Kristina Esfandiari has lived many lives in her 30 years. For starters, she survived a “spiritually overwhelming” upbringing in a cultlike community near Sacramento. “(There was) manipulation through words and music, all done in the name of God,” says Esfandiari, who moved to the Bay Area when she was 22.
Changing locale helped, as it was in San Francisco where she served as a vocalist for the shoegaze act Whirr before launching her own music career, which currently encompasses three musical projects. There’s the gloom pop of her solo effort Miserable, the rap and R&B roots of her Nghtcrwlr moniker, and her main gig: fronting the doom rock band King Woman.
It’s the latter of the three that has gained Esfandiari the most attention, in part thanks to the raw, dark rage she channels on King Woman’s debut full-length “Created in the Image of Suffering.”
Released in 2017, the album is in part a reckoning for Esfandiari and her childhood, a period of her life where “the discovery of self (was) something I wasn’t allowed to explore.” There is a palpable anger to be felt in the booming drums and distorted guitars that surround her on tracks like “Hierophant,” where her voice oscillates through the noise with a guttural fury. Nightmarish and ethereal, King Woman is the rare metal band to transcend its genre with a doomgaze sound that tempers the weight of Black Sabbath with the introspection of Mazzy Star.
The band’s first shows took place at Bay Area venues like San Francisco’s Hemlock Tavern and Oakland’s Starline Social Club, making its upcoming show with Chicago post-metal trio Russian Circles on Thursday, March 29, at Great American Music Hall a much-welcomed homecoming for Esfandiari. While her bandmates continue to live locally, she moved in 2016 from Oakland to Brooklyn and now makes her home in Los Angeles.
“When I left, it felt like a mom leaving her children in a way,” she says. “I was very invested in a lot of the younger musicians and people out there. I was watching them grow. It just felt like it was my time to move, and I had to go with that. It broke my heart, but at the same time I knew it’s what I had to do.”
Following her intuition has always served Esfandiari well.
While King Woman began in 2009 as a solo endeavor, it soon morphed into a group effort. Esfandiari says the process of writing with bandmates Colin Gallagher, Joey Raygoza and Peter Arensdorf comes easy — although it often starts in a peculiar way.
“I usually write around song titles or album titles,” she explains, “which sounds strange, but that’s how the concepts and the songs come together for me.”
In the case of “Created in the Image of Suffering,” the title was one on a list of options Esfandiari was considering. She remembers she had just finished tracking the album’s final song, “Hem,” when the name of the record came to her out of the blue. “My hand just started moving, and I wrote it down,” she recalls. “I underlined it and circled it. It just came to me and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the album title.’”
It’s evident speaking with Esfandiari that music isn’t simply a collection of notes and words, or even a career, for her; in many ways it’s a primal release of emotions that have nowhere else to go. As a genre, metal has never offered much opportunity for artists who aren’t willing to dig deep and scream loud. Fortunately, Esfandiari has no trouble doing that.
“I think I struggled with processing my emotions growing up,” she admits. “I wasn’t really free to express myself in a lot of ways. Sometimes I didn’t have the words, because some of the emotions that we feel as humans are beyond words. They’re feelings. They transcend that. Sometimes I would just turn my amp on and play my emotions out on my guitar. That helped me a lot.”
The success of King Woman is the result of both a dogged persistence and the fact that Esfandiari doesn’t feel she has any other choice. Writing songs is akin to breathing — she simply has to do it.
Currently the band is at work on a follow-up to “Created in the Image of Suffering” (an album that will feature an as-yet-unannounced title Esfandiari has been saving for four years), and new music from Miserable and Nghtcrwlr are on the horizon as well.
“I’m just always making music,” she says. “I don’t know what the f— else to do with myself.”
Zack Ruskin is a freelance writer.
King Woman with Russian Circles: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 29. $21.50-$46.45. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F. www.slimspresents.com
To listen to “Hierophant”: https://youtu.be/GbqVHPR7A7Y