Talking With Kaki King

When you can do something as well as Kaki King can play a guitar, there's just no telling where it might take you. With her latest album, she's found yet another new way to do what she always seems to do -- to find great music in a guitar and play it like very, very few people can. This time, though, there's something else. Her latest album isn't just an album, it's also a carefully imagined multimedia performance. In The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, King makes her way calmly through eleven tracks of showcase quality composition, but for those who see her perform it live, there's even more. On stage, all of it is framed in additional new dimensions of light, projection and picture. (from Johnny Nevin's story at The Huffington Post)

Johnny Nevin's story Light in the Music and Music in Light, Kaki King's Off on a New Adventure appears this week in The Huffington Post, but there was much more that Kaki King had to say about the project when Johnny spoke with her about it. Here are some excerpts from their conversation …

Johnny: How did you come to this musically? I get the impression from what I've read that it's definitely part of a journey.

Kaki King: Well, the music and the visuals, they can't really be separated, I mean I can't tell one story without telling the other. But about the record, I had this idea in my head to create a projection-mapped guitar show, and then I would write music. It would just be solo guitar. I would send some demos, to the collaborators, and they would send stuff back to me. You know, sometimes just internet photos, like do you like A or B? Or, which look are you trying to go for more? Like, is it this sort of flashy thing, or this puffy thing? Then they would supply me with the visual imagery that they were thinking about. Then, because I then had this new imagery coming at me I would write music to fit that — I would shape the music I had already written to fit in more.

So I'd be like, well this is great but it really needs a pedal that does like a wah effect with a delay, so that the music sort of looks and sounds more like this globulous mass. That's kind of how it worked. It was really, and still today is a constant back and forth. I'm able to change a lot, I'm able to change the music, I'm able to change the visuals, in most circumstances one or the other, and so I'm still looking and I'm still listening. I'm still adjusting to kind of make it fit as well as I can.

Photos by Johnny Nevin

Johnny: That was especially interesting because it was quite a surprise. I had no idea that you wrote it, first of all, with the idea of the visual process …

Kaki King: Well it was simultaneous, nothing happened without the other part happening, so there wasn't like 'let's write the music and then put the visuals together, it was all coming together at the same time.

Johnny: I've listened to the album many times, and I had no idea of that, because musically, it feels like a musical record that was written without the visuals.

Kaki King: Well I'm glad that you thought that. People use every kind of influence to make albums, it can be a break-up or a concept record or something. I think for me it was just the whole concept of the show. I did my best when I made the album to make it worthwhile, I wanted to make sure people would get it and listen to it and think 'Okay, I really like this, this sounds complete'. There are some things that got added, like the string quartet, and a lot of the percussion and horns that couldn't have been replicated live with just me, but I knew that they really needed to be on the album to round it out, and not have it be one half of a larger project. So I guess you're hearing the result of me filling in the gaps, because I knew people would be listening to it without seeing everything, so I wanted the experience to be as complete as possible.

Johnny: You know what it reminds me of a little, it reminds me of writing for choreography.

Kaki King: Interesting …

Johnny: That's something that I got into, as my record production led me into doing a lot of work with choreographers, and then later on they started asking me to compose original things for them. The way you describe working with the light really reminds me of that process. It almost seems like you were composing for a choreographic piece that was made out of light.

Kaki King: Interesting, I really appreciate that take on it.

Kaki King (Photo by Johnny Nevin)

Johnny: Musically, is this something you saw as a place you wanted to go, exploring different sides of the instrument? Was there any of that, or was it all about just this project, let's make this beautiful for what it is?

Kaki King: Well for me, the biggest change musically was that in the past if I had been playing electric guitar with a band, very atmospheric crazy stuff, you know I would add a lot of effects, and I would have a lot of pedals. M y pedal rig was kind of set up for a lap steel or electric guitar, but really intended to be used with a lot of other instrumentation accompanying it. Then with this show, I decided to take the pedal board and join it with the acoustic guitar, which I've never actually done before. I know that sounds kind of crazy.

Johnny: Yeah, that's surprising …

Kaki King: Yeah, I think that there was something to me that was very pure. For many years I was playing either solo acoustic guitar, and there are no frills, and I am under the microscope, and I'm almost like a martial artist trying to perform at their very most concentrated, peak performance. And then the flip side was that when I'd play with a band, and I'd sing and I'd rock out and I'd have a lot of fun. It was kind of that the acoustic guitar is like sacred, and I decided to break that sacredness. I decided to put together a brand new pedal board, with lots of different effects.

But again, it was that the visuals were speaking to me, they were saying 'you're not going to be able to pull this off with just one guitar and no other sounds. You really, really need to let go of that, and don't worry, we're still going to like you as a guitar player'. So I decided to experiment, to see what happens when you put delay on the guitar, or distortion on an acoustic guitar, or all the weird effects that I have. It worked out really beautifully, and I'm glad that I did it.

Johnny: And one of the things that I couldn't tell listening, which is a compliment, is how much it's layered. I couldn't tell if it's mostly like multi, multi layers of acoustic guitar with different effects? How did you actually put it together?

Kaki King: Well the album was pretty basic. Every guitar, every song on there kind of exists in its very boiled down form on just the acoustic guitar. So I was able to create the demo track, the skeleton, the nuts and bolts, and then fill in around that. So a song like "Notes and Colors", well live, you really only hear just me playing the guitar. The guitar is actually set up with MIDI software, but you don't hear anything MIDI, you are triggering videos via MIDI notes.

Johnny: So then what the MIDI Mapper software do?

Kaki King: Mad Mapper is how we create the outline of the guitar, so that when we focus light on it you only see the guitar and nothing else. That's like the end of the process, the digital stencil that you shine the light through.

Johnny: I was wondering about that the whole show …

Kaki King: Yeah, it's called projection mapping, and you see it a lot on large scales, where people do it on the sides of buildings, or big walls, or big installations that are really popular in the EDM world right now. But for me, I saw it and I thought, 'oh great, let me do that on my guitar, do it on a small, intimate scale'.

Johnny: Yeah, it was really cool too.

Kaki King: Good, glad you liked it!

Kaki King (Photo by Johnny Nevin)

Johnny: I was really interested in what you were saying, that each of the tracks actually exists as, you could sit down and play the whole album on your solo acoustic …

Kaki King: Yeah, and I think that some of them would be really great. I think a song like "Surface Changes" or "Anthropomorph" or maybe even "Ooblek", they can completely just be simple guitar songs, but with the album, if I'm enhancing something with so much visual stuff, I want to enhance it musically too.

Johnny: It definitely progresses, the album order really seems to have been an important factor. Was it in you thinking?

Kaki King: Well the album order follows the script. You might not have realized this, and there's no need to, but the reason that the show feels like there's a beginning, a middle, an end, a journey — something happens, it changes, things emerge, and there's a catharsis at the end — is because I wrote a script. The guitar goes on a journey, and all the pieces are about the guitar, or music, or something, emerging — learning about itself, learning about its higher self. It's very vague and abstract, and I would never expect anyone to pinpoint exactly what I was doing, but it was necessary for the story line to feel like a story line. So it's not just random videos with random music. Even though it's totally abstract, instrumental guitar, I think that there is an emotional arc to it perhaps, where the beginning feels very much like a beginning, like 'What's going to happen?', sort of a place of possibilities. And by the time you're at the end, you've gone through so many different sounds and ideas and motions and feelings that the end feels like a very final, serene ending.

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