This “musician’s musician” intends to go where the music takes her
Kaki King may be the world’s most reluctant guitar hero. While she has been compared in the press to such fingerstyle giants as Michael Hedges, Alex De Grassi and Leo Kottke, King modestly brushes aside her reputation as a six-string virtuoso. “Critics have been more interested in how I play,” she says, “whereas my fans are more interested in the music I make and the songs I write. But I do understand that I’m a musician’s musician, and that’s not going to change. Once you wear that hat, it doesn’t go away.”
Essentially self-taught, the 30-year-old Atlanta native burst onto the scene in 2003, unveiling a percussive technique rooted in her background as a drummer. While she became known for her fretboard-tapping skills, she’s since focused her efforts in songwriting. Her 2008 album Dreaming of Revenge saw her moving in a pop direction, crafting, in her words, “simple, slow melodies on top of the crazy guitar playing I do.”
King’s latest, Junior, is in many ways cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Both subtle and aggressive, the disc veers from celestial soundscapes to stormy, riff-based maelstroms. Produced by Malcolm Burn, Junior also finds King singing in an airy, ethereal voice perfectly suited to her progressive-pop compositions. She spoke with us from her New York home about her music, her guitar style and her aversion to practice.
When did you first start playing?
I learned to play guitar at age 5, but my interest in it waned. I focused on drums for a long time. But things stay with you. If you learn to swim or ride a bicycle at a young age, you don’t forget that. The guitar was kind of like that for me. In my early teens I started playing more guitar—as well as tons of bass and drums. But I had no expectations or delusions of grandeur. I just loved playing.
Was there a moment when your playing went from conventional to something more avant-garde?
I don’t think of what I do as avant-garde. To the extent that my playing is unique, it’s because I tune the guitar in odd ways—and because I had the good fortune to be a drummer first. It’s marked my music in an interesting and odd way. I’m sure these things come directly from my background as a drummer. When I’m doing something that involves an alternative technique for the guitar, the organization of my fingers and my hands feels very natural to me.
Do you practice?
No. When I’m about to go on tour, or I’m doing a gig, I’ll have rehearsals and prepare. But I have a bit of paranoia involving the possibility of injury. I’ve known many guitar players who have practiced incessantly, hunched their backs for ages and hurt themselves. There have been times when I’ve given a hug to a guitarist friend at the end of an evening, and I’ve detected that they’re wearing a back brace. I never want to encounter that problem. My dedication to music takes a different form. I don’t constantly go over the music I’m making, which comes down to my not wanting to get hurt. That may seem ridiculous to some people, and maybe it makes perfect sense to others.
What guitars do you prefer?
For acoustic guitars, it’s Ovations. I actually have my own signature model. For electrics I play mainly Hamer semi-hollow bodies—the Newport model. Hamer has been kind enough to send me three or four guitars over the years, and they’re all different, very versatile and are great to record with. I also have a [Gibson] ES-345, from 1965. The only difference between that guitar and the Hamers is that the 345 has different electronics.
What effects do you use?
When I’m playing electric I use a lot of delay, and I create swells with the volume pedal. I’ll have some reverb and the delay pedal on, and oftentimes I’ll strum a chord and use the volume pedal to create a particular sound. My rig is pretty simple. It consists of a DD3 Boss pedal, a great tremolo pedal called the Supa-Trem, an octave pedal and an OCD distortion pedal. I also have a loop pedal for randomly creating loops in the middle of songs. That’s it.
Some songs on Junior have lyrics, and some are instrumentals. Which comes easier?
The latter. There’s something about the use of words that can diminish a song. [The non-instrumental] “Sunnyside,” for instance, from the new album, is almost too personal. You write songs for yourself but when you’re putting something into the public arena you have to make decisions. In the case of “Sunnyside,” I was worried that people might think, “Oh, Kaki is having a pity party,” instead of thinking, “God, I can certainly relate to this.” It’s a tough call. Hopefully people will think “Sunnyside” is a beautiful song.
Do you view the new album as an extension of Dreaming of Revenge?
Not really. There are patterns that are similar to the last album but in terms of the way it was made and the methods we took, this album was very different from anything I’ve done before. I usually write songs for an album over a period of six or seven months before going into the studio. But this time I wrote the songs very quickly, and worked more closely with the band in the studio. I wrote all the material but the band certainly helped arrange things.
Do you want to make your mark primarily as a guitarist or as a songwriter?
I don’t know that “songwriter” or “composer” is the proper term. But there are a lot of truly great guitar players out there. And I’m not really one of those people. I play guitar in a way that caters to what I want to do, and it’s always a means to an end. But I’m not the person to hire if you want crazy, up-and-down-the-fretboard guitar solos. I’m all about my weird tunings, and my unique sort of approach.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a long tour ahead of me in the U.S. and in Europe, and I’m not looking beyond that. A lot of times it’s not up to you. You don’t always know where the music’s going to come from, or what your inspirations will be. But then again, that’s what makes this exciting.