Kaki King is a guitarist who bypasses the limitations of her instrument. The Brooklyn via Atlanta based artist exhibits an incredible approach to the six-string while making sounds that only she can create. There’s a reason why she was considered one of Rolling Stone’s “New Guitar Gods” back in 2006 alongside Derek Trucks from The Allman Brothers Band and The Tedeschi Trucks Band, John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a few others. While being in the exclusive group, she exceeds her contemporaries in innovation and vision. As part of the University Of Rhode Island’s Guitar Festival on Oct. 17, King will be conducting a workshop in Room 101 at 9 a.m. at the University Club on 95 Upper College Road in Kingston and then she’ll be performing that night at 7 p.m. as part of the Awards Ceremony happening at the University’s Fine Arts Center.
King and I had a talk ahead of the festival about choosing the guitar over drums, her intriguing technique, what inspires her to play the way she does and a stage show that she’s been working on.
Rob Duguay: You both started playing the guitar and drums at a very young age and then by the time you started attending New York University you focused more on guitar. What made you want to make that shift between the two instruments?
Kaki King: I think the guitar was holding me together privately while drums was something I did more publicly and socially. I just continued to improve my guitar skills while being a drummer and I had this drive for wanting to be a really good drummer but guitar was just compelling and pulling me in that direction as it does. It was much easier to do something alone as a guitarist than it was alone as a drummer.
RD: I could see that, that’s completely understandable. Around that same time you were busking a lot in the New York City subways. How would you describe that experience? Did you meet a lot of different characters or did you just perform while not paying attention to the people around you?
KK: I started performing relatively soon after 9/11 and in large part due to 9/11. Not exactly in a parallel way to COVID-19, but it was a huge trauma that had happened to the city and it wasn’t like you could just go out and get a job or find people to hang out with. Life as we knew it was completely changed, so to have some kind of connection with people and also make some money, which I needed and didn’t have any of, I started playing the subways. As far as meeting characters, of course there’s always someone who has the time to sit down, let the trains go by and watch you but for the most part subways are where people catch trains and they’re going places. It’s a pass-through.
RD: You have a very unique approach to playing guitar that incorporates fret-tapping and slap bass into the fingerstyle technique. What would you say inspired this approach? Was it a few specific musicians or did you just want to do something different with the guitar?
KK: Well, I’ve seen people do it before so that’s why I wanted to do it. Watching musicians like Preston Reed and Michael Hedges made it compelling and interesting to me by using the whole animal, so to speak, through the guitar and creating sounds that people wouldn’t necessarily expect. I think that created this ethos for me that’s far beyond technique, it’s just pushing the guitar past its logical boundaries and seeing what else it can be.
RD: From what I’ve seen, you definitely pull that off. With the tapping and the slapping, I’ve even seen you do it with the body of the guitar while incorporating the fingerstyle technique. How much does it take for you to get this down where it’s part of a rhythm for you? How difficult was it at first to master your own technique?
KK: You’re not really mastering anything, you’re just developing. I recorded my first album when I was 21 and I had written some of the songs for it as early as 19. I had a good six year stretch of being a very lonely teenager while just playing guitar all the time, learning things and experiencing things. I didn’t play out as a kid so I didn’t know the consequences of what I was doing or the musical consequences of what I was looking at. I just kept going “Oh, that sounds cool” or “I like this style” but I do remember a manager very early on who I worked with for a very long time saying “What are you going to do? Get better at guitar?” and I thought that was a weird thing to say to a 23 year old.
My response was “Well, I just want to be a good writer” because all the technique isn’t worth anything unless the composition works. If it doesn’t then all the technique is doing is disturbing the composition.
RD: You need to have substance. Without substance you don’t really have music when it comes to a song. Your most recent album, Modern Yesterdays, that came out nearly a year ago in October of 2020, was your first record to be done almost entirely with an acoustic guitar. How would you describe the experience of making the album?
KK: It was great. I had a set of songs that I thought were pretty good and I worked with a sound design team of Chloe Thompson and Arjan Miranda. Chloe had worked with me on a more recent stage show that we put together called Data Not Found so she was the sound designer for that as well. The music from Modern Yesterdays comes from that show so she was already familiar with the tunes while breaking them up and adding her own sound design, she’s a genius. For me, it was about getting into the studio, playing clean versions of the songs and then turning it over to Chloe and Arjan to create this really amazing soundscape that you hear throughout the album. In a lot of ways it was quite simple in terms of what my role was.
RD: What do you have planned as part of the upcoming University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival and what are your plans for the next few months? Can we expect a follow up to Modern Yesterdays?
KK: To answer your first question, luckily I have been playing more shows recently so as opposed to during the pandemic when my playing was super rusty and everything I did was unbearable to be honest I feel great about playing again. I feel like I have it back in my bones which is a really nice feeling when you’ve done something your whole life and you’re enjoying it. I’m going to play a mix of old stuff, some newer stuff and things that maybe I haven’t played much at all in the past. I’m really going to try to do my best, we all lost something as musicians during the pandemic and for most it was in their livelihood but for me it was the joy. I’m going to focus on recapturing that joy and expressing myself through guitar in the best way that I can.
For the second question, I have developed a new stage show that is also called Modern Yesterdays that really focuses on the record. It’s kind of a companion piece to Data Not Found and everything is starting to get connected in my world. That show incorporates all of the projection mapping on the guitar, triggering sounds, triggering videos along with a drum and everything is sort of connected to itself. This means that the drum controls the light on the guitar and the guitar controls the sample you hear on the drum, it’s pretty tech heavy. Right now I’m in the process of figuring out how to make all of that into beautiful art.
I also have a show that will be on stage in Nashville and in Memphis in November called “Say” and that’s going to involve 16 guitars on stage while having a choreographed dance around the guitars that creates the music of the show. It’s pretty interesting.
RD: Sounds like it.
KK: It’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done so far and it’s really pushing the boundaries. It’s a pretty cool, creative time and I’m looking forward to starting these live shows and hopefully I’ll be able to continually perform for a while, we shall see.