Mega-legendary guitar player and composer Kaki King currently has an impressive ten years of record-making under her belt. In fact, she’ll be celebrating her decade-long professional career at Howard theatre tonight. I had the chance to speak with her over the phone last week, and we covered plenty of ground, from what it feels like to reach such a huge milestone in her musical career, to what she plans to do next. Read all about that here, and then be sure to swing by Howard for what are sure to be an incredible performance:
So it’s been ten years since the first record came out, that’s exciting! Does it feel like it’s been that long?
[Laughs] I don’t know, yes and no; it feels like it’s been eighty years and five minutes at the same time. So much has gone on that it’s hard to reminisce…all the memories kind of come back to me in pieces. It’s interesting; I’m finding that I’m able to mark a decade now, and for the first time in my life I understand what that feels like.
Right. Well and so for the shows, then, you’ll play Everybody Loves You in its entirety; are there any songs that you’re looking especially forward to playing?
Yeah, I haven’t done a lot of them in a while, and some of them I’ve never played live. I think “Everybody Loves You” (which is the title track) is a really demanding piece of music, and it’s taken several days and a lot of effort to really sort of get that under my fingers again. And it’s funny, “Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine” (which I didn’t really play in my sets after a few years) has kind of come back to me, and I remember loving the feel of that song on my hands; it’s a great-feeling song. And then “Fortuna”, which is a really beautiful piece of music that I rarely get to play…there’s something just dark and really pretty about it.
And are there any that you’d rather not revisit? That’s not to say that any songs are bad or anything, but are there some you just don’t connect with anymore?
Yeah, I mean certainly there are songs I wish I’d never written, but I’m realizing now that I had a lot of shit associated with this album. I think that when you’re young and you’ve done one thing, you’re judged by this one collection of songs. And so there are a couple of mistakes, and they’re really subtle, but I think an average listener might say, “Well, that might not have been what she meant to do.” I had anxiety attacks over these things, because the way the record was done was that it really was demos, it was really me putting together the recorded versions of these songs that I was playing. So it’s really raw, but what has happened over time is that those mistakes and those things that I would have done differently in the beginning no longer scare me, I’m no longer embarrassed by them; I’m more in-tune to where I was when I wrote it and I recorded it, and this sort of beautiful idea that I made a collection of demos that became an album that now has fans all around the world. So I have less of a connection, but I think it took time; I didn’t want to revisit those songs for a long time because I had such emotional baggage with them, but now I don’t. So now I can listen to them and really enjoy them, enjoy playing them. Without sounding a little weird, I do feel like it’s playing someone else’s music. It’s playing the version of myself when I was so young and naive that there’s really nothing to criticize.
Right. And do you find there’s pressure to outdo yourself, or do you just view each new project as its own separate thing?
Well, I feel a couple of things that have come up recently in the last few years. I’ve been doing this for so long now that I’m my own biggest competitor. I don’t think that competition really exists in music; critics like to play that up, but the truth is that when a certain type of music is popular, everyone benefits. For me, I’ve become a person in a bit of a bubble, so I am actually competing against the best version of myself, whatever that is. So there’s a pressure to continue to innovate with the guitar, which is sometimes really easy and sometimes very impossible. There’s also a continued interest that I have in instrumental music…it’s harder to have your own “voice”, because when people sing, it’s easily recognized as what they sound like, but I think when you’re developing that instrumentally…for me it took a lot longer. But I think it’s starting to work; I think people are starting to be able to go, “Oh, I think that’s a Kaki King song, if I had to guess.”
But yeah, there’s that idea that I’m always trying to do better, and sometimes better is not more accurate playing or more commitment to the original song on the album, it’s sometimes just innovation in the moment. I do try to play very well every night, and it’s interesting and hard for me because I’m not a classically trained guitarist, and at the same time I’m playing these pieces that demand an incredible amount of mental and physical stamina. So I kind of bridge this gap, but I’d say that yes, I’m always trying to be my best; I don’t want people to come to a show in 2013 and go, “Wow, she was so much better in 2008,” you know? [Laughs] But that’s kind of what it’s become for me.
Right, I get that. Now, I’d also read somewhere that you were maybe considering going back to school before you wrote Glow. Is that right?
I mean, the way that all went down was that I really didn’t freak out; I kept touring, I kept playing, and I didn’t change anything…or, I did change things; I was playing with a band, I went back to solo, I started to play all different kinds of guitars (and out of that came a collection of guitars that I now really feel comfortable with playing), and I kind of cut loose the things that weren’t working for me. From that, I continued to ask myself the question: “Do I want to do this? Is this it?” But the answer (ultimately) to that question was Glow. That’s kind of how I see it. I didn’t stop moving and I didn’t stop playing, I just went, “Is this what I’m going to do?” And I made that record, and I love that record; I think it’s wonderful, and I think it’s a wonderful instrumental record, and people really love it. I think that that’s a very strong answer to my question. That’s kind of the real story. If Glow is the outcome of that, then yes, I am certainly going to keep this job.
