Tapping into the pantheon

Kaki King: Good things come in small packages.

King 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
King 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With a name like that, she’d better be good. Fortunately for Kaki King, she’s very good indeed – a standout, virtuoso guitarist in a world of bland uniformity, and not a bad singer and songwriter. She wasn’t always called Kaki, either – she was born Katherine Elizabeth King in Atlanta, Georgia 30 years ago.
“I was a small baby, so my parents decided to give me a smaller name, and it stuck,” said King earlier this week, riding in a van somewhere between London and Manchester, England where she was performing ahead of her arrival in Israel for her local debut on Friday night in Tel Aviv.
King remained compact in size upon reaching adulthood, but her ability on the guitar grew to gargantuan proportions, so much so that by mid-decade, she had acquired legend-like reputation in indie pop circles, which quickly spread to the mainstream. Rolling Stone magazine named her one of its “guitar gods” in 2006, the first time that a woman was presented with the mantle usually reserved for musicians with names like Hendrix and Page.
But it wasn’t ear-splitting riffs and electric solos that King became celebrated for in recent years; it was, instead, as one critic called it, a “fingerstyle-meets-folky-shoegaze genre.” King handles the fretboard almost like a keyboard, and utilizes the entire guitar in a blur of activity for techniques like hammering, tapping, and fanning, ultimately creating an orchestra of sounds.
“I acquired my style pretty much on my own. I took lessons as a young kid, but then I put the guitar away and switched to drums. I was probably 15 before I started to play again,” said King, who in 2007 won a Golden Globe for Best Original score along with Eddie Vedder for the American score to the Sean Penn-directed film Into the Wild.
She cited acoustic guitar masters like Alex Digrassi, Nick Drake and Preston Reed (“he does that tapping stuff really well”) as primary inspirations, and gave a special shout out to Leo Kottke, the veteran acoustic picker who can make his guitar sound like an entire band.
“Leo Kottke, he’s such a f****** legend, but I didn’t know him when I was learning. Later on when I started going through the history of guitar players, I sort of discovered him. He’s got that 12-string thing going – it’s so cool,” she said.
KING’S OWN six-string thing is also pretty splendid, with her first, mostly instrumental, albums eventually evolving into a style that encompasses full-fledged songs with backing musicians and lyrics sung in her breathy, childlike voice, as exemplified on her diverse recently-released fifth album, Junior.
King explained that it was not only a natural progression to move away from solely instrumental music, but it was actually a step back to the days when she used to play in bands in Georgia, and later busk on the streets of New York City while attending NYU.
“When I was a teen, I was a singer/songwriter, so, in a way, doing instrumental guitar was moving away from something I already had,” she said.
“I was never fully comfortable just playing the guitar, but then it became the ‘thing’ I did. I always wanted to do sort of what was natural, so while I didn’t consciously move away from the focus on guitar, I didn’t really think I could make a third instrumental record.”
She was referring to her breakout third album, 2006’s ...Until We Felt Red, which expanded her appeal and caught the eye of many new fans, including Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Grohl’s admiration for King’s playing sparked a collaboration in which she played guitar on “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” from the Foo Fighters’ 2007 album Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and resulted in King touring Australia with the band.
“Dave Grohl was a fan and he emailed me a lot, stuff like ‘we have to get together,’” said King. “When I was in LA one time, I looked him up, and he said, ‘come on by, we’re recording our record.’ They were still working on one song, and he said, ‘what do you think, maybe you should play on it.’ There was no grand scheme.”
Soon after the release of the album, King joined Grohl onstage to perform the song at the O2 arena in London, where Grohl introduced her to the audience with the oftrepeated mantra: “There are some guitar players that are good and there are some guitar players that are really f****** good. And then there’s Kaki King.”
The tour of Australia followed, a daunting experience for a solo King to warm up an audience of Foo fans.
“It’s always weird in arenas – they open the doors, shut down the lights and you start playing,” she said. “You need a little courage to get up by yourself in front of 10,000 people.”
COURAGE IS something King clearly doesn’t lack, however. Take, for example, her good-natured tonguelashing of jazz legend Herbie Hancock, with whom she hung out last week at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.
On her Web site blog, she recounted a ribald exchange which could have passed as a come-on by the 70-year-old musician. But instead of getting angry, King laughed and called Hancock a “dirty old man,” and ended the post by writing, “Herbie, I want to be just like you when I’m 70. Seriously.”
“Well, that pretty much sums up what happened,” King laughed, in answer to whether she and Hancock were now an item. “People said to me, ‘you must be so upset.’ But I was serious when I wrote ‘I want to be like you when I’m your age.’ “I really want to be a dirty old man like him. Did what I wrote come off like I was upset about it? That’s funny, because I wasn’t.”
A small, attractive woman in a world of male musicians, King has had to pick and choose her fights, and admitted that she has no patience for people who look at her gender instead of her guitar.
“Of course I encounter sexist situations, and it gets me angry,” she said. “It would piss anyone off if they weren’t taken seriously.”
Someone who takes King deadly serious is local singer/songwriter Tamar Eisenman, who, last year, soon after the release of her acclaimed album Gymnasium, found herself sharing a bill with King in Hamburg. The two immediately developed a mutual admiration society.
“I didn’t know anything about Tamar, but she was great. The show was awesome and after we hung out together,” said King. “We talked about making a show happen one day, and we kind of left it at that.
Then she called me and now it’s actually happening.”
She was referring to Friday night’s show at the Barby club in Tel Aviv featuring herself and Eisenman.
“We’ll play some songs together,” promised King. “I’m not sure what, but we’ll figure it out when I get there.”
Chances are, though, it will be good, very good.