In this episode, Debbie speaks with guitarist Kaki King about a childhood rooted in music, how busking in the New York City subway jump-started her career, collaborating with John Maeda and Giorgia Lupi, and overcoming addiction—and how it led to an incredible renaissance in her output.
Perhaps in no other industry is the notion of identity more crucial, analyzed, crafted and regarded—and at times, vociferously guarded—than the creative arts. To inch a toe into another subset of the arts can provoke a band of incensed attack dogs, and perhaps that’s why musician Kaki King has said, in discussing her brilliant projection-mapped touring art installation and concert The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, that despite having created some of the visuals in the show, she does not consider herself a visual artist.
But I—and likely anyone else who has seen the performance—would. Similarly, I call for calm to the gatekeepers of my own discipline, and declare her to be a writer. (Consider these titles, which capture and reflect the instrumental songs they brand: “All the Landslides Birds Have Seen Since the Beginning of the World”; “Streetlight in the Egg”; “Gouge Both Your Eyes Out (But Eat Only One).” Consider also the writing challenge King faces—to brand an instrumental song in just one line, whereas the majority of contemporary music today has an entire bed of lyrics to fall back on.
King identifies as a musician. And she’s an incredible one. Listening to her guitar work live or on her many albums, one must be reminded it’s all her—there’s no second (or third) guitarist in the room. Innovative fretwork, coupled with percussive elements that harken back to her long experience as a drummer, dominate her style. Her playing begs to be witnessed live, if only in an attempt to decode it.
And attempt to decode it the music press has indeed done. Magazines like putting things in boxes, which landed King on Rolling Stone’s “New Guitar Gods” list in 2006 (in which she was also the only woman on the roster—a reminder of the imbalance in the guitar world). As she has pointed out before, critics tend to obsess over her technique—which is to miss the point of the overall experience of the music. Moreover, perhaps a key test of a musician is how they react to being branded a “musician's musician.” King has said the reason she can take a band out on tour is not by being a “musician’s musician,” but rather by writing songs that resonate with people.
As she says in this episode, “I always knew that I was good at guitar in a way that a lot of people weren't. I didn't let it go to my head, but I think what distinguished me, and what I wanted to focus on more than anything, was the writing. The playing is technical. It can be taught. It can be practiced. … Ultimately, developing my own voice as a writer in an instrumental context, that's the hardest thing to do.”
As it pertains to identity, it’s also worth noting that King exists within an industry that tends to thrive on manufactured image, on mirage. Execs tried to shape King into things that she was not, but she kept her focus on what matters most to her; she has said that the key to being a successful musician is to put 95% of one’s effort and energy into the music itself, and 5% into presentation and other elements.
Listening to King and watching her play invokes a sense of not just wonder, but maybe even envy—you’re witnessing someone who seems to have truly found that elusive pure blend of craft and career, someone doing exactly what they should be doing. While she always figured she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a lawyer, she eventually took a detour to play in the house band of the Blue Man Group, and after 9/11 started busking in the subway. In an era where there was no model for success as a solo acoustic instrumentalist, people kept asking her for CDs as she busked. As a matter of practicality, she made one, her debut Everybody Loves You.
As she says in this episode, “If you make good work, it can have a life of its own that is totally beyond you and out of your control. That's exactly what happened.”
One gets the sense that if her career had not taken off or she’d followed another path, she’d probably still be down in the subway, busking in her off-hours.
King followed her first album with another acoustic instrumental collection, and then, on … Until We Felt Red, she introduced her voice and other musicians into the mix. Evolution has characterized her identity since that point—she has dabbled in pop sounds, indie tones, full-band ensembles, before returning to her roots with the instrumental album GLOW (which got its name because King, while not having full-blown synesthesia—the ability to perceive colors in response to sounds and other stimuli—heavily associates color with things, such as numbers; in this case, the album had a blue-green glow to it).
In interviews, she has dubbed art to be a “giant fantasy,” and has said that her music actually shows a very, very small slice of who she really is, and she doesn’t embody her art the way others do. In other words, in an era and field defined by identity, it’s not her identity.
In this episode, Debbie Millman asks her what, then, the music isn’t showing about who she really is.
A Selection of Kaki King’s Albums:
Live at Berklee
The Neck is a Bridge to the Body
Everybody Glows: B-Sides & Rarities
Dreaming of Revenge
… Until We Felt Red
Legs to Make Us Longer
Everybody Loves You