By Laura B. Whitmore
When you sit down to listen to Kaki King’s new release, Glow, you’ll be struck by the pristine recording quality, the crystal-clear tone, the acoustic separation and the compositions that stem from masterful and moving arpeggiations.
But it’s when you see King play live that you experience her true genius.
Words cannot accurately describe her performance technique. It’s a hybrid of taps, slaps, strums, fingerwork and whatever else she has up her sleeve. Even her short piece for a recent ad — part of The Gap’s fall 2012 campaign — pretty much blows your mind.
And yet, King has had her doubts, just like those of us who are not guitar virtuosi. As someone who has been performing since childhood, she took a step back in the last few years and questioned whether playing guitar was really what she wanted to do with her life. Lucky for us, the answer is Glow.
Prior to Glow, Brooklyn-based King has recorded five diverse and distinctive albums, performed with such icons as Foo Fighters, Timbaland and The Mountain Goats, contributed to a variety of film and TV soundtracks and toured the world many times over.
Produced, recorded and mixed by D. James Goodwin at his home studio in Woodstock, New York, The Isokon, Glow also features the talents of the acclaimed New York-based string quartet, ETHEL. It will be released Tuesday, October 9, by Velour Music Group.
I caught up with King as she was on the verge of a new tour, a new album release, and, surprise, a new marriage that she announced on October 5.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: Congratulations on your new album, which I like very much! I heard you took some time to re-evaluate where you wanted to go with your music.
Well, not really where I wanted to go with my music, but if I wanted to go with music at all.
That’s a pretty life-changing question.
It is, but it’s also ... not even a career. I had an identity with a guitar since I was a little kid, you know? And then I had a career. I have a career! It was a decade in. And I think the question was, “OK, do I want to go back to school?” I don’t feel like it’s uncommon. I think it’s something that felt fairly normal, but it was a big deal.
Do you feel you’re heading in the direction you want to be moving in?
Yeah, I am.
Do you get nervous when you’re ready to release a new recording, or just excited?
This time I got excited, because the making to the release was actually very short. A lot of times you make a record, and you start on it, and it’s a year, you know? But this time I think we delivered it by the end of mid-June. And so all of the things that have to happen and be put in place were all very active just right after that. Doing the photographs and talking about the videos and participating in that. So for me, it’s very, very exciting this time.
So you didn’t have time to be nervous.
Well, nervous is whatever. It’s the music industry in 2012 now. It’s just ridiculous. There’s so little predictability, so what is there to get nervous about, “Well, what if it doesn’t do well?” Well, it’s not going to do well. That’s a fact. But "Will it do well enough?" is maybe the thing, maybe the question.
I know what you mean. Personally I always hope for the best and expect the worst.
Totally, but, you know, even hoping for the best is very vague. Like, what does “the best” mean? That changes monthly in this industry. And the worst, you know, I abide by the same thing, I suppose.
Let’s talk a little bit about your recording process. I understand you went with the flow with this recording.
I did. This is how it went down. I started in Malibu with Mike Einziger, who is the guitarist for Incubus and a friend. And he just said, “Hey, come out, use my studio anytime.” And I took him up on the offer. I really needed it. I had maybe four songs or something. I went out there and I recorded eight tracks, and that was in March. I had at least a beginning.
From there, I was frightened. I felt unprepared, But I was able to give myself this sort of freedom and peace of mind and just say, “You know, it doesn’t matter. Just hit record. See how it goes.” So after that I had a solid foundation. I kind of took these things and asked myself, “What do I wanna hear? I can write solo guitar, solo music and record it ‘til the end of the Earth. What can’t I do?”
That’s when you got together with producer D. James Goodwin?
Yes, I heard one of his records and I was like, “This is so great. This is so pretty, and it’s so what I wanna hear. And the recording process was out-of-the-box.” And so I thought, “Well, let’s take a risk.”
And a couple of emails later, we were at his studio up in Woodstock, New York. So, from there the process went really fast. I think we only used four original tracks. We re-tracked some of the other tunes that I had already written. I think we had maybe ten solo guitar pieces, and we started to add to it. There were no bad ideas. We just threw it and saw if it stuck. It was a very, very collaborative .
I imagine you used your signature Adamas guitar. What else? Can you give me some details?
Yes. I did use the Adamas. There’s also a guitar that’s featured three times. It’s a small, 12-string guitar called a Griffin. It’s high-strung, way above a normal guitar tuning. And it’s made by a guy named Joe Veillette, who happens to live in Woodstock as well. So I hung out with him a couple times. That was sort of randomly awesome and convenient. And that’s on “Great Round Burn,” “King Pizel” and “Fences.” It’s this tight, punchy little gorgeous sound.
How did you come across that guitar?
It was David Torn, who produced a record of mine back in the day. And we met up in Manhattan years later. It was just a lunch, and he had this little guitar. And he said, “Yeah, check this out. This is my new thing.” I had also owned a Veillette baritone electric guitar, which I bought ... I literally bought off the rack at a shop, you know, I was so impressed by it. I loved it. So, anyway, he had this Veillette, and I was like, “Veillette, yeah that guy’s amazing.”
And I put it in my hands, and my first thought was, “I have to own one.” That was just it, and that was years before I did. So, finally I got in touch with Joe and was like, “I really want to get this kind of guitar.” And anyway... I came into possession of a Griffin, and it just sort of wrote songs by itself. It’s one of the neatest little guitars. It was very important to the record.
That’s very cool. What else?
