On her newly released debut solo album, SEX MONEY GOD, Los Angeles-based artist/producer Ava King builds upon her extensive pop experience to craft her own unique sound. The nine electropop tracks are ultra catchy and meticulously constructed, but also have an experimental edge and move in unexpected directions. King’s dark, emotionally charged vocals maintain space for her personality and humor to shine through.
Born in Paris, France, King is also an accomplished writer and has been a TV host and reality TV show personality in China. As a songwriter, she’s worked with artists such as K-pop group Red Velvet, and her songs featured on The Ellen Show, Empire and in Crazy Rich Asians.
To launch the album, King will perform a multimedia showcase on Feb 5 at Upright Citizens Brigade in LA. Over a Zoom interview, King discussed the making of SEX MONEY GOD.
Could you talk about the themes and structure of the album? Did you have a defined concept of what you wanted to do going into it? Or did it evolve out of the material as you wrote?
Ava King: It’s my first album. I started writing it a few years ago after I got into recovery from various addictions. I’m not a substance addict, but definitely a behavioral addict and I have some family codependence, Al-Anon addictions that run in the family. And so for the album, I kind of wrote the songs as I was recovering. So you’ll kind of see the progression of the songs. They go from darker to happier and more hopeful songs. When I started writing, I didn’t honestly even know that I was writing an album. I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m just kind of writing songs and themes and messages that I feel very strongly about.’ And the way that I write, I guess there’s two people inside of me. Well, there’s a lot of people inside of me on any given day, but the main two ones are like this very greedy, narcissistic, egotistical voice, and then there’s this more hopeful, spiritual voice. And, at first, I really felt this need to just really write from that diseased voice for a large period of time. And those are the first two thirds of the album. I still definitely have that very greedy part inside, she’s always there, but as I recovered, the happier voice got a little bit louder.
So at what point did you realize an album was actually coming together?
Ava King: I think it was about a year and a half ago. I got laid off from a job at the time, and I prayed about it. I have this prayer routine in the morning where I just do a two-way prayer thing where whatever you want to call God, I call her my intuition. I just kind of had this prayer practice and the messaging I got was like, ‘Oh, I want you to use this month of not working to really finish the album that you were writing.’ And so that’s when I finished the album.
Given the process and change while writing it, was there ever a question of whether it would all fit together into an album? Or whether some of the material might be more appropriate for something else?
Ava King: Yeah, and as I’ve progressed there are a lot of songs that I’ve taken out of the album. Honestly, originally I had a grand vision for it. I wanted it to be 12 songs. But then when I got to it this year, I was like, ‘Oh man, this is just too difficult, mixing and mastering 12 songs. I’m just going to do the best that I can and it’s going to be nine songs’. So there was a lot of trial and error and a lot of selecting songs, and then a lot of the songs were songs that I loved, but I was just like, ‘Man, if I want to stay sane and not work myself to death over the next few months, I just need to just let them go and say, oh, maybe in the future.’
All the songs obviously have very strong songwriting, but they also have very interesting production and instrumentation. So I’m curious about your writing and recording process.
Ava King: So my process in general is, I think at heart I’m a writer, and what happens on a day-to-day basis is I kind of get these concepts for songs that come in my head, of things that I feel really strongly about. And then I’ll kind of do a little bit of writing about the concept. Then what I’ll do is I’ll go online on Splice and just collect a lot of sounds that I think would go with the concept or that are interesting. From there, I create a track. And sometimes, honestly, I’ll just be inspired by other tracks. For the ‘Self-Love (a Bitch)’ track I was really inspired by Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ album and the type of production you have on there. So sometimes actually I just get super excited about a concept, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, and I’m super excited about this other song that came out.’
