The Fearless Kaki King

A virtuoso embraces the weirdness of of stringed instruments

Mar 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm


all Kaki King a guitar god. It’s OK — Rolling Stone did. To her, it’s a compliment, though she’s not entirely sure what to make of such a lofty tag.

“What does that even mean?” she asks.

She thinks about it for a second as we finish up our phone interview, conducted while she rides in a van headed to Portland.

“When someone says you’re a ‘Guitar This’ or a ‘Guitar Warrior Princess,’ ” the 31-year-old Georgia native says, “it means that someone had something nice to say and didn’t really know how to say it. I take it as a compliment and walk away from it.

“There have been lots of wonderful things said about me that I truly appreciate and don’t take for granted,” she adds. “However, it’s not easy to do this, to play guitar. Guitar involves more effort — even on a more philosophical level — than the instant accessibility of a drum stick on a cymbal or a finger on a piano key. (To play guitar you have) to commit a little bit more.”

“Committed” is probably the best word to describe King. She hit the scene in 2001 as an experimental guitarist and has since released a steady stream of records layered more often than not with circular, echo-filled riffs, lines that ebb and flow with counter-rhythmic harmonies and atmospheres. They’re Indie Rock-lite compositions piercing the clouds, touching the sun and riding the rays of sunlight back to King’s personal life, equal parts bright and gloomy.

Just listen to Junior, her latest record. As we chat about it, she doesn’t hide the fact that album-closer “Sunnyside” chronicles a relationship gone out of tune. It’s one of a few tracks where King pairs her breathy vocals with her six/seven-string stylings, singing, “I wanted to be tangled up/In someone long and blonde/So honest, in my belief/That nothing would go wrong.”

“The narrator is me and everything that (happens in the song) is really true,” King says. “Even the wiener dog is true.”

You can call King “cinematic,” too. She was a stand-in for lead character Evan Taylor in the 2007 film August Rush, about a boy with an innate skill for music. Those are her hands dancing (and sometime slam-dancing) across his guitar fretboard. It’s one of many accomplishments for King, who also worked with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the Into the Wild soundtrack.

With all of her accomplishments, she has started combating another label — “the girl who taps on the guitar,” referring to her two-handed “tapping” technique.

“Right now I’m learning more about myself, about my body, about what I can do and what I can’t,” she says. “Guitar was popularized in the 20th century and there is so much language in the guitar that you can learn it for the rest of your life and you’ll never learn half the styles that are out there. It’s a beautiful thing.”

On this spring’s solo tour, she considers herself a student again.

“It’s a discipline, I suppose,” she says, pausing to muse the idea. “You limit yourself to this one instrument and then you open up as many things as you can with it, but there are many sounds you hear that you can’t create.”

On any given night of the tour, you’ll find King noodling around with her “sea of ghitarz,” which includes a harp guitar, seven-string fanned fret guitar and her prized “freak,” an Ovation six-string. Which is her favorite?

“Actually, I think the seven-string,” she says, laughing. “The frets aren’t up and down; they slant and they change.”

The guitar’s setup makes for some interesting onstage moments, she says.

“Think of it in ergonomic terms — at the bottom of the neck, your left hand is pointed away from you, then, as you move your hand up, your hand and wrist position become vertical,” she says. “And then when you (move) toward the body of the guitar, your hand is pointed to the body and the frets spread out in a fan pattern. It just looks crazy. I look down and I get vertigo, almost.”

King likes to experiment with funky guitars like the seven-string, even if she screws up live. She likes to be transparent in her stagecraft and never shies from experimenting onstage.

“It’s better for me and it’s better for the audience if I try and really push myself,” King says. “If I get up there and I really don’t know how to play harp guitar, well, I’m just going to figure it out. The only way to do that is to go on the road with it.

“It’s not really going backwards for me,” she adds. “You have to throw out all of what you know as a guitar player when you play these.”

KAKI KING performs Monday at the Southgate House with Washington. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.