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Interview: Multi-media guitarist Kaki King on seeing sounds, art as fantasy, and selling out for ice cream

 

In many different ways, Kaki King has long been a musical chameleon.

The Atlanta-born guitarist, artist, and songwriter, who plays The Greene Space this Saturday (January 16) as part of New York’s Winter Jazzfest, released her eighth and latest album, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, last year, best described as “a multi-media performance based around the guitar”. The project saw King collaborate Glowing Pictures, a visual experience company that has also paired with the likes of Animal Collective, David Byrne & Brian Eno, and TV On The Radio; the LP created was as an experience designed with digital projection mapping, where the guitar is not just an outlet for sound, but a striking visual base that enhances her live performance.

With no Boston show on the immediate horizon — but two Massachusetts appearances set for next month: February 24 at the Iron Horse in Northampton and February 28 at Lowell’s Root Note StudioVanyaland used Winter Jazzfest as a reason to catch up with King, and get the details on, and inspiration for, her digital mapping project straight from the source. King also discussed what’s next for her career, her ability to channel feelings rarely felt through music, and a potential career change into the ice cream industry.

 
 

Darragh Dandurand: Is this your first time playing at the Winter Jazzfest?

Kaki King: Yes, yeah it is actually.

Will you be performing the full installation of The Neck is a Bridge to the Body?

 
 

Essentially, though a slightly shorter version because of the time limitations, but everything else, all the other parts, will be there.

Do you define it as an installation?

Every time a band or an artist goes onto a stage, there is an amount of technical hookup that has to occur. My technical side of things is not even that big, but it sort of has this feeling and this appearance of being very high-tech. It’s not anything at the moment. It’s not just a musical performance. It’s not cinema. It’s not theater. It’s not exactly performance art, but that sort of edges a little bit closer, so I feel like like “a multi-media performance based around the guitar” is the best way to define it.

Since you often travel for your performances, how do you bring the whole show with you? Is there a crew you travel with that sets up the projection?

 
 

It’s a really small show. I mean as far as gear is concerned, I have the guitar, I have a case full of stands and seats and screws and things that hold the guitar up. Then I have two small projectors to light things up and then I have two small computers. So, this whole show can fit into two checked bags and two carry-on bags. It’s very mobile and I designed it like that. I’m always seeing other things and saying “that’s an amazing show and I wish I could have done that and incorporate another idea, but there’s no way that you can just throw that on an airplane.” That’s one of the benefits of the way the show is designed and produced; that it goes easily on the road. I do have a video engineer that comes with me, like a second person performing, but it’s a very small team, that’s one of the benefits. The show can be put on anywhere.

Does your engineer do live VJing? Or is everything always preset?

The front-end and the back-end of the piece are both performed with myself and the video engineer. In some cases the guitar is giving the computer basic signals and that creates a loop and then parameters are set for certain things. Say, the louder I play, the brighter the exposure. Depending on the decibel levels, it’s audio-reactive. There’s another piece you’ll see wherein if I play a note, there is a spiral. Every time I play that note, there’s that same spiral. The guitar is telling the computer that when you hear this note, when I play this note, view this video-clip, play this video-clip. Then on the back-end of the show, there are the same ideas, but the guitar is using a little spark to go on and the engineer is making it look amazing. But there’s also coordinating cues, because sometimes I cue the video in, but other times the video cues me in, and that’s a very human connection happening. So it’s a performance, definitely a performance, from start to finish. Never the same show twice.

 
 

In regard to musical styling, what elements have you played around with on this new album that you haven’t experimented with before?

You know, I have never put the acoustic guitar through so much, through so many effects before. I often did it with electric guitar, but I felt that I always wanted to do the effects. My fingers should be making them. The rapid-fire finger picking should be the delay sound, or I should be able to play it to the natural reverb. I really let go of a lot for this album, and I think I had to because the visual elements were saying, “I want to sound like this, I want this kinda warpy delay or this kinda ring modulated sound,” so I said, “Ok, fine.” And when I put everything in, it sounded fantastic. That would be the main different to something I haven’t done before.

In past interviews you speak of the guitar as almost a guide, a mentor, a being, a shape-shifter, among other things. For The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, did you have to reorient yourself to see it as a “tabula rasa”, or blank slate, as described on your site?

No, I actually think that the video component, the visual component, is showing the guitar as I have been seeing it for years. I see it and I play it as a shape shifter. I play it as this thing that is capable of infinite possibility, so the visual aid, the visual part, is really a way to express that and show that aspect of how I see the guitar and how it’s proven to me, time and again, what it is throughout my lifetime.

 
 

When playing live, do you always stick to the way the song was written and recorded, or do you like to play impromptu riffs and incorporate sudden musical changes?

I feel like, for me, recording a song and putting it on an album and calling it some sort of “official-ness,” it’s really that I’m taking a photograph of the song that day and they all change and they change over time. Some change really rapidly and really dramatically and some change very subtlety, but it’s very rare that I’ll play a song exactly as it is in the recording. In my mind, I may very well be playing and thinking, “I’m being really conservative with this one, it’s exactly the same,” but then I listen back and it’s like, “nope, totally different, I changed the key, I’ve moved this around or the intro is twice as long.” Just the subtle things. Basically the song is going to change whether you like it or not, and when I record it, it’s like, what does the song sound like today?

I was curious about your visual style. If we talk purely aesthetics, your style has changed so much and I know you are into reinvention and reassessing where one is artistically. What was the catalyst for your most recent change, the evolution of how you present yourself?

