets pushed to the clubs, and stuff like that.
King: It's honest. I like, even like the metaphor, what you used: The smallest piece of the pie would be black women on the scene. Or their voice in the blues. I would love to see that piece of the pie get just a little bit bigger.
WM: Latin women in the blues is an even smaller, smaller piece.
King: [Laughs]. That's funny. It's true. It almost sounds paradoxical. It almost seems like an oxymoron. Like a Latin woman singing the blues. Yeah, it's true.
But I think once you start singing the blues, maybe it sounds kind of imaginary, I think anything having having to do with race is gone. You're just in the blues.
The other night I was watching the documentary on Janis Joplin. And you know, Janis Joplin, I had tons of [her] discs when I was younger and stuff, and I watched the thing on her life and when she was singing, I swear to God, like you close your eyes, if you didn't know who she was, it was completely blues. Completely soul.
So I think even as a Latin, whatever you want to call me, an African Hispanic woman, once you let the blues really flow through you, there's no race. As paradoxical as it is, because we were just saying it would be nice if black women had a more of a piece of the pie. But it's true that once someone really is into the blues, race almost doesn't matter. When you think of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jesus, that was some blues, right? But he was a cat out of Texas.
Manifest song destiny
WM: When you're when you're writing and recording, how do you know when a song is done?
King: You feel it. It's like a painter or like someone who's writing, you just know when it's whole. And as you rehearse it, as you continue to sing it, if anything that needs to come inside, [it] will come, but most of the time, you know, 'I got this, I got it,' or 'It's got me,' or 'It's done.'
There's no equation to it. It's just like, boom, you feel, okay, this is it. This is done.
And it's not necessarily done in the sense like, you know, it's done because it's guitar/voice when you're done with it: 'Okay, that's cool.' But then you have arrangements but there's a foundation where you know, okay, this is the manifestation of this and it's perfect; it's perfect as it is. And then anything can be done with it.
You can put violins on it, but you know that the song in and of itself, what you have to say musically and melodically, is done. And you just feel it, you feel it in your bones. It feels right.
WM: Do you think that it's two different things, when the song is done versus when the produced track is done? Or are those two separate events to you?
King: Absolutely. To me, you used the word, it's perfect in its manifestation in a raw state and then it's perfect in its manifestation in the produced or arranged state. They're two different things. I heard, this was a long time ago, a recording of David Bowie. Just voice/guitar before he actually produced Major Tom ["Space Oddity"], the ground control album. What is that?
WM: Is that Ziggy Stardust [EDITOR'S NOTE: It's David Bowie / Space Oddity]?
King: I heard a version of just him and the guitar, acoustic guitar and it was fucking fantastic. And that was the song. Then, anything else that came on was extra. But it was a song. And I think that's what it was. It was like his demo or something like that. Some people don't like that.
Some people would prefer it to be over-produced, big sound. But that, just his voice and his guitar with his song? It was just... So to me, it's definitely two different spaces. Two different processes. Two different manifestations.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.