Kaki King knows she’s a damn good acoustic guitar player, and guitar playing is exactly where the pick stops for her.
“It’s weird, I like to sing and I like to do karaoke,” Kaki says in a voice that emits a small splash of sassiness to complement her tiny, five-foot frame. “If I wanted to do the singer-songwriter thing, I might as well quit. I’m trying to tell a story with just a song.”
And those instrumental passages spoke volumes as the past two years proved to be a concise breakthrough for this 24-year-old burgeoning star. Graduating from playing subway tunnels shortly after September 11th, she quickly moved on to the cozy confines of New York City clubs, and eventually earned opening slots for Soulive, Mike Gordon, Charlie Hunter, Marianne Faithful, David Lindley, and the Flaming Lips. And even garnered a set at the Bonnaroo Festival, followed by an invite to be the musical guest on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” this past autumn – quite a year indeed.
Last year, Kaki recorded a collection of songs she had written back in her college years – entitled Everybody Loves You. Self-described as “a compilation of different musical thoughts I had while trying to mess up everyone’s idea of how the guitar is played, ” it becomes quickly evident that conjuring people’s association with the guitar is just what she accomplishes in a live setting.
On stage, sitting in a humble chair next to a tiffany lamp which rests atop a rustic stool, her music dictates a welcoming aroma. An invitation to take comfort in her company, allowing one to fully ingest, using all of the senses, something absolutely original – making a Kaki King performance a worthwhile time sake. Her listeners, fitting no specific genre box, stare intently at this small, yet musically outspoken musician, as she doses the theater with a variety of slap-happy melodies.
“That’s the most new-agey thing you’ll hear tonight, so I hope you enjoyed it. The rest will be hip-hop,” she jokes after playing the meditative number “Carmine St.” Despite her delicate and nimble technique (which she credits to pre-show jumping jacks and push-ups) along with a style that might draw technical guru’s to dissect her approach, Kaki would appreciate diversity over genre explicit ears.
“Unfortunately, if either of those audiences are there to see new-age music or if they are there to see technical music that I would tell them to go home,” Kaki says. “What I want to do is move people, freak them out, and make them cry. I’m not going to do it through pretty guitar sounds, and I’m not going to do it through technique. It’s going to happen, if at all, through composition…that’s what I’m struggling with, to write beautiful compositions that last beyond the technical or beautiful sound to them.”
Due to her appearance at Bonnaroo as well as shows opening for many “jam” friendly acts over the past year, like Soulive, the Slip, and Mike Gordon, Kaki is proud to have the younger, adventurous group on her side, explaining, “it’s good, although it’s not what I’m about, or the music I relate to, but it’s a group of people who are just down, and can freak out to almost anything.”
Developing a “can you top this” book of unorthodox guitar techniques and altered tunings, she is quickly redefining the way we listen to and generally perceive acoustic guitar. Although her primary influences involve six-string acoustic honchos, Leo Kottke, Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, and Preston Reed, the primarily self-taught King is the first to admit what she’s doing isn’t absolutely unique.
“I didn’t develop my own style, I learned from other people, listening to their records – Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges. I think I’m at the stage now, where I’m really trying to find my own voice. There’s certain records that you put on and it just sounds like that guitar player. I’m still in the ‘sounds like’ phase, even though a lot of people haven’t heard of these other players.”
Guitar is rarely considered a solo instrument, you have classical and flamenco guitar, alongside finger picking and folk. But it’s a style that she became comfortable pursuing upon meeting Reed at the 1998 Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina. And so, began a style that King has used to transform herself into a prodigy by performing “backwards” from the stuffy techniques found in your common “how to” book or instructor’s lesson plan. Similar to playing the piano, Kaki places her left hand over the neck, so her middle three fingers can top out lines on the strings, freeing her right hand to continuously finger pick or move onto the neck and tap out its own lines.
By incorporating altered tunings into her repertoire, in echo of British pop bands like Smiths and Blur, the Kaki King style moved forward with a distinguished signature. On “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” she performed, “Close You Eyes & You’ll Burst Into Flames,” a song that nearly does just that, a string tapping fiesta, never losing its harmony, building up into a gregarious collective “wow!”
Tonight, when she concludes the same song, she proudly reminds the audinece, “I did that song on Conan O’Brien.” A grand achievement for someone who just a couple years ago, was over-indulged at having her own night at the jazzy Knitting Factory in New York City.
“Did you like it?” asks a curious audience member, in retort to Kaki’s remark about her national television debut.
Kaki reflects upon the experience, verbalizing about the appearance happening too fast to fully comprehend the illustrious opportunity. Although if 2003 is a harbinger, there will be many more moments for Kaki in the limelight. Much like her playing style, everything has indeed happened so undeniably fast.
“I was on the road all year long and I finally got off. I came home and looked around at my crappy apartment and there was stuff everywhere, “Kaki explains about 2003. “What is so weird is, if I wanted this when I was a little kid, and I was a singer and it happened, it would be totally different. But it’s like all I really wanted was to play guitar and I still want that. I haven’t really totally admitted to myself that I am a musician and this is my life now.”
Sometimes that sense of innocence makes all the difference.