In this case, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body demanded it. The impetus, to try to wrap up a really long story of how this all came to be, was that a friend suggested I add a visual element, in this case, lighting design. And I thought, “Okay, that sounds nice, but what does that mean today?” since she said it years ago. I was looking into lighting setups and discovered projection mapping, but I’d only ever seen it on the sides of buildings, or on a large scale. Then I thought, why not do it on a small scale? What about my guitar? That was sort of the very beginning. And then, through all of that, the process of figuring out how to play the guitar on stands and get it in mid-air and how to get the projections all right and how to get the shadows to not be too aggressive…it was how I wound up with this white guitar.

 
 

My relationship to the guitar suddenly has to clearly be addressed, because now I’m allowing the guitar to speak in other ways. It’s always powerful enough, but hadn’t added this element to it yet. My role, now that I’m doing this show, is wearing all white. I’m in the same monochrome as the guitar. I’m not getting up there as a distinct character. I’m not getting up there as Kaki King, who is just, like, the bomb and in control and taming this wild instrument into what she wants. There is a relationship and I don’t know who’s in charge, I think the guitar is way more in charge most of the time. This all just led to me dying my hair blonde because it made the look, it completed the look. It wasn’t this big, thought-out thing, it’s just part of the uniform I put on to do the show.

I know you’re talking about the symbiotic relationship with your guitar, the synergy you have together. Can you tell me more about that?

Well, sometimes we’re at odds and sometimes we are in agreement and harmony, and sometimes the guitar is playing me. I know that sounds corny, but it’s really how I feel, it’s really true to me, it’s really clear. My whole life, since I was a tiny child, has been defined, in part, by the fact that I am a guitar player. I didn’t invent the guitar, do you see what I’m saying? The guitar has given me everything, and I have not added very much to the basic guitar, other than coming up with some neat ideas about how to play it.

That’s how I feel about my camera.

Since you do understand, I’ll say that the guitar is a stand-in in the show for a tool, a piece of equipment, a language, a sport, anything that is difficult for a human to conquer. There is also that struggle there, like, when are you done learning? When are you done improving? When do you take? Are you ever able to say, I am done, I have mastered this. I don’t think that’s true, certainly not for me and certainly not for the guitar. And I’m not just talking about the six-string, the instrument we know as the guitar, but any instrument with a capital “I.” Sure, I’m a fan of the guitar, but I like this idea of becoming a better human through the use of everything around you.

 
 

In a 2010 interview with Elixir Strings on the final night of your Junior tour, you were asked “Where do you go from here?” You responded by saying, “I don’t like to do things twice, so whatever I do next won’t sound anything like Junior. I think the trick to music these days, and to longevity, is always sounding like yourself, but always doing something different.” What’s next now? Any collaborations coming up?

I don’t, but I have a lot of things in the bag that I can’t finalize, but I will say that I don’t want to do the same thing twice, or over and over. I do think that there is something more to The Neck is a Bridge to the Body. It has really scratched the surface and I’d like to see a second and third incarnation of the show, cause it’s just too good. I mean, even today, after two years of working on this show, I’ll still walk in the room when the guitar is having something projected on it, and think, “That is incredible! Are you kidding me?!” I’m still blown away by how beautiful it looks. Now that I’ve gone through the process and know how much more is possible, I just think that this show deserves seeing all the things that can be done with it.

It’s been brought up before that you have a lot of adjectives that come along with your name in the press. How would you prefer to be defined?

Your art and who you are can be very far away from each other. I mean, for some people they write about every personal experience that they’ve had, but that’s not me. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between what you create and how you live your life. I think that early on that relationship exists because you are using your life experience, say in your teens and your twenties, when everything is emotional and everything is intense and life is happening at your constantly, you need to write about it. When you live through that, at least I have found, I can go back and find those feelings still there, but I don’t have to live them constantly, and it’s very relieving. I don’t know man, I’ve met some really cool people who are just, their work, it’s just so crazy, the craziest performance art, but these people, they wake up in the morning and they have a job to go to and they are totally normal in every other way. To think that art reflects personality is not necessarily the case.

I think a lot of artists, younger artists, feel that it is so intense, that they have to live it, preach it, experience it right now, and it’s interesting to hear that you pull from it instead.

Well, yeah, and it’s also possible to do things in art, go to places artistically that you haven’t been personally. That’s fine, too. That’s part of the fun and the risk taking and you don’t have to be a disaster in order to come up with some ideas that are really crazy and daring and interesting. I think of authors who write multiple characters from all these perspectives, little of which they’ve actually lived or encountered. I don’t think Stephen King is a scary guy, you know?

 
 

Hopefully he hasn’t live those experiences either!

Exactly! They aren’t real. Art is a giant fantasy. Most of us go about just living our daily lives.

If you weren’t pursuing music as a medium, what other type of media would you create in?

Wow, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, I’d probably just be a gardener. I don’t know that I would create media, I would just do something creative. “Here, I grew some flowers in this pattern,” or I’d like to see if I can make a vegetable happen.

Go for scrap-booking.

KK: It’s just inconceivable to me not to make music.

 
 

Last question, did you ever find that ice cream machine you tweeted about a week ago?

No, but I haven’t exactly been looking for it with a lot of dedication. I have been trying to ask people. I’m like, why the fuck do I not have an ice cream machine? I mean, that’s for me. I think I had one a long time ago, when I was a kid and we did it ourselves. They make really fancy ones now where you throw all the ingredients in and it makes you ice cream. I don’t think it’s a great purchase to make in January, but come June, July I definitely want to own an ice cream machine.

Glad to know you have a lot of goals ahead of you, musically, personally…

Maybe that’s my new art. Maybe I’ll be the next crazy ice cream flavor person.

KAKI KING AT WINTER JAZZFEST :: Saturday, January 16 at The Greene Space, 44 Charlton St. in New York, NY :: 7 p.m., $45 :: Advance tickets and more information