Hailed as queen of the acoustic guitar, words such as inventor and virtuoso have buzzed around Kaki King since she first began playing her unique style of music in New York City subway stations. A former drummer, King often plays er guitar like a drum — she slaps the wood, rubs the strings, and has a fingerstyle technique all her own.
Credited with reviving the solo acoustic guitar and rescuing it from a New Age slump, this musical force has released three albums, toured extensively and performed on both Conan O'Brien and David Letterman's TV shows — all by the age of 26. King is also an out lesbian who writes songs such as “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers” and “Jessica,” which was inspired by King's counselor at summer camp.
Raised in Atlanta, King grew up in a musical household. Her father collected guitars, and her parents encouraged her to start learning an instrument at age 4. King chose to play the guitar at 4, only to reject it at 5; she went on to play the drums, an instrument she saw as far cooler than the guitar. After being exposed to some guitar greats (Preston Reed, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke and Alex DeGrassi, to name only a few), however, she became interested in the instrument again and started experimenting with her father's collection.
A self-taught guitarist, King learned to play by looking at the tablature for a song she liked and figuring out how to play it. “I grew up in this house where every type of music was worthy of being listened to,” she tells us. “Even if it was some crap CD my dad picked up … it was worth checking out, discussing, and then we'd throw it away.” King is a gifted musician who never writes down notes for the songs she composes; instead she uses her ability to remember the song as a judge of its value: “If the next day it's still in your head, you know it's a good song.”
Despite her talent as a guitarist, King still saw herself primarily as a drummer, and when she moved to New York to attend New York University , she played the drums in various bands. She was sure her chance at a career in music would come through playing the drums, until she began to get offers to play the guitar at small venues and parties.
Unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, King graduated from NYU during the chaotic and devastating aftermath of Sept. 11. Knowing she wouldn't be able to find a job and in need of a way to support herself, King began playing the guitar in subway stations. When people started asking her if she had a CD, she made demos and sold them.
She credits her stint in the subway stations of New York with giving her “some tools and useful skills I didn't have before, like really being able to stay focused on what I'm doing and completely ignore any outside sound, which you get a lot as a musician, even if it is your show.”
King got her first paying gig in April 2002 at the Knitting Factory in New York. Jeff Krasno, head of Velour Records, heard her play there, and their meeting led to King's first album, Everybody Loves You. Since then she has recorded two more albums, toured around the world, and been a part-time band member of the off-Broadway hit Blue Man Group.
Although it's clear that King works hard and has accomplished a great deal in a short time, she is modest and pushes herself to achieve more: “When I really think about how easy I really have it, it helps me to push myself harder … I never deserve to whine or pout, and I really, really need to get out there and work hard and stop whining about this song I can't finish, because … I have a really good life.”
An artist who has never been afraid to take risks — whether it means playing in subway stations or jumping onstage as a last-minute replacement act — King's third album is no different. In … Until We Felt Red, King departs from the signature solo guitar sound that landed her in the spotlight; instead she plays the electric guitar and includes a wide range of instruments such as the accordion, flugelhorn, thumb piano and harp, and adds her own haunting and ethereal voice to the ensemble.
Produced by John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Stereolab), … Until We Felt Red is a powerful demonstration of the meeting of two creative minds — a meeting that brings a fullness to King's guitar not present on her earlier albums and suggests that King's skills extend far beyond the acoustic guitar.
King has always felt free to be herself and to be open about her sexuality throughout her career, which she describes as a positive experience. She says that in the instrumental music world, “You don't really get judged for what you look like or who you are … people don't really comment on the extra-musical things, they are just really interested in what you are doing musically.”
Clarifying rumors that the song “Jessica” on … Until We Felt Red is dedicated to her first girlfriend, King laughs and says, “I was at summer camp and she was a counselor and she was very interested in me. It was very exciting but I didn't really return the feeling exactly, I just thought it was sort of new and cool. I thought she was crazy — and she was.”
For more information on Kaki King, visit her website at kakiking.com.