Catching Up With Kaki King

Music Features Kaki King
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Kaki King is back in a huge way. Although it might come as a surprise to you, the guitarist—who is best known for her percussive, virtuosic take on the instrument—recently came to a crossroads with the guitar. It started after winding down tour after tour behind her last studio album, Junior, and a solo-guitar tour dubbed The Traveling Freak Guitar Show, which featured King performing with a grab-bag of unique six-(or more) strings.

After all, King had been playing guitar since she was a child, and it was time for her to reevaluate how the fretted instrument would fit into her life. Luckily for us, King took to the studio to record Glow, this time with the string quartet ETHEL and producer D. James Goodwin, to create an album that is melodic and technical as it is layered and spatial. After all of this, you’d think the release of Glow is the biggest thing going on for King in early October, but as we learned last week, her life changed in a huge way. The guitarist announced that she married girlfriend Jessica Templin (now King) last Friday.

Paste: You’ve been quoted saying that with the guitar you’re able to “shine for yourself without any doubts,” is that where the title Glow came from?
King: It did not. But, I can tell you where it came from. I definitely associate music with color. For example, my first record has a red cover but it is totally green and blue to me. So, it’s not very direct but I’ll think things like “that song’s orange” or something like that. So I was trying to figure out the color of this record. And I don’t really tell to many people what colors I think songs are, but there is just so much color on this record that I couldn’t really define it. There are just so many different things happening. So, in going back to it, it isn’t really like a shine or a day-glow but just like a lamp going on behind a curtain. Something that just encompasses all colors that is sort of subtle and mysterious at the same time. So, that’s where Glow comes from.

Paste: Have you always visualized music with colors?
King: No, well it’s not like I try, you know? It’s just how it is. It’s the same for me with numbers. Like, four is just yellow to me and it would be weird to me if it were not. And songs are the same way. It’s never been something I need to think about.

Paste: Definitely, and in looking back it does seem like there is a very distinct color to all of your album covers.
King: Yeah, but I don’t ever feel like I really try to connect the two. But I remember I was upset when we had that photo for the first record and it was so perfect as a photo. But, it just wasn’t right for the album, and that’s just me.

Paste: Before Glow, you’ve said you didn’t know if you wanted to keep going forward with music. Where you wanted to go from there if it wasn’t going to be music?
King: What was I thinking? Meteorology (laughs). I mean, something that was certainly more academic or even scientific. I certainly wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ll start a bakery.’ I was thinking of something that would involve an amount of study, I suppose. And research.

Paste: Was there something on the music side that you were feeling unfulfilled about or did you just want to explore new things?
King: You know, music has never let me down, but you certainly come to a point in your life when you go, ‘Okay, I’m thirty, I didn’t die, and I’ve been playing guitar for 29 years.’ And, you know, you only live once, and I feel like no matter what was happening with my career, it was just a very natural time to sort of go, ‘I know this very well, is there something else that I need to do, or is this what I’m gonna do?’ And, the answer became pretty clear after a while, but there are parts of this job that getting pretty boring.

Paste: Was there a moment you knew you had to recommit to the guitar?
King: Moments like that are truly rare in life. It really takes many of those moments to really make a difference. But, you know, I did a lot of solo touring, and I didn’t do a ton of press about it. It was more just being on the road with the guitar and just continuing the exploration without doing anything right away. But, certainly in the back of my mind was, ‘what more can we really do?’ And the guitar is a place of endless possibility, it really is. And I actually learned that fact and had to reconnect with it.

Paste: On the new album you picked up some new instruments. One of them was a high-wound twelve string, and if I’m understanding it right it’s where you use a lower gauge so you can tune it up an octave, is that how it works?
King: Yeah, you use layered strings and everything about it is still grounded in traditional guitar. You still play it the same way but it does have a magic to it that is totally different and really inspiring.

Paste: Is that something you’ve had for a while and just recently picked up?
King: Yeah, well getting that guitar is part of the whole process. I ended up going back on the road and I wanted to do something I called a “Freak Guitar Show.” I wanted to be on the road and have something new without a record. So I had a harp guitar, banjos, all of this stuff and I played one years back and I thought, ‘I really need to get my hands on that guitar.’ So I had all of these different guitars and that one just kept coming up as one that was just so good. It really wrote songs by itself. So, that guitar really stuck.

