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Enjoy Magazine

Kaki King Live at Chico’s Laxson Auditorium

12/22/2017 11:00AM ● By Phil Reser

Energetic Melodies

January 2018
By Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of Kaki King

In Kaki King’s hands, her guitar becomes numerous instruments, creating a multitude of sonic and rhythmic effects. She hammers on the fret board with her hands, while finger picking, and in the spaces between notes, she sometimes thumps, knocks and taps on the instrument’s body, creating layered patterns that mimic a hand drum.

Hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as “a genre unto herself,” she has released eight albums over the past 13 years, performed on every continent over the course of multiple world tours, and has presented her work in a variety of prestigious arts centers. She has also created music for numerous film and TV soundtracks, including “August Rush” and Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” which received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score.

A native of Atlanta, Kaki received formal training as a child with the piano and drums. She started self-learning the guitar at age 10. Influenced by the styles of Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges, she learned  bits and pieces of their techniques and tunings.

A critical stage in her development was when she attended a Swannanoa Folk Music Gathering in
North Carolina and met legendary guitar teacher and performer Preston Reed, who shared his guitar-slapping harmonics and percussive taps with her. 

While at New York University, she studied music composition and ear training while working on a humanities degree.  When she wasn’t in classes, she was playing in the subways or small clubs around the city. As time went on, the percussive nature of her playing became part of her signature style, along with alternate tunings and jazzy elements. After finishing college, she put together a collection of songs she had written during her college years and recorded them with no budget around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island, on studio time lent to her from friends and fellow musicians.  

Released through Velour Records in April 2003, “Everybody Loves You” was soon getting her New York City gigs at venues like the Knitting Factory and Irving Plaza and opening slots with musicians like Robert Randolph, Marianne Faithful, Charlie Hunter, Soulive and David Lindley.

Another of King’s musical talents is composing. She was commissioned by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang to perform her original piece “Other Education” alongside an orchestra at Carnegie Hall. King says the performance was a huge learning process for her, as she had never composed a piece for so many musicians before.

“My compositions just sort of happen,” she says.  “It’s usually just me catching a guitar riff that I like. If I spend the day playing the guitar, the next day, there’s usually this one little lick that will stand out in my mind.  That will end up being one of my songs. I don’t really worry about the dynamics or perfection of a piece until I start to play it over and over. That’s when all the highs and lows come out and I really give it shape and character.”

Her relationship with the guitar might be part of what fuels her consistently powerful compositions. “I see the instrument as something that has control over me and our relationship, I realized several years ago that it is directing me and that it really is what makes all the decisions. It’s almost as if I am in service to it.”

King recently fused the ancient tradition of working with one’s hands with digital technology, projection-mapping imagery onto her guitar in a groundbreaking multimedia work around songs from her 2015 album, “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body.” 

Using her guitar’s neck like a keyboard, she plays an intricate melody as she takes the audience on a musical journey of light and sound. She calls it “guitar as paintbrush.”

“For years, I was very focused on being a solo guitar performer and being under the microscope: Just me, the guitar and one spotlight. And then someone said to me, ‘It would be great if you had some lighting design that changed with the atmosphere,’  and I realized that was something I’d always wanted to do, so I explored performance lighting, and I discovered projection. Normally, people associate it with large-scale projects against the sides of buildings, but I wanted to make it small and intimate.”

King says there is definitely an “abstract storyline” to her multimedia show.

“In the first half of the show, things are increasing in complexity,” she says. “During the second part of the show, things are becoming more humanized and more formed. That  half of the show introduces the guitar’s own journey with its own self-identity and reflects my struggle to have my personal identity with the instrument. It’s not clear who is in control."

Kaki King with German Lopez and Daniel Ho 

Feb. 4, Laxson Auditorium, Chico State University