Photo by Shervin Lainez
Interview by Lee P. Doptera
Kaki King has brought new meaning to the guitar and to performance. For over a decade now, she has produced ground-breaking albums, perfected her fingerstyle technique, scored films, and incorporated visual elements into her show that go far beyond dramatic set pieces. Her most recent project (The Neck is the Bridge to the Body) combines projection-mapping and music to tell a story of creation. In this show, images are projected both onto a background and the guitar itself. You can find clips of Kaki's pieces and examples of some of the visual components on her website www.kakiking.com. Recently, Kaki was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her music, art, and where it all might be heading for her.
PSF: In 2009 you put on an exhibition of guitars that were each painted by different artists and inspired by your music. You are currently working with projection mapping to create an interactive visual component to your show. What was your introduction to the art world and why is it so present in your work?
KK: n 2008, I got Lasik surgery on my eyes. Before then, my vision was terrible and I didn't really bother to take in visual information, even though I had glasses and contacts. That exhibition, titled ‘the exhibition' was my first experiment in working with others to visually interpret the guitar. Between then and now was a long break of just music making. I don't know what ‘the art world' is or what that means, but there are a lot of really creative people making stuff that looks beautiful and interesting, and I think it's just taken me this much time to trust my vision. My brain had to learn to see everything in a new way, according to my doctor, and that didn't happen overnight.
PSF: The visual arts appear strongly linked to your music. Is music something that you experience with other senses?
KK: Yes, well, I definitely feel music. I think most musicians take the tempo and the pulse of the song and internalize it, which is why a good string quartet can rest for two measures and enter back in perfectly in sync, because meter is something you feel far more than you hear.
PSF: As someone with synesthesia, I am thrilled to see you integrating visual components into your sound. Is this a glance at what the music looks like for you?
KK: Interesting to hear that you have this. I don't, other than certain strong color associations with numbers or songs, feeling like they have a particular hue. I don't think music looks like anything to me. However, when I see something, like a painting or a building or a piece of theater, it sounds like music to me, very specific music. And that effect is usually very immediate and very strong. So this show was created by me writing out ideas for visuals, having them be created by a team of people, and responding to those visual ideas with music.
PSF: Are there other artistic mediums that you have thought about incorporating into your music?
KK: Yes, and I can't share them all for lack of formalized ideas or direction at the moment, but I do want to use some sort of text. There is a little bit of that in The Neck but for the most part it is abstract. I'd like to use the format of the show to tell a more specific story perhaps.
PSF: Somehow you've surprised us all again with this new direction. Your new show is beautiful and groundbreaking. What made you think about using projection mapping?
KK: It was a long, long process of opening my eyes, looking around at what was going on on other stages and in other mediums. I went to shows, galleries, museums. I knew I wanted to add a visual element to my show but I had no idea what that really meant. At some point along the way I discovered projection mapping, which I thought was interesting, but it was always on such a huge scale. I thought about something that could make it smaller and more intimate, but I couldn't really see it. There was just a moment, and I don't even know if it was my idea, where it was suggested to projection map onto the guitar itself. Even setting that experiment up took several weeks of time. When the guitar was set up and we shone the first picture on it it was quite the experience. I knew then that it looked beautiful and that I could take this vision and turn it into an entire show. Obviously that took quite a lot of time and a lot of help, but that's basically the story of how it all began.
PSF: What was the most challenging aspect of your current project?
KK: Oh wow... where do I begin? It was a huge challenge creating all of the parts in time for the debut last year, but that feels like such a long time ago. Currently, our biggest challenge on the road is interfacing with the house projector for the backdrop. Audio signal is so much easier than video. Audio is voltage--either it's on or it's off basically. Video is information, so you're constantly dealing with the difficulty of sending information across hundreds of feet of cable that may or may not work that day, or may or may not like your signal, or has mysteriously decided to drop the signal every ten minutes, or won't project the color red at all. Or (it) hates your old reliable VGA cable but loves the HDMI cable you don't have enough length for. I can't tell you how much trouble this has been, and how much mystery (there's been) as to what is going wrong. It has gotten to the point that we carry both of our own projectors so that when we test the house system and find we're having a problem, we can be fully self-sufficient.
PSF: I understand that you created many of the films that were incorporated into the show, what was it like stepping into the role of a director?
KK: I was more of a writer/producer, but even that is a stretch since there weren't any actors or much of a crew really. Film is energetic work and it's exciting but also really challenging to get through a few days of filming just for a few seconds of video.
PSF: Are there Kaki King films we can look forward to in the future?
KK: I have more confidence in having a role in that entire process, so we'll see where that goes.
PSF: What is the overall story that you hope to tell or is it open to individual interpretation?
KK: The story begins with creation. There is sort of a post-big bang digital cosmic soup, from which the guitar emerges as a fully sentient and self-sufficient being. I enter the stage as a facilitator of sorts--the guitar is clearly the one in charge. The first five pieces are about creation and increasing complexity. You hear percussion and rhythm and you see black and white imagery. The first note heard is the first color seen. The shapes grow and begin to take almost human form over the course of the next two pieces. Then the guitar begins to really show it's personality. It sheds its skin and becomes anything it wants to. It goes on a journey, it tells you the story of its life, it shows you its internal skeleton. The last two pieces are about the frustration and excitement of learning an instrument, or a tool, or any new information set, and finally mastering it and becoming one with it. Like I said, there is a lot going on in there.
PSF: Sometimes, your pieces seem more like a conversation or a dance, and you've said before that the guitar plays you more than you play it. Where does your writing begin and how does it proceed?
KK: I don't know. I really don't. I play guitar as much as possible. I would play all day if I didn't have plants to water or babies to raise. I just show up and things happen. I show up, I pick up the guitar, I play something old, and something new starts to happen. That's as much insight as I have into my own process at the moment.
PSF: The first time I heard you play, I thought “this is what I never knew that I always wanted to hear from a guitar." What musicians challenged your idea of what music could be?
KK: Obviously, I listened to a lot of guitar music growing up, but I fell in love with Tchaikovsky for melody, Debussy for emotion, Cage for some weird, and Bartok for everything. And Britpop for how to be an insufferable teenager.
PSF: Your song titles are mini stories on their own, but you tend to be reticent when it comes to the meaning behind a particular piece. Are you giving us hints or red herrings with your titles?
PSF: You experiment with different tuning frequently, are there any pieces that began one way but shifted into another direction when you tried them in a different key?
KK: One good compositional technique is to play the fingerings for one song in a tuning for another. It's not likely to sound good, but it might shed some light on what some possibilities are for that tuning.
PSF: How did moving from the South to the North change your influences and your personal style?
KK: Well, being a gay atheist guitar player drummer music-weirdo in the suburbs of Atlanta was kind of hard. In NYC, I fit right in! So I was able to let go of a lot of self-consciousness overnight and get on with my life.
PSF: You're in that class of what I consider to be architectural musicians; people like Kishi Bashi, Merrill Garbus, Andrew Bird, people who seem to create entire symphonies out of just a couple of instruments. Do you begin with a simple melody that you build upon or do you always have this complete sound in mind?
KK: I don't usually think melodically, but I do like to anchor what I'm doing around one hook. It could be a rhythmic hook, or a bassline with a few melodic notes. Or even a picking technique that works really well. Essentially, everything that I write that sounds complicated almost always had very simple beginnings.
Also see our 2019 article on synesthesia
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