Kaki King: “The Guitar Shows Me Who I Am”

By Tom Moon

Friday, October 13, 2023

It was a fakeout at first. From a casual distance, Kaki King’s acoustic guitar could sound comfortably familiar. Reassuring, in that guitar-under-the-stars-at-night way. It was easy to pick up the contours of everyday guitar music—the pleasant daydreaming brush of fingers on strings, the broken-chord deliberations, the idle backdrops used by every singer-songwriter since time began.

And then, right behind that, came another: King’s sharp attack triggered jagged halos of complex chords and sideways stabs at dissonance, auras of swirled textures and notes with stray harmonics hanging in the air like meteor dust. These were arresting, intentional, vital. They registered less as “guitar music” in the Leo Kottke tradition and more like leftover stirrings from some unexplained astral event.

It was that otherness that melted the defenses of the guitar armies when King surfaced in 2003 with Everybody Loves You, after building a following by busking on subways in New York. Here was a woman, playing solo, seizing on insistent rhythms and making melodies from them, unspooling smart etude-like pieces that channeled the intricacies of finger-picking legends and also the drones of Windham Hill etherealists. She had just the guitar, no space station effect-pedal array at her feet. It turned out that was all she needed.

Photo Credit: Jill Steinberg

Since then, King has traveled down many roads—touring with a band, creating shows with elaborate visuals. Still, she says that whenever she begins composing for a new project, or needs a creative reset, she immediately seeks out her guitar and the solitude of a quiet room.

That’s precisely the setting for King’s October 1st solo performance at National Sawdust and a string of other appearances that will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her radical, galvanic debut. Calling the solo setting both a “birthing ground” and a “proving ground,” the guitarist and composer says she’s been methodical about preparing for these shows because no matter how many times she’s done it, the act of performing solo is a supreme challenge.

“It’s completely naked,” King says. “There’s no rhythm section to kick things higher. No loop to play against. Everything is on me…..There’s not a harder thing, not a higher peak to climb. That’s the hardest show I’ll ever do.”

That’s one reason King likes it. Another: The guitar is her foundation. And another: It’s also her enduring obsession. “100 percent from the bottom of my heart, guitar is the starting point for me,” she says. “No matter where the music goes eventually, the writing always starts on acoustic guitar. The guitar centers everything—it has its own personality, has its own way of doing things. The guitar shows me who I am.”

King began playing the guitar at age 4, then migrated to drums. When she arrived at NYU in 1988, she picked up guitar again and studied fingerstyle. That led to occasional solo gigs, and her sojourns on the L train and other subway lines. Passengers responded to her meditative style, which incorporates fret tapping and flamenco-style percussion on the guitar’s soundbox.

After 9/11, there were requests for CDs. As King recalls, “I realized I could make money, and that prompted me to put together a collection of demos to sell on the subway.”

These brought King to the attention of record labels. She remembers a conversation after she was signed to her first contract. “I asked when the recording session would be, and they held up my demo and said ‘This is the record.’ I had all the possible reactions to that—I remember being upset about a few fret squeaks and things I messed up. It was a hard-won lesson for me to not be so precious about it. I mean, I was just a kid who had no idea about the music business. Took a while to learn that I cannot keep this if I don’t give it away.”

Photo Credit: Jill Steinberg

Word about Everybody Loves You traveled rapidly. Many of us in music journalism were transfixed by King’s inclusive approach, which updates traditional folk fingerstyle techniques with intricate polyrhythmic lines and extravagantly broken chords. Her compositions gathered up and recontextualized familiar guitar devices, creating something profoundly original. She linked the expansive beauty of open voicings à la Michael Hedges to the hypnotic repetitions of shoegaze, interrupted crisp bossa nova chording with wicked slapped bass lines, stretched basic rhythm-guitar rock into enveloping ambient textures. None of the usual descriptors affixed to solo-guitar works quite caught what was going on within the suite-like “Fortuna” or “Night After Sidewalk.” Yes, King conjured sweeping ambient textures—but only sometimes. Yes there was some jazz-fusion metric upheaval in her game—but again, not throughout the record. 

Around this time, before King’s second record Legs To Make Us Longer (2004), Rolling Stone called King “a genre unto herself.” This is more than high praise—it’s one indication of the changes roiling music just before digital streaming took off. King arrived at a moment when the deeply entrenched categorical distinctions between genres and styles were beginning to erode—she was among the unclassifiable whose work rendered classification meaningless. Musicians who’d previously stuck to a well-defined lane were stretching out and experimenting, without paying much attention to the considerations of marketing. There was suddenly room in the large tent of popular music for artists whose work straddled several previously disconnected realms, or seemed to come from a new realm entirely.

Photo Credit: Jill Steinberg

King was one of them. She’s remained defiantly restless in her work ever since—subsequent albums found her writing deeply personal songs with words, and collaborating with iconoclasts who share her reverence for sound and texture, among them Dave Grohl, David Torn, and Malcolm Burn. (Grohl told the British music magazine NME, “There are some guitar players that are good and there are some guitar players that are really fucking good. And then there's Kaki King.”) She’s developed strikingly visual solo-performance shows, including the multimedia work The Neck Is a Bridge To the Body, and been recognized for film scoring work—alongside Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and guitarist Michael Brook, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for Into The Wild (2007).

Looking back, she sees her debut as part of that (long-term, still ongoing) genre dissolution, but is quick to add that she was uncomfortable about some of the media portrayals. “A lot of people were saying I’d done something innovative,” King recalls, taking exception. “I would say: I’ve creatively ripped off my heroes. I’ve followed in certain footsteps and somewhere along the way made [what I learned] into my ‘voice.’”

About Tom Moon

Tom Moon has been writing about rock, pop, jazz, blues, soul, R&B, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. A trained musician, he is the author of the New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (Workman Publishing), and publishes a newsletter called Echo Locator, devoted to nearly vanished sounds and musical ideas, via Substack. His record reviews were heard regularly on NPR’s All Things Considered for 20 years, and his writing has been published in Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Musician, The New York Times, among others. Moon returned to active music-making in 2012; his five-piece samba/jazz band, Ensemble Novo, performs regularly in the Philadelphia area.