Kaki King | Seeing Red

king"I don't have a very strong voice," she says. "I think limiting myself to what I'm capable of really was better than pushing myself to try and sing with a growl or with a lot of breath behind it. So I think that it ended up being far better to build upon what some people would consider a weakness and turn it into a strength."



Kaki King in Rome. Photos: Tania Alineri

redKaki King is eating ice cream in the office of her record label, Velour. As we speak, her responses are peppered with "mmmmmhmmm" as she plows through the dish. You may have seen King on YouTube with her fingers flying across the guitar or from her appearances on Conan O'Brien or David Letterman. Her style of guitar involves the usual strings, but also creating a symphony of percussive sounds by drumming on various parts of the instrument. To listen to the effect is thrilling but watching her play is simply amazing. King is a blur of intense guitar playing and yields some very striking songs. With the release of her third album …Until We Felt Red, King, who is regularly ranked in the top 50 American guitar players, has taken her music in a new direction with the addition of electric guitars and the appearance of a voice—hers—to accompany several of the songs. Was the acoustic hindering her?

"No… it didn't. I actually have great love for that style and that discipline, but I found I had just run to the end of my creativity with it." King had spent much time on the road in and out of the U.S. that she found writing songs to follow up 2004's Legs to Make Us Longer more difficult than she expected. "I knew a long time before making the record that whatever I was going to do next was going to have to be very different, because otherwise, my creative juices would dry up in terms of guitar, and I didn't want that to happen."

King's choice was one that had been faced before. Most know of Dylan's shocking decision to move to electric in the ’60s and how he was seen as a traitor to the folk cause. King's decision was probably less controversial, but still took her fans by surprise. King describes the reaction as being mostly positive. "All the guitar people in the press thus far have been very intrigued and very interested. I think maybe they've seen the death of a lot of solo guitarists just doing the same thing over and over. And I'm not as good a player, as like DeCrassi or something. I'm 26, and you just develop these things over years of playing. I'm sure there's going to be some naysayers out there, and some people that are not going to come to show because it has a drummer, but whatever. I'm not worried about that." kaki2

The first time I heard about Kaki King was from friends in Rome who wrote to say that King was packing clubs throughout several Italian cities. She also performed a day concert there for a school in Rome, then answered questions for the Italian audience. During the Q&A period, King explained the title of the new album: "It has a lot of meaning actually. In America, "red" usually means conservative, but it can also mean rough or red as a scratch or hot and sexy. But it is not the title itself that is important actually, but this part—" she said, gesturing to the ellipsis. "The part before that is important—what we did do…until we felt red."

Kaki King could have been eating her frozen confection in a much tonier office at Sony Records. Her first album was recorded for Velour. With its initial buzz, she was picked up by Sony. Though her album for Sony was considered a critical success, she decided to break ties with the label. When I quiz her about the split and if it was mutual, she simply says, "Yeah, everyone I ever knew there got fired, so I suppose it was mutual enough." King went on to put her own money and effort into the production of …Until We Felt Red. She then shopped it around and ended up where she started, back at Velour. Does this mean she has found her home, or is it just a resting place between majors? "Let's sell some fucking records," the guitarist says, "and then maybe I can answer that question." 

An even more interesting development on the disk is King's light, sweet voice which appears on several of the songs. Her singing adds an ethereal effect to the tracks, balanced nicely by the enhanced production and extra instruments on the disc. Her wispy vocals recall Julee Cruise (best known for making Twin Peaks all the chillier). King turns back my compliments on her voice. "I don't have a very strong voice, she says. "I think limiting myself to what I'm capable of really was better than pushing myself to try and sing with a growl or with a lot of breath behind it. So I think that it ended up being far better to build upon what some people would consider a weakness and turn it into a strength."

King seems to have taken the use of her vocal chords on the CD in stride. "It felt really natural, honestly, because I wasn't making a record with any pressure from the label or anyone telling me what to do. I'm the kind of person who tends to agonize over every sound in every song. But it wasn't such a huge, ‘Oh my God you're singing now, what's this gonna mean' at the time of making the album." 

King grew up in Georgia but moved to New York City where she pursued a degree at NYU. She was intent on becoming a lawyer. "That was not in the picture for me. I did think that if I was going to do anything it would be as a drummer, and that's I was playing drums quite a bit in a lot of bands around town. It was really more of a passion. It wasn't anything about ‘this is my future.'"

Through her guitar King has found her future not in front of judges, but the public, and the hope is that for many, red will be their color. | Jim Dunn

With additional reporting from Marta L'Abbate and Carlotta Soloperto
TANIA ALINERI (photographer)

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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