Get To Know Kaki King - Sapphic Guitar Goddess
We chat guitar, gardening, and more.
Kaki King. The youngest artist, and only woman to be featured on the Rolling Stone list of ‘The New Guitar Gods’ back in 2006. Not to mention a rich career of over a decade that includes multiple albums, countless live shows, and scoring music and television alongside the likes of Eddie Vedder and Michael Brook.
Oh, and a totally Sapphic babe. Check out one of her performances, then read on to get inside her mind.
I’d like to start with a bit of a general question about your relationship with the guitar. From what I’ve listened to and read, it’s much more than an instrument you just pick up and play. What is the guitar to you?
It’s something I’ve had in my life for my entire life. It’s almost like the thing that has shaped me, defined my personality, defined my role socially and professionally. It’s a part of me and at the same time it’s something that has far more control over me than I do over it, ultimately. It’s a pretty major force, a big tool in my life that I also still love exploring, playing, writing on and seeing what it’s capable of and what’s possible.
Do you think you could have a similar relationship with a different instrument if you’d never picked up the guitar or never had the opportunity to play it? Is it music? Or is it the instrument itself.
I think it is music but I think there’s aspects to the guitar that are unique to it that other instruments don’t have. With the guitar you don’t need electricity, there’s no on-switch, it provides all its own accompaniment. It’s not heavy! It’s portable. It goes everywhere. It’s self-contained. You can make a career out of playing it alone.
When I was young I played piano, and that was my favourite thing about it. You didn’t need an orchestra or band for it to sound complete.
Yeah, which is an incredible thing about the piano, except the piano is huge! It’s not gonna go on a plane. And that’s not a which instrument is better than the other, I just think there are so many aspects to the guitar that are infinitely interesting, there are so many different types of sounds you can get, and yet you can put it on your back and go anywhere in the world with it. I think that has a lot to do with my longevity with the instrument.
What a babe.
Where did the idea of involving visuals with the Neck Is A Bridge To The Body start? Where did that come from, it’s pretty unique.
I wanted to do something with the show that had more of a lighting design element, and I didn’t know what that meant. I just wanted the stage to look a little prettier, to have some things that were visually complementary as well as musically. At that moment I’d just gone back to playing as a solo artist and being very very dedicated to the craft. 1 maybe 2 guitars on stage, the ability of my fingers to entertain people for that long. It’s such a discipline, a spiritual discipline, and so it was actually suggested to me that I explore lighting design. Through the process of researching and looking around I discovered projection mapping and how it works. It’s typically on a large architectural scale. And I thought well this is cool but how can I apply this to me, and literally the concept, the question – can I do this on the guitar?
How was it, adapting projection mapping?
Well it wasn’t really adapting it, it was more doing it to the thing I needed it done to. Then it was all of the logistical questions had to be answered. Is it affordable. Is it portable. Is it stable. Is the software and hardware and everything from the guitar stands, the computers, projectors – stable enough to not crash and screw something up for us. There was a lot to be tested before there could really be a truly creative part. But every task it got passed, it was yes. This is perfect and easy and we can substitute this complex thing for this very simple solution and once I had that in place, I knew that I had a show. My first sight of the projection mapped guitar was so beautiful I’ll never forget it. Someone put a photo of a statue of Buddha, and the guitar suddenly became something completely different. And that’s when I knew I had something amazing and unique and unlike anything else that’s out there. I had a show.
You mentioned spirituality earlier. Does that come into your music?
Uh not really, other than the truth of discipline being a sort of spiritual practice. But I don’t have much discipline in terms of the guitar, it simply is this thing that I do.
I read online that with your current show there’s a bit of a creation myth theme with the visuals. So I was gonna ask if there was a link there?
