Kaki King Discusses Soul Behind “Bridge to the Body”

Ms. Kaki King, photo © Shervin Lainez.

Sun. 3-1-15, Columbus Theatre, Providence, RI. Doors @ 7. $20 adv. $25 at door
Tues, 3-3-15, Brighton Music Hall, Allston, MA. Doors @ 8. $15 adv.

Atlanta-born Katherine “Kaki” King picked up the guitar at the age of four; now, at 35, she’s embarking upon a tour that incorporates a synchronized light display by Glowing Pictures. Entitled “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body,” Kaki’s new work crosses the threshold of performance art: the guitar doubling as a living, almost breathing visual art piece. The Kickstarter to fund the project collected $43K of a $25K initially asked for. Ms. King graciously gave us a few for a phone interview describing her young musical life, and the new, ambitious project.

Ravings: I understand you were musically inclined from a young age. When did you pick up the guitar?
Kaki King: My parents wanted me to take lessons of some sort, and I started on guitar when I was four or five. I don’t really have a memory of not knowing how to play guitar, so it’s been part of my life since an early age.

RM: What did you listen to as a kid? I don’t think they had the “Kidz Bop” music when you were young.
KK: Yeah, I know! My father is such a huge lover of music. We listen to everything, lots and lots of jazz and rock, and pretty much whatever was happening at the time, [including] terrible, terrible pop stuff that unfortunately was part of the 80s soundtrack as well. There was a record label called Windham Hill from the early 80s. It’s sort of new-age, spiritualism movement which really was getting into full tilt. Some of that music’s really bad, but the founder of that record label, Will Ackerman, he is a fantastic guitar player, and there’s several really, really unbelievably talented, beautiful guitar players on that label, like Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi. That was my first foray into the alternative guitar world that became interesting to me once I became old enough to make my own choices.

RM:You mention on your Kickstarter that you’re always adapting your musical technique. What have you picked up for “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body”?
KK: New techniques for this particular album, and in the show, I’ve adapted pedal boards. In the past I’ve played electric guitar, the pedal board, lap steel, and the acoustic – which I’ve never treated the sound in any way, a little bit of reverb, but that’s it. Now I’ve got distortion pedals, ring modulators, delayed reverbs, all this really interesting stuff. That to me is the greatest change and the greatest challenge because for many, many years, I wanted to preserve the integrity and inherent beauty of the acoustic guitar by itself. I let go of that. The result’s been great because I can still play in a style that I like and get a host of new sounds.

RM: Specifically for this show and the light display, your guitar is stationary, fixed to the stage. How did you adapt your play style to that?
KK: Every single little element – where do I place my feet, how high is my stool, the guitar’s tilted back just a little bit, exactly what angle that would be – that was all trial and error. To basically get the guitar as close as possible to what it would normally be. Interestingly enough, I discovered a lot of things. The guitars are neck-heavy, so if you place them on your lap, the guitar’s going to fall over. Intuitively, you think the left hand’s supporting the neck. That’s actually not true: it’s my right arm and elbow providing counterbalance on the guitar. In a way, it hasn’t been that much of a challenge. I thought it would be much greater than it is. The hardest thing is just the body position. Just the way the show goes, I’m a bit like in character. For me to stand up, or stretch my back, would be sort of like breaking that character. So I have to do all that stretching before the show. It virtually immobilizes one position.

RM: The title, “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body,” seems like a sort of double-play: it references the guitar and the human body. How does that suit this performance?
KK: The neck and bridge and body are all parts of the guitar. For me, there’s a very symbiotic relationship between myself and the guitar and there’s something when… you put the two together, and it’s like its own being. The way the guitar and the show takes on kind of human attitude, it tells a story in a way that would formerly be told by a storyteller. All these anthropomorphic things happen to the guitar. The name has just a nice ring to it.

RM: In other words, the guitar takes on a life of its own.
KK: Mmm-hmm!

RM: For this performance, do you more “fly by the seat of your pants” than plan ahead?
KK: Yeah, I definitely think what happened with this specific show, I didn’t really have time to think about what I was doing, or why I was doing it. It was just “this is what we’re doing today.” And I think I allowed my unconscious creative mind to stop judging and stop questioning; I was just a facilitator. Something else was at work.

RM: That’s a really rare place to be for musicians, for artists. That you can just create without consequences.
KK: And it’s true! It was a huge risk. I was out of my comfort zone 99% of the time, I had no idea if this would be any kind of success or even tour at all. But I knew I couldn’t do the same thing again. I couldn’t just go and make another guitar record. One thing that I knew for a fact, was that the image of the guitar, being mapped and lit up and projected on, it just looked great. If it could fill [the performance] with enough beautiful imagery and beautiful music; the simple fact that it looked amazing, and it hasn’t been done before [would satisfy me]. I think that it’s really hard when you’re judgmental on yourself, this constant voice of “you’re not good enough,” “this is a dumb idea,” you know, leaning to just never listen to that voice allows you to take risks and do things that are marvelous.

RM: This project begs the questions: do you have chromesthenia (seeing music in colors)?
KK: Music does not speak to me visually. What does happen, is when I see something, music is very clear to me. For instance, when I’ve done film scoring, when people set up a scene or an image, the music is almost already there, writing itself; it’s very clear and specific as to what is says. What does that look sound like. I think I have the opposite: I can look at something and immediately know what I want to hear musically along with it.

RM: You are a queen of Kickstarter. Crowdfunding raised almost double the funds you’d asked for; did you initially try to pitch this to a record label?
KK: Oh, no! There is no way. This is a performance, it’s not like a thing I can spell; this is a performance. There is no one that was going to own this other than me. I didn’t think for a second about trying to go and partner with someone; it just wasn’t something that was going to make sense.

RM: What did you learn from the Kickstarter?
KK: If you do a Kickstarter, whatever time you think it’s going to take to deliver, make that plus a year; try not to fire your manager and have a baby –

RM: Really? Congratulations!
KK: Yeah, I had a baby and I fired my manager. But most importantly, just stay in touch with people. No one’s been freaking out about the delay.

RM: I also noticed that you offered guitar lessons via Skype. How did those go?
KK: It was mostly fans who had a pretty decent working knowledge of guitar. I’m not going to teach them to play normal guitar, but I actually got a lot out of teaching. I was never taught, I didn’t have a method or a book or any real text to work from –

RM: Just the madness, no method.
KK: Some people have great technique, but no internal metronome. So just pointing that out to people, and allowing them to figure it out. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I think I probably would not be a good teacher, and it turns out I was able to help some people.

RM: Big, stupid question: what is music to you? What purpose does it have to you, and to your audience?
KK: I don’t know what the purpose is. Music doesn’t keep us warm, it doesn’t fill our stomach, it doesn’t serve basic evolutionary functions. I think music and food, together, are very very distinct cultural markers. I like that they affect the same parts of the brain, in many cases. I think that there’s something inherent about being alive and understanding rhythm, whether it’s your heartbeat, life and death, growth and decay, just cycles. So I think there’s something fundamental to existence that is also fundamental to music. It’s probably why music affects me on a very very irrational, emotional level. I think I’m particularly drawn to instrumental music – I think there’s plenty of ideas in instrumental music.
I think musicians need an audience just the way an audience needs musicians to create this public experience.

RM: So, music allows you to branch out a bit and connect with someone else.
KK: Yeah, and I think it’s another language. If you ask a lot of singers to get on stage and say their lyrics out loud, it would be comical. I think it was Balzac who said, “That which is too stupid to say can only be sung.” But somehow music adds this… [it turns this] joke into music and it makes it sound so profound and gorgeous.

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