From the B Line to NPR

Guitar Virtuoso Kaki King

by Andrew Phillips


Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Decades later, guitarist Kaki King engaged in a similarly devilish act, brutally murdering an 81-year-old homeless man, stealing his riffs, and leaving him steeped in a pool of his own blood. Spattered and bereft, King left the scene embarking on a drug-fueled bender across three states.

She is also a communist.

Fiction better suits the situation. There’s an inexplicable, furious talent at work, one that I’m at a loss to categorize. Thus I turn to tabloid talk to enhance my analysis. Why not? It’s equally charged and equally frivolous.

You see, my friends and I are the aural paparazzi, shamelessly sucking away the music’s marrow then furiously reconstructing the musician’s bones. We’re good, very good, but we’ve hit a wall on this one. Is she a one-trick pony? Will she survive after the appeal of her stunning skill wanes?

Our group’s resident guitar virtuoso swears by King’s merits. But another dismisses her, saying her one trick isn’t even that impressive “You just like her because she’s hot. Have you ever even listened to early Ani Difranco?”


On both her debut and her recent Epic Records release, King champions a percussive, rhythmic style of instrumental guitar, rife with hammered and tapped notes. These tones are augmented by layered harmonics and shifting, often alternate, keys. This is a fancy way of saying that she beats her guitar, smacking rhythms on the neck and body while plucking the underlying melody.

Ani doesn’t play like that. No one does.

* * *

The scrutiny that lies behind, like what lies ahead, is painfully premature. Kaki King isn’t a celebrity. She’s just some girl, a vaguely cool, band-geeky presence in the corner of the party. She’s no stodgy virtuoso, just a normal 24-year-old.

Or so it would seem, I don’t actually know her. But as the car door pops open, she seems familiar.

King and her tour-manager—a beaming buddy who doubles as Kaki’s confidant—just pulled into the club, late for our interview. They’re not in a bus or a shuttle from the airport. King carts around in a Toyota Avalon—very rock-star—so like most commuters she got stuck in traffic.

Fumbling quickly through introductions, the girls quickly enlist my less refined journalistic services. So now I’m a pack mule for merch, following King up two flights of stairs. Conflict of interest? I won’t tell if you don’t.

Half a flight above me, King’s figure is deceptive, larger, more befitting her musical stature. On solid ground she shrinks back to size: a tiny, unimposing presence.

Her coat is adorable.

In her dressing room King buries her slim frame in the ruffles of a plush leather couch, crossing her legs neatly, Indian style. Her lip-stud is noticeably absent, a small bump in its place.

I’m working the wires on my tape recorder, vaguely listening as girlish giggles pass between Kaki and confidant. It seems the door guy was, well ... very hot.

I think about telling the girls that the door-guy feels the same way, but that could get a little strange. I was listening earlier in the evening as their consummate hottie traded laughs with a leather-clad Metal Cowboy (resplendent in a studded hat). The men, like King, used the word “hot” several times. Of course, they were talking about her licks. They hadn’t seen her face.

Strange, because in the last few months King’s mug has graced a number of fairly formidable stages; David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s for starters. King’s done a slew of interviews, including a long segment for NPR and a cover-piece for Acoustic Guitar magazine. Surprising coverage considering that King’s playing is rooted in the avant-garde edge of instrumental guitar music, not, say, pop music.

So why are Conan and Letterman scraping up the instrumental elite? My guess is that they found her the same way everyone else did: through friends, not PR agents.

Responding to my softball opener King says, “Even through there’s been great press, my music is still something that people discover on their own. It’s not something where people are gonna be like, ‘Yeah I heard that song on the radio. I’m gonna pick up the CD.’”

I’m inclined to agree, though her words may be a little dated. I picked up the new record, Legs to Make Us Longer, after hearing her play on National Public Radio. Clearly, the ball is rolling and the press is a more than willing accomplice. Everyone’s calling in their cache to get this thing some attention. But why? It’s just guitar music.

