published Friday, November 11th, 2011

Q&A with Kaki King

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with guitar goddess and singer/songwriter Kaki King about her collection of unusual guitars, scoring movies and how her current tour has helped her reconnect with the instrument.

CP: Tell me about this current tour, the Traveling Freak Guitar Show.

KK: Well, you know, it's just a little tongue-in-cheek thing. I am bringing a lot of guitars with me that some people might not have seen, I suppose. I have a seven-string nylon string guitar, a tiny 12-string tuned in a weird way and a banjo/Dobro hybrid - some stuff that is a little outside the realm of the regular six-string guitar that people are used to.

It's funny because I realized that, on certain songs, I'm already playing the guitar in such a weird way that it is already a freak show, and I'm the biggest freak of them all. [Laughs.]

That's the idea. I wanted to do a solo guitar tour because there's a purity to that that I really love. I wanted to have a new take on it.

CP: How have people been reacting to these instruments they've never seen?

KK: It's funny. It's all really interesting, depending on their familiarity with the guitar. I do have a lot of fans who play, who are really competent players or are very familiar with guitar music, and I have some who really aren't at all. It's funny. I feel like the novelty aspect works better for the guitarists, who say, “Oh, that's neat,” and the others are there just for the music. Having six or eight or however many strings doesn't matter to them, as long as I'm there to play for them.

CP: Did you raid your own collection for these instruments and is this all of them or did you leave some behind?

KK: Obviously, I have a nice collection of instruments. I feel like these were some of the highlights of the more interesting things I've picked up over the years.

This time around, I didn't bring the harp guitar, which is this gigantic piece. The reason why is that it's this thing that looks great on the poster, but the specific guitar I had wasn't playing as well as I needed it to.

Having done this over the past year, it makes me realize why the guitar has six strings and this length of frets and why it works. [Laughs.] Anytime people try and fool around with the equation, you get something that isn't as successful. They're successful in different ways, but the six-string guitar seems to function best overall.

CP: Do you use each one in equal measure or do some of them just get one or two songs to shine?

KK: Honestly, I haven't written a lot of material on these other things, so I have my six-string guitars, and they get the bulk of the highlights. Many of the songs I wrote on guitar are on those. All the other kind of weird things get maybe one or two.

CP: When did the tour actually start?

KK: The first show was in New York back in February, and then I went to the East Coast and then went back to the Northeast. I haven't been to the Southeast. A large part of it wasn't specifically to do this, but I said, “I haven't been to the Southeast touring in a while, and certainly not to take this show.” I really made a point that I wanted to go.

CP: Has the tour met up to your expectations? Have you learned anything else about the guitar over the last nine months?

KK: Certainly. A lot of this came out of the fact that my relationship with the guitar had come to a turning point. I had been playing guitar for like 27 years, which is crazy. At some point, my whole identity was wrapped up in being this “blah-blah-blah” guitar player, and I didn't understand what that meant anymore.

I'm not sure if it was the musical aspect since I had been doing so many things, but I didn't understand why I suddenly resented the guitar. This happened a couple of years ago, actually.

Part of being so very personal was it was me reestablishing my relationship with this instrument I've known my whole life and have no memory of not knowing. In large part, it has been successful because, as I said, I've found that, “Wow, the six-string guitar. They really nailed it when they made that one.” [Laughs.] It's been kind of a beautiful process.

CP: How much longer will the tour go on for?

KK: I'm lucky because I can't do this on my own. I have a guitar tech on the road with me and a sound man. They've been traveling with me for a long time. Specifically, the full show is going to go through Thanksgiving, and then I'll go to Europe with a condensed version show.

CP: Are you not worried about taking that many instruments on an airplane?

KK: You know, normally, I'm pretty lucky, but I've had some pretty screwed up scares with that. I need to get some better cases.

CP: Your last album, “Junior,” was a band album, a power trio. When you're playing these solo shows, has it changed how you approach material from that album? Are you even playing material from that album on this tour?

