Kaki King’s life’s work tests the outer limits of playing guitar
There is no secret to becoming a guitar virtuoso, according to Kaki King. Only by playing the instrument on a daily basis for the past 30 years has she mastered her aggressive, percussive and technically impressive fingerstyle technique.
In fact, King’s entire adult life has been dedicated to pushing the boundaries of playing guitar. “Expanding the possibilities of the instrument has always been something I’ve been focused on,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I want to keep experimenting and pushing the envelope; I don’t ever want to be done.”
King’s epic chops have gained her widespread recognition. In 2006, she was the only woman and youngest musician on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The New Guitar Gods.”
Not that she cares about that sort of stuff.
“I ignore all of that nonsense,” she said. “That’s not the sort of legacy that’s interesting to me, and it’s not even reasonable or true, just totally hyperbolic.”
King spoke to the CN&R from her home in Brooklyn ahead of her headlining set at Laxson Auditorium for Chico Performances’ Guitar Festival on Sunday, Feb. 4. Expect a spectacle. During her immersive multimedia show, “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body,” King’s instrument will be transformed from a blank white canvas into a dazzling explosion of light and color.
In this case, there is a secret—a technique called projection mapping.
“It’s really not as complicated as it seems,” she said. “Let’s say you take a piece of cardboard, cut out the shape of a guitar and shine a light through it; you get the reverse silhouette of a guitar. Really, what we’re doing is sending light to only the guitar using software and digital projection.”
But there’s a little more to it: King’s guitar’s signal runs through a digital interface, which triggers various images—like, say, a spiral or a wash of color—based on which notes she strikes. So, it may not be obvious to the audience, but there is a direct relationship between what they see and hear.
“I feel like I get more out of [the show] than anyone,” King said, “because I know what’s happening and I know how to control it. … It’s very surreal, very beautiful. It’s taking the guitar and making it look like something it shouldn’t.”
In the name of pushing personal boundaries, King collaborated with the 12-piece Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra last year. The end product is her most recent album, Live at Berklee, which includes arrangements of her compositions for solo guitar, reimagined with the addition of strings and woodwinds. As a self-taught guitarist, King was forced to overcome her fears in order to work with the group of classically trained musicians.
“It was kind of intimidating,” she said. “I had a bit of imposter’s syndrome, because I didn’t go to music school and I have a very limited knowledge of music theory, but I was able to let go of that after I realized I am qualified to work with an ensemble, write for an ensemble and give directions and take feedback.”
And when it comes to performing at a high level, either with an ensemble or solo, King said the only obstacle is herself.
“There’s this open-ended, communicative circuit between my fingers, my body and my brain,” she said. “The only thing that can interrupt that circuit is my own self doubt, and all the subcategories of self doubt—insecurity, fear, procrastination. Otherwise, I just sit and play guitar, and good things happen as long as I remain open and meditative without thinking too hard.”