BROOKLYN, NY — Justin King has traveled the world as a performer and a war photographer, searching for his musical identity and his grounding as an artist and a man. Now he’s found it — in Brooklyn and, more specifically, in King Radio, the ambitious and visionary group whose debut album titled King Radio arrives on October 2.
Built around the band’s core trio of singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso King, drummer and percussionist AJ Jump and bassist Mark Kiesinger (who is also a professional mortician), King Radio’s dozen songs are a stunning blend of southern soul with gritty elements of country, folk, bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll — compressing bristling energy, smoldering emotionalism and clear-eyed lyrics into an original distillation of timeless American music.
“What I’ve found in this band is the sound I’ve been searching for,” says King. “With the pedal steel guitar, mandolin, keyboards and fiddle, it’s got aspects of, for example, the Band, but with our horn section there’s also some Motown production elements. It’s the right match for the stories I want to tell — about what it’s like to struggle, lose, love and to hang on to life.”
“Alright,” King Radio’s opening tune, is a perfect example of the group’s seamless weave of styles. King’s molasses-and-grit singing is buoyed by a backing chorus, gliding pedal steel and a chugging, swinging rhythm punctuated by a six-piece horn section — all framing King’s portrait of a man searching for comfort amidst the challenges of the modern urban landscape. His guitar comes to the fore on “Can’t Be,” a song about a star-crossed love that adds Hammond B-3 organ to the group’s mix. And the album’s final number, “Tomorrow,” takes its cue from church, with an angelic choir and hand-claps supporting King’s warm, supple vocal melody as he sings about emerging from the darkness of a lost love to a brighter future.
King Radio’s gospel-inspired lyric images of halos and light, and the sounds of choirs and organ, in part reflect King’s own journey of self-discovery. As a teenager growing up in Eugene, Oregon in the 1990's, he fell in love with the music of the Pacific Northwest and began playing guitar. “Nirvana’s music was like a bookmark in my life,” he relates. “That sound gave me an outlet and helped me find a voice of my own.”
In his pursuit of musical excellence, King discovered the recordings of innovative acoustic guitar stylists Will Ackerman and, then, Michael Hedges, whose inventive approach to two-handed tapping and other extended techniques ignited his imagination.
King veered from grunge into the world of instrumental guitar and began adding elements of world music to his own acrobatic virtuosity. By the time he was 21 he had recorded his debut album Le Bleu at Peter Gabriel’s famed Real World Studios. As he gained an international reputation for his estimable playing, King played with or opened for James Taylor, BB King, Al Green, Diana Krall, the North Mississippi All Stars and others as a solo performer.
But as his career progressed, King again became enamored of the songwriter’s ability to deliver messages. “Although I still love performing alone as a guitar instrumentalist and recently did a solo tour of Asia, I didn’t want to be an acoustic guitar guy exclusively for the rest of my life,” he relates.
So King formed an alternative rock-pop group called Justin King & the Apologies and signed a deal with Epic Records. Cutting tracks for their major-label debut, the group was paired with engineer and producer Jim Scott, whose credits include Tom Petty, Sting, the Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Santana. Although the label deal ended after the band requested to be let go, King was impressed with Scott’s fluid engineering style and song savvy, and resolved to work with him again.
Justin King & the Apologies released their album independently in 2007, by which time King was exhausted and disillusioned from his Sony experience. He returned to his solo career, making a recording called Humilitas Occidit Superbiam, which translates from Latin as “humility conquers pride.” He was worn out.
“I needed to hit ‘reset,’ ” he explains, “so I moved back to Eugene from New York City and decided I was going to do war photography, which I had always been interested in, I wanted more of a first-hand understanding of what a war is like.” In the early years of his solo guitar career King had also attended art school, studying oil painting and photography.
Soon he was embedded with the National Guard in Iraq, and went on to cover a combative election, subsequent rioting and a cholera epidemic in Haiti. “Those experiences altered my perspective in ways that I hadn’t anticipated,” he says. “They allowed me to see some of the best and the worst of humanity, and they broadened my understanding of what life can be like for people. Working in places like that really helps put your own struggles into perspective."
Those experiences fueled some of the most compelling songs on King Radio, like “The Valley,” a piano driven ballad that details the strains across the gulf between home and the battlefield. The tune also spotlights one of King’s most emotion-drenched vocal performances. “The challenges troops have with being in a war zone and having to do missions every day while back home their family is struggling to keep their house, or their spouse is having a hard time staying with them because this is their fourth or fifth tour; it's pretty rough,” he adds.
In 2010 King put his camera aside and began to feel his way back into making music. He built his Vinegar Hill Sound studio in Brooklyn and starting writing songs again. And he rekindled his friendship with drummer AJ Jump, who he’d met while touring in the Apologies. Jump kept encouraging King to put together a band and play a show. One day, Jump informed King that he’d booked a gig for them at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall. They quickly organized a group for the performance that eventually morphed into King Radio’s current horn-inclusive line-up.
The band released their first single “Lonesome Nights” in 2012 and King began writing songs for a debut album. A successful Kickstarter campaign raised the funds for King, Jump and Mark Kiesinger to co-produce King Radio with Jim Scott, who helped assemble the sprawling cast of 18 other musicians who appear on the album, bringing its panoramic arrangements
“I had always thought that writing about anything outside of one's own experience was pretentious, but I had a breakthrough the moment I realized it was ok to write out of empathy,” he reflects. “I came to the realization that although you may not have experienced something directly yourself, if you have a broader appreciation for the struggle of life, you’ll be able to draw on that in a compelling and natural way. Taking a break from music and getting an education in human hardship across the globe is eventually what made my music stronger and more honest.”
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