I also had a Bedell Acoustic. It’s a parlor body I used on “No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Complete.” I met the maker at NAMM, Tom Bedell, and he was like, “Let me help you out.” He eventually sent me guitars. So, one of the parlor guitars I turned into that Koto guitar that you hear on “Bowen Island.”
And the other guitar, I didn’t expect that much sound from a parlor guitar made in China, but it had this tightness, this sound, and it was just gorgeous. And the playability is fantastic. I’m pretty sure that’s all the guitars. It really wasn’t a big guitar bonanza. Everything else was innovation.
I imagine you used some interesting tunings.
Oh, yeah. There were a lot of new tunings for me on this record that I hadn’t used before. For example, “No True Masterpiece”; I was trying to figure out my tuning later, but I couldn’t do it. I had to play the record for myself.
Oh! You were like, “What did I do?”
Yeah, when you haven’t played something in four or five months, it’s like, “Umm ... .” There were a lot of different ones I used. Tunings are wonderfully inspiring, and it helps you to write music. If I’m stuck, you know, I change the tuning. My one favorite is open E minor. “Kelvinator, Kelvinator” and “Streetlight in the Egg,” those are the two that are on the record. I love that tuning, it’s great!
I wanna know how you come up with the names for your songs, They’re very creative.
You know, it’s funny, because they say you can’t really give an instrumental piece the perfect name, but you can give it a terrible name. It’s not entirely arbitrary, but you wouldn’t call “Great Round Burn,” you know, “The Slow Dripping Hot Dog Mustard.” It just wouldn’t work!
Although “Great Round Burn” is great, you could also call it, “Fiery Blood Clot.” It’s delicate. For me, sometimes it’s arbitrary. “Great Round Burn,” I titled the record and the songs during a heat wave in the summer. Yeah, it was really hot. But this piece of music is so beautiful and so gorgeous, it’s got this intensity and it really pushes the nerves, too. It’s like that terrible fierce sunlight that just punishes you. But you love it. It’s great, it’s hot and warm and sunny and everything’s beautiful, and then suddenly you’re like, “Whoa, this is intense.” That made sense to me. The sound reflected the mood at the time, the weather, the light, and “Great Round Burn” is like a tribute. “Streetlight in the Egg”? No idea. No fucking idea. It’s an image. It’s evocative, yet meaningless. I don’t know.
Well, that’s good. You have to have some mystery.
Yeah, exactly. It’s important to leave it up to someone else’s interpretation. The more literal I get, the less fun it is. I’ve had people come up to me and say all kinds of things about what my titles mean to them. And I’m like, “Thanks,” but that’s the best interpretation at all.
I like how you left the sound of the rain in “Cargo Cult.”
Oh, you know what? We had no choice! We got the perfect take right when ... I mean, it was pouring! And we got the perfect take. And we thought, “Well, I mean, it’d be clearly, only an idiot would put in the rain deliberately.” You know? So, clearly they’re gonna know, that this actually happened so we just left it.
Do you have a favorite song on the album that you like to play live?
I’m figuring it out. I like “Cargo Cult” a lot, but it’s not a difficult. It’s a beautiful guitar song, but it’s not different. “King Pizel” is a pretty great song. It’s a workout, it’s a crowd pleaser. I’m using a footbox now; I just stomp on it. Not a stompbox, but a bass drum on a wooden box. I’m like pumping my feet, and the song is so fast, I don’t even know how I’m doing it.
You can’t think about it. You gotta just go.
Yeah, I can’t. If I think, I’ll get screwed up. So yeah, that’s probably my favorite song. “Kelvinator, Kelvinator” is just a slick song to play. It just feels good, too.
How do you choose who opens for you when you tour?
Opening acts are hard, really hard. There’s more politics involved than music, sometimes. You know, the promoter’s girlfriend’s whatever brother’s got a thing, and you know, you’re like, “Well ... .” But I have an amazing artist this time out called Lady Lamb and the Beekeeper, and she’s doing the whole tour. Part of that is just ‘cause it’s a lot easier when you have an artist, someone that’s doing the tour consistently, going to be there every night, you know what to expect. You know, with random opening acts it’s really hard sometimes. You want someone that’s professional, and pretty streamlined.
The acoustic guitar occupies a very specific space in the sound spectrum, you know? If you told me to go see four hours of the best acoustic guitar players, I’d be like, “Can you please make it an hour and a half?” It’s just hard on the ears. Making acoustic guitar records is hard because it pierces. Your ears get really tired, and sound guys and everyone else will say this. I try not to punish the audience by making them listen to too much acoustic guitar. Now, my opener, she’s playing guitar, but she’s playing electric guitar and it’s a completely different feel. So, you know, that’s something that I had learned with experience and learned from audience feedback. It’s not a dish on any guitar player. It’ s not like it’s a competition, it just is what it is.
Do you have any advice for other musicians that you can share?
I actually do. And I rarely do because I just don’t! I was reading something that Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs tweeted, and Merill Garbus – her records are so awesome. They’re so good, and whatever she does or appears in, the music says it all. And she hasn’t had to be pretty or be well-spoken or hang out with the right people. It’s all just because the music is great. And I was thinking about that last night. I was like, “Wow, that’s really awesome.”
I see people who work on their look and they work on their poster and their website and you know, the music will speak for itself no matter what. So if you put maybe like 95 percent of your energy on music and 5 percent on playing out and telling people about it. That’s kind of a good equation. You can fix everything else. You can get a haircut, you can go shopping for the proper shoes, but you really can’t make your music better unless you work on it. You know what I’m saying? The other things are easy, that’s the hard stuff.
Find out more and check out Kaki King’s Glow at kakiking.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.