I love studying music. At heart, I think I like studying music even more than I actually do writing music. So a big part for me is like, ‘Oh, hey, can I make a track that’s a little bit in the vein of that? How would that be? Can I do that?’ And I just do research around that and find the ways they produce that track, and just spend a lot of time listening to those tracks. And then, once I have the track, it’s very standard. I come from the pop songwriting factory of an industry where we do the track first and then we do the topline over the track, and that’s just kind of our factory chain, run-of-the-mill making music kind of a thing. So I kind of mostly work in that process where once the track is done, then I start toplining it. I’ll always do melody first separately. Melody is always king in the pop world. I do a lot of writing around the concept, but not in lyric form, because I really don’t force rhymes. Something that I really, really abhor so much in songwriting sessions is when everybody is like, ‘Okay, the melody’s written, we have a concept, now what rhymes with love?’ Sorry, this is long-winded, but then I just basically kind of fold the lyrics, the concepts into the melody and extrapolate the rhymes from there.
Did you tend to completely finish tracks and move on, or did you revisit the previously written and recorded songs? Did the material you did at the beginning evolve at all in relation to what you did later on?
Ava King: Yeah, so I think the ‘Father Harvey’ song, I would say there were a few different drafts of that. I think that’s the oldest song on the album. So that one evolved. Then there’s a couple of other, the ‘Self Love’ song, that had a bunch of drafts because I overcomplicate things. I think that’s something that a lot of musicians do, we just overcomplicate things. I had a verse section and then a chorus section, and then I got really excited and wanted to have a different section for the chorus. And I was playing it to people and they were like, ‘This doesn’t make sense. You just need two in a song. You can’t have more than two main production sections. That doesn’t work.’ So I was like, ‘Okay.’ So I went back to the drawing board with that one a bunch. But I’d say for the most part, a big part of the album has just been letting go and just being like, ‘Hey, this is good enough,’ that kind of a thing. I don’t know if that’s a very popular thing for a musician to admit, but my area of growth recently is just being like, ‘Hey, good enough and out there is better than the best thing that never gets off my computer.’
You’ve done a lot of writing for other people. Does doing your own solo material represent anything specific you want to do but cannot when writing for others?
Ava King: Yeah, definitely. Very, very different. In the pop genre, and I write in a few different genres, but pop and hip hop, it’s very formulaic. Not that I want to stray too far from that because at heart I’m a Britney Spears fan, I like pop. But writing, I think, aside from the lyric content, which is very different, I just get to experiment. I mean, I don’t know if it’s so much on this album, but sometimes I like to experiment with different meters. I like to experiment with different forms of production. Especially in the Western world, I think we’re very attached to our four chords and our major chord thing. But I really love experimenting with bringing different chords and something that you would see more in K-pop, I guess. Reharmonizations, all of that. I like experimenting with it. I took a jazz reharmonization class, and that was really, really, really difficult for me. So I’m not at that level, but just some basics that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in pop songs in the western world today.
Your album release showcase is described as a multimedia performance. Could you talk about what this live show is going to be like?
Ava King: I’m very excited about it. The show has really allowed me to reconnect with my love of writing and comedy. And I’m not a professional comedy writer, so luckily, I had friends on board. Director Christopher Renfro and I have a writer friend, Alex Song, who is very talented. Fernanda Teixeira is the choreographer. And then Daniel Prado, who’s an actor in the show, does an amazing job. The show is the story of a very narcissistic, greedy, just most awful person in the world who just wants to be famous. And the show is kind of the story about all the unlikely things she does to become famous. So live streaming her mother’s funeral, becoming an alt-right news anchor. All of the things she tries that, and I won’t give the ending of the show away, but there’s kind of an arc where the character develops. So it’s comedy; it’s a lot of comedy and music and choreography and singing. I’m really so grateful I get to perform it at my favorite theater, which is Upright Citizens Brigade. And the show is a 30-minute version because it’s actually an audition for Upright Citizens Brigade. They have like a 6% acceptance rate of shows. So I’m just praying that our show makes the cut, but we’ll see. But I’m just surrendering that and just trying to really just enjoy, like, “Oh my God, I get to be on a stage that I’ve always just so admired and so enjoyed other people on.”