Paste: There is a quote in regards to the new record where you question feeling inspired and having a “normal life” at the same time. “How am I going to have a normal life? How am I going to be an adult and still write good music?”
King: You get to a point where the kind of beautiful chaos can’t really fuel your creative existence any longer because it’s not stable, however amazing and exciting it may be. The things that would sort of fuel me creatively were getting to the point where either they weren’t healthy or they weren’t something I wanted. And that’s anything from relationships to drinking too much or whatever. And so it was this sort of moment where I said, ‘Okay, well how can I continue to be a creative individual and in every respect, basically be boring?’ (Laughs). And I don’t think my life is boring at all, but I think that I’ve been able to confront that. And something that I haven’t told anybody yet is that I am getting married on Friday. I haven’t made it public because we’re not having some big thing but that is definitely part of it. That was part of that statement. It’s nice to have a stable relationship where there’s no fighting or chaos, and all that stuff that you write songs about. And you really can’t just hop into these places of creative streaks that have nothing to do with your external condition.

Paste: Well, congratulations. With the album and marriage, this is a huge week for you.
King: It is a fucking huge week, man! (Laughs). It’s great though; I mean I wanted to do it before I went on tour otherwise I’d just be so itchy and antsy just to get home so I could get married and all that.

Paste: Is your wife going to join you on tour?
King: She will come out a couple times. Yeah, we won’t go more than a week without seeing each other.

Paste: So, in taking out tumultuous things in your life like that, do you think in a way you could have been instead inspired by having these confusing feelings about playing guitar? Sort of like coming back from a breakup with it?
King: Kind of, yeah. And I don’t even know if ‘breakup’ is the right word. It’s almost like reuniting with your twin. And it is so absolutely integrated into my identity. And that can be difficult. For a while, things can get a little bit weird as a guitar player. You think, ‘Okay so I am a little bit more than that.’ You know, not much, but yes, ‘I have other features.’ And it’s just like any other relationship. You know, artists go on crazy trips all the time. But for me, this was really more like, ‘I only get one shot on this planet, what do I need to do with my time?’ I had been playing guitar for years and it wasn’t about some external pressure. It was really me just going, ‘Seriously?’ Like, you can always play guitar but you could go back to school and do something else. But, at the end of the day, I don’t want to do anything else. This is what I want to be doing.

Paste: You’ve always been known for your technical skill, what do you think was the hardest song on here to perform or compose?
King: “The Fire Eater” was definitely it. The last section probably sounds the most intricate and difficult, but this middle section requires a level of stamina that I don’t have every day. It’s just really, really, really intense for both the right and left hand. I would say, “Kelvinator, Kelvinator” has got some pretty tricky moves that I have to be really on point with. But, once I have the muscle memory going it’s a lot easier just to go through it. But for, “No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Complete,” I wrote the outline for it and I saying to myself, ‘Well, I’m kind of writing a fairly basic and straightforward guitar piece that’s nothing too special.’ And then I really started to fill in the blanks and it is just a very hard song to pull off. So, it’s a song that I’m currently rehearsing to try and get it back down for the road.

Paste: So you worked with both Ethel and then James the producer on this record. Do you think they sort of reinforced a positive experience that made you happy about returning to guitar?
King: Oh yeah, totally. I mean the Ethel thing was brilliantly timed out of pure coincidence. We intended to tour together in the distant future even though you can’t really arrange that much in advance. And for them to come to me and going, ‘Do you want to tour together in 2014?’ And me going, ‘Yes, but do you want to play on my record tomorrow?’ That is totally how it went down, which was incredible. But really working with them was perfect because out of the blue I managed to find someone that just thought very much like the way I do. I’ve had great producers before where I absolutely cannot come to agree with them, but this time around we never fought. This was just literally like an extension of my brain. And the result was that we got the record done in a beautifully pleasing amount of time. I think from the first phone call that I made to him, all the way to mastering was maybe a month. Which, you know for a record that at the time had eight demos, to be mastered in a month is a very productive time period. And, considering we had strings and bagpipes—it’s a full record. And to be able to do that without any headache was great.