Kaki King's unique sound

Her fans say the brilliant American musician brings incredible energy and real chemistry to her shows.

Kaki King on the guitar. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kaki King on the guitar.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s a quarter to 11 on a Thursday night, the Barby nightclub in Tel Aviv, underground and decorated with haunted- house-like candle chandeliers, holding a crowd of several hundred. Those walking in look as if they’ve just come from college campuses, with many boys wearing black T-shirts showcasing various band names and symbols. Some stand packed around the bar, while others sit Indianstyle in circles of three or four below the stage.
Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” plays in the background as people on the balcony ask each other, “Have you ever heard her play?”
A few minutes later and once the music’s stopped, the lights dim and three musicians – a drummer, EVI (electronic valve/wind instrument) player and phenomenon instrumentalist and musician-of-the-hour Kaki King – climb on stage. King sports short hair with pixie bangs, a white T-shirt, shorts and ankle-high black boots.
“Ma koreh, Tel Aviv [what’s up, Tel Aviv]? she asks the audience, putting the ukulele strap over her shoulder and adding, “Sababa [cool]?
The band breaks into “Falling Day,” a song from King’s latest album, Junior. She looks at her bandmates, jumps and dances with her instrument, bangs her head to beats and, smiling at the audience, grabs the mike. It is this energy throughout the show, stemming from her uncanny musical prowess and comfort on the guitar, that makes the click between the music and this Israeli audience.
“King uses [the guitar] like no one else in the world,” says Oren Arnon, talent buyer at Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production, which brought her here.
“She tests the limits of her instrument,” he says. “And that’s where her greatness lies.”
Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, 31-year-old King began playing the guitar at just five years old, moving on to play percussion during high school and then rediscovering the guitar in college. Since her debut album in 2003, Everybody Loves You, King has released five full-length albums, written music for two feature films – including Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, for which she and fellow film scorers received a Golden Globe nomination – and been hailed as a music virtuoso worldwide.
Arnon met King while managing a club in New York City and, having been a fan for years, tried to bring her to Israel for some time before the opportunity arose last July. That show was a success (Arnon explains that though many Israeli audiences look to hear mainstream radio hits at shows, there’s a niche of music lovers looking for a different sound), and King declared she would return to Israel for even longer next time. So when they saw a chance for her to play this month, they didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve traveled all over Europe and Japan and Australia,” says King on a phone interview before the show. “I’ve been to Brazil and Mexico – just a full spectrum.
“There are audiences that are very quiet and respectful, like in Japan,” she says, describing some of the responses to her music. “And ones that are very loud, like in Australia. The Germans clap a lot. Mexicans scream. Brazilians want to hug you.”
With this month’s show at the Barby, her first show in Israel as headliner, King wasn’t sure what to expect. Having played with Moby at the country’s Pic.Nic festival earlier in the week, King had her first fan experience.
“Oh man, only in Israel,” she begins. “This guy found me in a press thing [where] I was just hanging out, and he requested a certain song. He said he couldn’t come last time because it was Friday and he’s religious.”
“I caught her at the Sheraton in Tel Aviv because I knew Moby would be there,” says that fan, music aficionado Amihay Borenstein. “I told her it bummed me out [that last time it was on a Friday]. I asked her to do a specific song, ‘Pink Noise,’ which is completely phenomenal. She said she doesn’t play it at shows at the moment, but [maybe she would].”
Borenstein discovered King’s music at the music store where he works.
“There is no one out there doing what she does with a guitar,” he says. “No one. She plays the guitar like it’s a piano. It’s bizarre, but I think it’s beautiful. It’s a show where you almost go to watch the technique more than to hear what sounds come out of the technique.”
Throughout the show, the sea of upturned heads bobs in unison, people clapping as they wait for her to play between each song (“I don’t know why you’re clapping,” she responds, “but I’m sure it’s good”). Spotlights on the stage switch between blue and red and pinkish-purple. King finds time to talk about how “Mediterranean water is powerful” after a glued-on nail she uses to strum falls off as a result, she thinks, of her swim in the sea earlier. Eventually her bandmates leave her alone on stage, holding her guitar.
“This song is dedicated to someone who couldn’t make it last year because the show was on a Friday,” she says, and breaks into a speedy rendition of “Playing with Pink Noise,” a song in which, using her guitar alone, she bangs and scratches and strums out different sounds simultaneously.
At the end of the show and to yelling fans who refuse to move from where they’re standing, King ultimately plays two encores. Having pulled out her lap steel guitar and built an entire song of sounds by looping, she tells the audience, “It’s amazing that [this is] no longer an issue that comes between us, that you have fully accepted my s***ness and welcomed it.” She is referring to the literal translation of her name in Hebrew (she’d later Tweet out “Thank you, Tel Aviv, from the s*** king”).
Another fan with whom she makes a personal connection during the show is Asaf Raz, who stands in the front row and to whom she says at one point, “Is that an old-school Suede T-shirt? You are my new favorite person.”
“She’s a sort of half a feminine Jimi Hendrix,” Raz says before the show, explaining that he discovered her music while looking for interesting guitarists and was blown away by YouTube videos in which she “played the guitar upside down and using magnets.”
“I told myself, I have to see her show, and I was right,” he says. “The songs, her relationship with the audience, all the jokes and funny things she said throughout the performance...”
“I don’t know how to classify it,” says Lily Klein, attending her first King performance. “It was just artistic and interesting and you don’t even know where it came from. It’s hard to speak because it was so good.”
Her friend Daniela Roter adds, “I can’t speak full sentences, it’s more like, ‘Wow, oh my God, wow, oh my God.’”
With the chemistry thick between King and her listeners, Raz is asked why he believes this Israeli audience loves King as it does.
“Because she loves us!” he responds.
To keep up with Kaki King’s performances and music, check out Kakiking.com.