Kaki King: Notes and Colours
Music has always been the quickest route to Kaki King’s soul.
Kaki King is a virtuosic guitarist and composer. She is admired for her skillful fingerstyle technique combined with percussive fret-tapping and slapping as well as live sound loops.
Born in 1979 in Atlanta, she began taking classical guitar lessons at age 5. She played drums in high school bands and studied music at New York University, where she rediscovered her love for guitar. She released her debut album, the solo acoustic Everybody Loves You in 2002. She switched to electric guitar and a full band for her third album Until We Felt Red (2006). In 2014 she toured the United States with a visual and music storytelling performance in which her guitar was used as a projection screen. Her eighth album, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body (2015) was released as a soundtrack to this multimedia show.
King was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2007 for co-writing the film score to Into the Wild, which also featured two of her songs. She has performed with symphonies and chamber ensembles, and recorded the album Live at Berklee (2017) in collaboration with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra.
Though she’s not part of any globe-trotting, stadium-shredding, rock band, Kaki King is one of the world’s foremost guitarists. Since her 2003 debut, her bold percussive style has expanded notions of what guitar music can both sound and look like. But given all her six-string heroics, the guitar is placed in King’s ranking of favorite instruments may come as a surprise.
Kaki King: I’d say drums, drums, drums, drums, bass guitar, bass guitar, guitar.
But as much as she enjoys playing other instruments, the guitar has been King’s most constant companion and valuable ally throughout her life and career. Take for instance, the ground-breaking 2015 multimedia performance project, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which adorns King’s music with striking imagery.
King: It’s all about allowing the guitar to tell a broader story. Now we’re telling it visually. I want to see a guitar X-ray. I want to see the guitar kind of broken up into chunks, and thrown around a bit and put back together and moved this way and that. We’re showing the inside of the guitar. We’re breaking it down, we’re pulling it apart, we’re expanding what it can be.
Such creative curiosity has driven Kaki King since childhood in suburban Atlanta, where she began taking classical guitar lessons at age five. She quickly became devoted to her craft, to the exclusion of other interests, an intensity she learned at home.
King: My generation of women, and especially growing up in the South, it was not normal for a girl to be obsessed with one thing and one thing alone, and only want to do that thing and not have a lot of friends. However, my family, because we’re a little bit different, that was fine.
King: My mother is a genius, and my mother had a physics degree by the time she was in her, I think she was 21; Master’s degree. When she went to work in the world of coding and working in physics, she was not allowed to rise. She became an activist. She became active in the woman’s movement, and that lead her to become a lawyer. So my mother has this brain that is the size of the city. There was no stereotypical ‘this-is-what-a-girl-does’ type of behavior in our household. It was a very feminist household that I was raised in.
King’s mother was deeply practical. After founding her own legal practice, she convinced her husband to become a lawyer as well. But Mr. King remained a free spirit, who delighted in his daughter’s musicality.
King: He saw that I liked music, that I was good at it at a very young age. He was never any kind of Stage Dad. He never pushed anything on me ever, but he would see me kind of gravitating towards certain things and he would go, “Hmm.” Next Christmas I got a drum set. Wasn’t told how to play it, or to play it, or anything like that. Then, “Let’s clean out that garage house that’s been doing nothing. We’ll sound-proof it, so if you want to have a band, you can have a band.” I think secretly he was like, “Please have a band.’
To her dad’s great pride, King would go on to play in numerous bands throughout high school. For the painfully shy, then still-closeted young woman, these groups offered a rare chance for social interaction.
King: It was too horrifying and scary for me to have actual real friendships, but I could be in your band, because I could speak a language with you musically that I didn’t have to then converse with you. We didn’t have to be close, but we could certainly exchange musical ideas. So I was everyone’s drummer, everyone’s bass player. Over time, the guitar became the thing I did privately.
King studied music at New York University, despite having no real plans to play professionally. On graduating in 2001, she assumed she’d return to Atlanta to start working at her parents’ law firm. But then chance intervened. Shortly after 9/11, feeling isolated and aggrieving in a frightened New York City, King brought her guitar into the subway seeking comfort. What she found was a way of life.
King: I just graduated and I also had moved to Brooklyn, away from the city where most of my friends still were. There was just these geographical, psychological, and actual physical barriers. You couldn’t travel throughout the city easily. So I was completely alone. I needed connection with humanity. I think that the appreciation people had for me at that time was really overwhelming and really wonderful. People then asked, “Do you have an album, a CD? “Can I buy one?” And I thought, well I might as well make one.
The next five years were a whirlwind for King, with appearances on late night talk shows, contracts with two different record labels, and even a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the score of the 2007 film Into the Wild. Fully consumed by this barrage of success, King’s 20s seemed to fly past. Because she was doing so well professionally, it was only in hindsight that she paused to take stalk of the personal costs.
King: I didn’t have these years where I grew a social group. I wasn’t part of a scene, I wasn’t gigging with that person, going to see that show. Because I went from a nobody, 22 year old getting out of school, dealing with a broken world, to being signed to a record label at 23. It set me apart, it was lonely. It was another shot of loneliness.
This loneliness caused King to start drinking heavily, culminating in a stay in rehab at age 31. But today she inhabits her version of herself that she says feels more whole.
King: I know myself to be myself every day. I’m very predictable. I don’t have the kind of mood swings. I don’t have the kind of substance abuse issues. I don’t wake up to a person and not know who that person’s going to be. I wake up to myself. I think that’s part of adulthood, it’s part of parenthood. I have unconditional love. I’ve never had unconditional love, ever. And feeling that for your children, and feeling the relief of yourself. I don’t need to worry about myself because I need to worry about you. Your needs, I’m going to put above mine no matter what. Everything that I go and do, and even if I’m away from you, it’s because I’m creating something or making something so that you can have a better life, or a life period, or we can keep the roof over our head. Whatever it is, it is for them. That sounds like such a burden, and such a horrible thing when you don’t have children. Then when you do, you’re like, Oh what a relief! It’s not just about me. I don’t have to worry, I’m fine. But I can give something to someone else, and I don’t need anything back.
This maternal selflessness was put to the test in 2017 when King’s three year old daughter, Cooper, was diagnosed with ITP, a rare autoimmune disorder that caused her to bruise easily and require frequent medical interventions.
King: Fortunately she never felt bad for a day. The only things that made her feel terrible was having to go to the hospital, and having transfusions and things like that. Other than that, none of her bruising was from trauma. So it wasn’t like she was being hit, it’s just simply, Oh, brush against the couch and a bruise appears. It was terrifying as a parent.
King: I was beside myself with fear.
AJC: It’s still a worry.
King: It’s still a worry, but she will, I have full confidence that her life will be very unimpacted by this, whether it goes into full remission, whether it’s acute case of it, or whether it is something that does last. ‘Cause it could.
In late 2017, in order to process and cope with the emotions surrounding her daughter’s condition, Kaki King started a collaboration with information designer Giorgia Lupi. Bruises joins her music with Lupi’s data visualizations to document Cooper’s symptoms, as well as King’s reactions to them. The work offers an intimate glimpse into King’s experiences and approach she hopes that will offer audiences the same kind of relief that music gives her on a daily basis.
King: Maybe the fact that I allow people a space to come in to a situation, to put their phone down, to watch something and hear something that’s magnificent, that gives them a release and a charge, and a catharsis that allows them to continue on. They can go back and they can continue to fight another day, maybe that’s just as important.
Today, more than three decades after she first picked up the guitar, Kaki King is still searching for ever more interesting ways to strike a chord.