But of course, this ain’t your daddy’s guitar music—though to be fair, my father did rather enjoy it. It’s really stunning stuff, and you don’t have to be a fan of the genre to see that. Besides, even if you are, King champions a wholly original style, one whose influences aren’t immediately accessible. I had to do some serious searching to place her work in any kind of context. Michael Hedges comes up a lot in interviews, but he does something different. Long-time virtuoso Preston Reed, however, is the obvious inspiration. I spent a lot of time figuring that out. I should have just waited:

“Basically, what I do is that I play just like Preston Reed,” says King. “I’ve always acknowledged this and I’ve always had a certain amount of guilt about it.”

Not too much guilt, I hope. Reed has remained below the radar for the past two decades, happily it seems, and besides, King does more than merely pirate his sound. Her riffs are more aggressive, more street-savvy and vicious. She affects an edge that is wholly her own.

“I sort of took his signature and brought it to this other level of attention,” says King.

True, and it’s that attention which adds a dramatic edge to our tale. Her piggy-back off Reed is only part of the problem. King’s music digs deeply into the realm of the virtuoso, without dumbing it down for mainstream listeners. There’s no hook, no pop sentiment and yet somehow she’s managing to make a name with it. Reed doesn’t seem to mind—he hasn’t said anything publicly—but perhaps other guitar-elites do. After all, instrumental guitar music has long been a reclusive niche, the province of the music elite. It’s an unusual home for a smart-allecky 20-something, especially one with breasts.

“I’ve had nothing but support.”

That’s King’s answer when I ask if there’s some bitter sentiment, some veiled jealousy emanating from her older, more experienced (though less successful) brethren.

Of course I don’t believe her.

“People just see me as a Tiger Woods for this music,” King continues. “I’m someone who’s young who’s going to bring a lot of publicity and interest.”

Maybe, but that’s a dangerous comparison. Woods may have gained mainstream acceptance and acclaim, but I’ll bet he saw his share of back-room bitterness. Some people just don’t like to see the boat rocked.

“There’s definitely that age gap,” admits King, breaking from her previously reserved tone. “I feel it. I feel that maybe people at times don’t feel I have a right to be where I am.”

As I prod further, there’s an irate undercurrent, something that hints at a deeper anger

“I mean, it’s fucking guitar,” she says. “It’s not that complicated.”

So much for the veil. Now we’re starting to get somewhere.

“Whatever. Music’s good. There’s all kind of music out in the world and there’s room for it all.”

King shifts her legs uncomfortably as she delivers this last bit. So maybe there is some resentment there, on both ends. 50-year-old virtuosos, wives neglected, lives sacrificed in the pursuit of the old six-string: those guys should be pissed. Kaki King is upstaging them.

“A lot of them were young when they started,” says King, defensive now. “I think I’m in this weird position where all these people who made this music famous early on are in now in their 40s and I’m kind of picking up the slack. You have to remember that they were my age when they were starting. There are plenty of people who are younger than me that are far better. They just don’t have an agent.”

Fair enough. Of course King’s skill, like that of Tiger Woods, is the ultimate affirmation of her success. And she’s no overnight sensation, no teenie-bopper created by a pack of rabid PR hounds. When it comes to paying dues it’s hard to get more down and dirty than the NYC subway.

“I didn’t have a job and I had just graduated from college,” explains King, an NYU alum who stayed in the Big Apple after getting her degree. “I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have any money. I just got up one day and was like, ‘That’s a good idea. I’ll go play in the subway.’”

And you thought clawing your way up from jazz clubs was difficult:

“It’s hard, because at some point you really have to pee,” says King. “That’s kind of what dictates how long you can be down there.”

Of course the subway was just a start. She followed those gigs with a stint smacking skins for performance act the Blue Man Group. More important, for her career, however, was a concurrent six-month stint at NYC indie haven The Mercury Lounge. It was there that King added business savvy to her repertoire.

“I hung out around managers and publicists,” she says. “I kind of knew how this business works and I kind of took advantage of it.”