Um, no. There’s no link. There’s no god. No reason we’re here, none of that. But because I needed to start simple – and I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no way of predicting the success of the show. I wanted to build something, try something new, but I had no idea. So the most basic story to tell is the creation myth. The guitar finds itself in this sort of digital primordial soup and it is self-actualised and reveals itself, then I come on stage as the technician, the conduit for the guitar to express itself. I’m me, but in character. All I’ve ever done is what the guitar wants me to do and that’s what I’m doing but in a much more theatrical manner.
Is that why you’re wearing all white and the guitar is white as well? What are you trying to do with that imagery?
Blending in is what we’re trying to do there.
It’s a pretty interesting approach. Normally with musicians, the person is the focus and they’re using the instrument, rather than the other way round.
I mean everyone’s got their way, but yeah, this is totally flipping that narrative on its head. For me, that’s what’s always made sense. Even prior to this show I would speak about this relationship in this way. Because I’ve been playing it for so long, since I was tiny, the guitar now informs me, it directs. If I’m open and present and going along with it, allowing things to happen without judgment or commitment or care then I can really write a great song. And I don’t say it in the way that the guitar is this master and I’m merely a servant, it’s a metaphor for how things have really emerged. I let go and let the guitar lead, and wonderful things happen. If I impose my will, it’s a disaster.
On that note – how was this show evolved? You’ve been performing it for a couple years already.
The initial show was not as strong. We’ve tidied it up, tightened it up, changed a few things visually. But it remained that way until a couple years ago, Max Bernstein took over as my video control and collaborator. He really tightened the show, because he’s also a musician. We as performers made the show much more like theater, where transitions are really quick. There’s no room to process one thing, it moves seamlessly into the next thing. You can get much more lost in it. In addition, there’s much more improvisation and more live performance with both the guitar and video. So he performs with me and even though the bulk is the same, those aspects are all much more bright.
And with the customisations on your guitar, did you design them or physically alter it yourself?
The current guitar has some significant changes. The sound ports are not on the top of the guitar any longer, they’re on top of the bout, which has changed the sound a bit but has made a more seamless surface on the guitar where we can project. But that’s my signature model which I’ve had for almost a decade. They built the guitar, they prototyped it, painted it white. You know I’ve actually just dropped it off at the factory for a facelift. But really it was just me saying I think I need this and this and they’ve been very supportive and helpful.
One last question. I’ve read that you’re really into gardening. What’s the common denominator? Gardening and guitar. Is because they both start with the letter g? Is that your thing?
Yes! The letter g. That’s my thing. Where did you read that? That’s so funny.
I don’t know actually, I just googled other interviews that you’d done to see what you’d already said. I don’t even remember where I read it but you spoke at length about enjoying gardening.
Yeah! That’s so funny. I never really read interviews, I don’t know what ends up in them. I’ve actually always had a pretty serious green thumb. I live in NYC so access to the Big Nature takes more of an effort. Gardening is a tricky one. One of the things I love about nature is it never clashes. Nothing ever looks out of place because it’s simply the place in which things grow, and they grow nicely. I think in creating a false environment you have to be careful to not make it look too fake. There’s something about nurturing plants, pinching the tops of my basil as it gets too big, harvesting my herbs, worrying about my compost, cutting back vines that are choking certain trees…I think what guitar does is turns off my mind. Turns off the chatter and the noise. Gardening is the same. It’s physical enough that you don’t have enough room to have all the thoughts at once and the important things float to the surface. So, it is similar to guitar in that way. It gives my mind that quiet time.
And it’s satisfying too. You put the care in and your plants flourish, and if not, there’s a reason why, you fix it, and then they flourish.
Yeah, it is something I’ve always done. I’ve always had a fish tank, house plants, a garden, whatever. And I’m by no means an expert but I have a talent. It’s like why does this plant fade on one side of your garden and flourish on the other? They’re delicate! 30 minutes more sunlight a day and it’s doing 10 times better than the other one. There’s something about the dedication to the detail that’s interesting to me. I intend to be that 70 something-year-old lady bringing her tomato crop to the state far and win an award for the biggest pumpkin. That’s going to be me.