CULTURE- INTERVIEW- Kaki's latest: Less flash, more interest
Kaki King almost seems to regret storming the acoustic guitar world the way she did in 2004. Thanks to her utterly bizarre approach to the instrument– most of her limbs were in the wrong place, as though she had spent 10 years furiously practicing before anybody had the heart to tell her she was holding the instrument incorrectly– her debut album featured pensive solo guitar arrangements ripe with unusual open-string resonances and a right hand that seemed to teleport fast enough to simultaneously cover strumming, fretboard tapping, and aggressive percussion on the face of the instrument.
Her two subsequent releases have firmly established her desire to appeal to the ears more than the eyes: that is, more compositional deliberation and fewer dropped jaws. The latest, ...Until We Felt Red, is less about the spectacle of the supernova and more about what happens in the void while waiting for the next one. But every once in a while, when you're least expecting it...
The Hook: This is a much thicker record than either of your others– more layers, drums, and now even vocals.
Kaki King: I was bored. I just wanted to do something new.
The Hook: There's also lap steel all over the place; on your last album, you used it on only one song.
Kaki King: It's really hard to play, and I finally got good enough to play it.
The Hook: Your background as a drummer obviously informs your guitar style, but do you also write the drum parts?
Kaki King: Very much so. I played all this percussion in the beginning– not a drum set. I played drum set on "Yellowcake" and "Soft Shoulder." But a lot of the other pieces, "You Don't Have To Be Afraid," I brought demos of the songs with me playing drums on them, and John polished that. The part was very specific; it's in 9/8, but you don't really feel that. It feels like an odd time signature instead of a triplet feel. It's me playing the parts, and then someone else who is a very good drummer polishing them.
The Hook: So are you learning other instruments that you think might influence your next record?
Kaki King: Nothing too solid yet, but there's always someting new to do. I'd like to do something with prepared piano, and playing inside the piano. To me it's just like a giant guitar.
The Hook: You're also touring with a keyboard player and a drummer for the first time. How does that change the calculations you're making on stage?
Kaki King: It's so different. It's really healthy for me to do it right now, because I really lost touch with playing with other people. It's helped me become a much better listener, to the degree that I sometimes forget what I'm supposed to be doing. I think ultimately we'll be able to do a lot more improvising. I don't necessarily play my songs the way they were written and recorded; I do a lot of interludes and do a lot of stuff between songs. I can't really do that anymore. However, the more you play together, the looser it can get.
The Hook: Did you improvise much during the solo days?
Kaki King: Not the jam session, really. I never was really good at noodling or listening to the same chord change, so no, it wasn't as such; it was more writing on the spot. I played a recent show in Williamsburg where I pretty much made up the whole show. It's funny, because someone told me once that improvisation was the only true test of your musicianship. I laughed at that at the time, but I realized over time that if you can be improvising and nobody realizes it and they think they just think you wrote a song, that's pretty powerful.
The Hook: But you use a lot of alternate tunings. Don't you find that disorienting? Reaching for a particular note and realizing that it's not where you thought it was?
Kaki King: Yeah, but I'm like that with standard tuning anyway– I just have a vague notion. You just do what the jazz guys do: "A half step up? That was just a little passing tone..."
The Hook: So do you think you've evolved beyond the solo record?
Kaki King: I don't know. I know it's a little pretentious, but I don't really make records for other people– and I say that with the most ultimate gratitude. People get pissed at me no matter what– "Oh, there's too much tapping," "Oh, there's not enough," "You sound too much like this guy," "You haven't found your own voice."
The one thing I did have to step back from is that the songs on these new records are very challenging. From a technical standpoint, they're hard to play– my other records had some that were easier. I had to keep myself from making these sound hard.
By definition, I'm the girl who can do all that crazy stuff. I had to let go of that label and just make something that I thought sounded beautiful. All the stuff that people think is impossible is very easy, all the tapping stuff. The stuff that slows down and is beautiful is very hard. I finally found that I wanted to do ear candy; that was the phrase I carried around with me while I was making the album.
The Hook: "Ear candy" can mean a lot of things. Could you see yourself coming at it harder from that perspective and even doing an album without the guitar?
Kaki King: No, I like the guitar and I write for it. I certainly could possibly write something on the guitar and then transcribe it for a different instrument. I don't know. There are so many options.
The Hook: But you're definitely not interested in turning the idiosyncratic Kaki technique into a calling card?
Kaki King: Well, I've only ever written about four songs like that. In the industry, if you're not an easily understood Chicken McNugget of a person with a one-line bio, if you have anything complicated about you, forget it. I hate to say this, but it's terrifically boring. It's very hard to get that style to sound like anything other than... that style. I had to keep myself interested. I have too much to say, and I can't always say it with that flashy little stupid thing.