So there’s the real answer. King’s pop appeal drops her into dangerous territory. While her riffs are certainly up to snuff, it’s her youth and natural attractiveness that make her an easier sell than some equally talented old fatty. So she received a rare chance to rise from the sweaty, seedy, guitar underground. That she took it seems understandable. That she got it is, for some, another issue entirely.

“There’s no shame in that because I get to play guitar for a living and I’m not playing bullshit,” says King. “So I’m not sure what to say to some of these older guitar players who I kind of feel are like ‘Oh, what’s this young buck doing?’”

What she’s doing is grasping for the brass ring, or at least for the minor comforts afforded to moderately successful musicians. But is that what she’s really after? If money and fame are all she wants, why isn’t she playing pop or rock? She says she likes that stuff, so why not play something more befitting her age? Wouldn’t that be easier?

“I played guitar in loud rock bands,” she says. “But at some point I’m like a martial arts student. I learn all kinds of different stuff but I find this obscure Taiwanese art ... well not Taiwanese. But you know what I mean, something that is very obscure. I put myself to the challenge: Here are the rules. One guitar. Not a lot of instrumentation, or none preferably. No singing. Different tunings. I kind of just went with that. I didn’t know it would be my career, it just was something I like to do.”

That’s good, her intentions are pure. What she does, she does well—so well, in fact, that she managed a major label record deal. In an age of pre-fab pop, this is something of an achievement, especially for someone playing music so far off the beaten path.

“There is a little bit of artist development at work,” says King, admitting that her situation is hardly typical. “I think that record labels are frustrated because they’ve been branded an industry that makes a single and then has shitty records. There’s need to add a certain level of credibility to an industry that has lost so much of it. The label sees that. So they’re not really trying to tell me what to do.”

That’s great for now, but it’s still risky business for King. What happens when the bottom drops out? At some point a major label’s dedication to the bottom line is bound to come back into play. And what if America-at-large doesn’t stick with her?

“Everyone is capable of a lot more than that one thing that you hold on to, to seep through the cracks. But if you have to milk something, unfortunately that’s how it goes,” says King. “I’ve kind of come to terms with the acoustic guitar thing. It’s almost something that’s very esoteric in the greater world of what I do musically.”

Good to hear. So what else have you got?

“I think that I’m broadening that enough so that in the future I’ll be able to step into various different roles.”

Smart. Very smart. There is some evidence of dexterity on King’s more recent release, Legs to Make Us Longer, some sense that King is concerned about being pigeon-holed.

“That was something I was very conscious of on the record,” says King. “You loosen the rules of the game and then you start to sound like yourself, and you can continue to be creative.”

But is that really realistic? I’m not so sure. For now things are going great, but I’m wondering what friends Kaki will have left when the media blitz end. She’s got the chops and the skill for a life of long nights in dark clubs, studio sessions, and hot collaborations. But she’s hopscotched all that. Will she still have cred when it’s time to take a step back?

I don’t know, but I hope that she retains her savvy and dips graciously back into the underground when the time is right. I hope to hear her name again, 20 years from now, spoken with reverence on the lips of some upcoming young virtuoso. 20 years from now, when her feet have grown into her shoes.

For now though, she’s got more dues to pay. After all, at 24 you’re allowed to have legendary licks, but you can’t be a legend, not yet.

So into the fray she goes. After our interview King takes the stage like a beast. Even tuning she fights the good fight, rattling off complex riffs and impressive scales. People slowly creep forward from their tables, an unusual occurrence in a venue with tables.

King’s guitar resonates when she smacks the bass notes. Her fingers and palm seem to bounce from the strings as her thick acrylic nails pluck away. Her eyes are removed from the action, and her playing seems effortless, infuriatingly so. There’s no doubt her style, be it hers or not, is unassailable. After her set, the befuddled crowd rises to its feet.

Sure, there’s one catcall from the back, but everyone else is cheering for the music, not the musician.

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