Well yeah, and I just appreciate that there’s sort of all this space on the album to do your own thing as a listener. It’s not a completely blank canvas, but in terms of allowing your brain to go wherever…
Yeah, and listen, I love that you say that, I really do. That’s why I loved classical music growing up, that’s why I love it now, that’s why I love instrumental bands…I love the emotional side of music, and I feel (unfortunately) that when people review my record, they talk a lot about the technique and about what I do and how I do it, but they don’t talk about how they feel. And that’s all I care about; not even how you feel, but that I made you feel. I think that’s the beauty of instrumental music, is that out of context, the music is just informing your emotions, and your emotions are informing you about how your feeling. I think that I’ve learned a lot about myself just allowing those emotional responses to music to come out, and suddenly I realize that I’m a much happier person even though I listen to Mozart’s Requiem, because it’s just so beautiful and I’m so capable of hearing the beauty. [Laughs] It gets a little esoteric beyond this point, but I believe in instrumental music as a tool to excite the emotional spirit.
Yeah, and obviously there ARE people doing that, whether it’s classical or ambient or whatever, but I definitely feel that it’s less prominent now. I feel like with the internet and everything, it’s like people are kind of afraid of this weird awkward silence with the universe, in a way. There’s no room to just sort of sit and just think.
Yeah, and look, when I was growing up (and I hate to do that whole “I’m old” thing, but I think people can relate), there were just times when putting on your headphones and listening to an album was a big deal, or putting it on and going for a drive in your car…that was something that was spiritual and amazing, and I think that it has changed. And I don’t think change is necessarily bad, it’s just different. But I do think that there is always room in life (in this life especially) for quietness and emptiness and the meditative state, and music can be the vehicle to that place.
Totally. Now, so what other big plans (apart from anniversary shows) have you got coming up in 2013?
Well, right after the anniversary shows I leave again; I went around the world in one direction and now I’m going back in the other direction. I’m immediately headed to Portugal, Istanbul and Australia for the big tours there, then I’ll come back in June and might be going to South America, but I’ll certainly have a lot to do over the summer. I won’t work too much, but I have a collaboration with the string quartet that appears on the album (they’re called ETHEL); we’re going to be collaborating as a big ensemble in 2014, and that’s kind of starting to get busy. And then I also have a Carnegie Hall commission that is due sometime in January. So I’m kind of entering into this contemporary classical world, and it’s really uncharted territory for me; I’ve done a lot of stuff, but this will be pretty new. So that’s just the stuff that’s on the horizon.
Sounds good, though! Now, you’ve obviously been at this a while, so if there’s anybody just starting out musically (or thinking about it), is there any bit of advice you might offer to someone that you wish you’d known about a little sooner?
Yeah, there’s a lot of things, like frequent flyer miles. (Trust me, you want to save them.) When you’re touring, anything that will allow you to accrue points, just do it, it doesn’t cost you anything. I say that because when you start to tour and you’re going overseas and they want to charge you $400 to carry your extra guitars, it can be so cost-prohibitive, but if you just save your miles and are kind of committed to a certain airline (listen, they’re all terrible, and I’m not endorsing any one of them), at the very least it makes life a hell of a lot easier. Those companies want your business, and if they’re willing to give you free things eventually, it’s worth it. Seriously, I say that because I made that giant mistake; I only got on Expedia and flew the cheapest airline no matter what it was, and it wasn’t until recently that I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve really been screwing this up for years!”
As far as other things, I think that it’s really important to know that you love what you do by yourself. If you love what you do in a vacuum, there’s virtually nothing that can get you down; some of the best gigs I ever played in my life were in my bedroom. We have neighbors downstairs that have been in a band forever, and they do it because it’s fun; they don’t have the agenda of “We have to make it, we have to do it!” I’ve been around enough to see people who make beautiful music, and it kind of has a life of its own. I think people really over-think a lot of stuff, like, “What is my bio going to say? What is my photo going to look like?” and I think that those things are helpful, but really, at the core, is your music doing for you what you want it to do for other people?
Right. Well, and I guess apart from that, do you have any closing words?
Not really. I think I will say that, you know, this month I’m on the cover of Acoustic Guitar, and a lot of big, wonderful accolades have come my way over the years, and I’ve taken absolutely zero percent of them seriously, but I have gratitude for everything, and I’ve really finally discovered that I am a baby student when it comes to the guitar. I really mean, that; I have a lot to learn on the instrument, and I will never stop learning. I think that was the other part of that question of, “Do I want to do this forever?”; I will always learn something new on this instrument. There is an infinite amount of music, and I could spend the rest of my life trying to master it. There are so many different roads to go down, and more importantly, the guitar teaches me about myself. When I’m playing poorly, it’s probably not because of my playing; it’s probably because I haven’t slept or haven’t eaten or because I’m upset about something and I need to work that out. It’s become something that informs me more about myself, and it took ten years for me to understand that. It’s a good place to be.
You know where else is a good place to be? HOWARD THEATRE TONIGHT. Be there or BE SQUARE. Also, in the meantime, follow Kaki on Twitter and Facebook for more updates.