KK: You know, “Junior” had a very specific vibe, and it's hard to recapture that by myself. That's not my plan, and I'm not making the attempt. There are one or two songs I play from it, and obviously, they're very different.

It's definitely a scene change. I have fans I only made with “Junior,” which is my fifth record. They heard about me for the first time through that record, and the tour for “Junior” didn't go to some of those places. They're coming to see me now and going, “What is going on? I got this record with this band on it, and I'm sitting in a performing arts center and watching this guitar crap happening.”

That kind of stuff does occur, but if I try and please everyone, I'll please no one at all. Most people forgive it. They say, “You're a guitar player, and this is just what you do.” I try not to play songs that aren't appropriate to the instrument.

CP: What are you pulling from for these sets? All five albums or just the last one or two?

KK: Yeah, it's all five albums.

CP: You've been seriously playing guitar for more than 20 years. When did your percussive approach to playing it enter the picture?

KK: I don't really know. There are a lot of people who play jazz guitar and kind of have a back beat. I think of the percussive elements not like the physical tapping of a beat on a guitar but how the whole thing is played.

It definitely coincided with when I started playing drums. I think I started playing drums when I was 9, and that was around the age when I started playing guitar. I seriously took on singer style guitar when I was 14.

I was a terrible drummer, but I had both of these passions developing slowly in my adolescence, and I knew I loved music. It was a very slow, steady creep.

I did see some people I really admired who used a lot of different extended techniques on guitar, and I thought, “Yeah, that makes sense.” It didn't seem groundbreaking and crazy; it was just something that made sense to do.

When you play guitar for that long - or do anything for that long - it's not a series of big eureka moments, it's a case of osmosis.

CP: You first started singing prominently on your third album “Until We Felt Red.” Was that a scary step for you or something you had been interested in doing for a while?

KK: You know, yes and no. The truth is, musicians sing; we sing - it's what you do. You sing and play music - duh - but solo guitar, as a genre, is a non-singing genre, a place where we just play guitar and nothing else.

I took singing out first before putting it back in, if that makes sense. So it wasn't a case of, “Oh my god, I'm going to sing for the first time.” It was a matter of doing these records that had this pure quality to them as instrumental records and then going, “OK, I've done that, and now …”

“Junior” is definitely an exception, but I've maintained mainly being instrumental, even on records I sang on. I sang on four songs of “Dreaming With Revenge.” Certainly, those songs get more attention because they're more friendly to listeners' ears, but at my heart, “I'm a musician,” and I don't want to not sing like I have something against it.

CP: How did your fans of your instrumental albums react to that change?

KK: It's hard to tell these days because there's always some dickhead on YouTube with an opinion, but I think most people just said, “OK, she's doing her next thing.” I've never had a fan base that goes, “We will hate you if you don't do what we want.” I've been very fortunate because there are those people who have those kind of expectations. Singing in this whsipy, ethereal voice with lyrics that don't make sense on records that are mainly instrumental doesn't qualify you as being some kind of pop star.

CP: You wrote and performed music for a number of films, such as “August Rush” and “Into the Wild,” but none for the past couple of years. Is that something you have interest in returning to?

KK: I have done a couple of smaller projects, but you're right. I kind of went crazy touring, and then I was like, “I've got to stop working.” So I've taken a while to just say 'No' to certain projects.

That is all about to change. For the first time in 10 years of doing this, I've decided to set my own schedule and not work myself to death. But you know, I also considered those things as blessings; I never sought them out.

I understand that I may never do a film again, and maybe I'll be doing films the rest of my life. It's a very, very different way of making music for me. It's wonderful, but it's entirely a different process. While I definitely enjoy it, I feel like if I went searching for that work, I would be more frustrated as a person.

I really do like it, but it's not something I'm chomping at the bit to do it.

CP: So if it fell in your lap, you'd be OK with it?

KK: That's kind of it because when it falls in my lap, it's pressure-free. When it falls in my lap, I get to say, “This is what I would do” and do it and then walk away. If it's something I'm desperate to try to get my name on, then it seems to be kind of a tainted, I guess.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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