When I show people the video of Kaki King playing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2003 (which you can check out on www.YouTube.com), their reaction is usually something similar to the one I had the first time I saw it: "What the fuck is she doing to that guitar?"
Nearly dwarfed by her Ovation acoustic, the barely-over-five-feet King blazed through a sped-up version of the frenetic "Close Your Eyes & You’ll Burst Into Flames," using a pick-hand "tapping" technique, where both hands hammer out notes on the fret board, in intricate, rapid-fire patterns. Combined with an alternate tuning, the sound was like baroque music from another planet. Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any more complex, she started drumming on the body of the guitar… while continuing to play with both hands. It was like King was simply playing a different instrument than the one the rest of us are familiar with.
With the release of her first album, Everybody Loves You, and jaw-dropping performances on shows like Late Night and the Late Show with David Letterman, the then-23-year-old King established herself as a pre-eminent instrumental guitar virtuoso.
By the release of her second album, Legs to Make Us Longer, in 2004, guitar geeks, a generally riffs- and testosterone-heavy group, were going crazy. Frets magazine called her "the future of acoustic guitar."
So why would an artist who made a name for herself as one of the most technically accomplished instrumental guitarists around make a record that sounds rather like, well, a pop album?
"I had almost bought in to the mythology of being a great guitar player. I guess I had to say, ‘I need to take a step back,’" said King, speaking to me via phone from her tour bus between stops.
As exemplified by her guitar playing, King has never been one for convention, so it’s fitting that she would suffer from an unconventional musical quandary: being pigeonholed by her own uniqueness.
"I felt like I reached a point where I felt the magic of all of this was going to be lost if I did another solo guitar record," she said. "Why should you say that this is who you are, and why can’t you do anything else?"
From the first track, of –Until We Felt Red, her third full-length, it’s apparent that it’s a major departure from King’s previous records. For starters, she sings. King’s breathy, almost little-girl soprano floats ethereally over "Yellowcake," the opening track, backed by a folky, fingerpicked rhythm, and glitters over the largely power-chord driven "Jessica."
"A lot of [the songs] are coming from the fact that I listen to mostly pop music," she said. "I was thinking in terms of the three-and-a-half-minute pop song."
Even the instrumental tracks have a distinctly more layered sound than on the two previous albums, incorporating drums, bass, synths and pedal steel guitar. The guitar work is still often highly complex, but these songs aren’t about showy riffs, they’re full-fledged compositions. King’s sense of frenetic melody and rhythm are still there, but expanded into vast, multi-instrumental landscapes of sound.
"The word I kept repeating to myself was ‘ear candy,’ " King said. "The guitar work is still pretty difficult, but that’s not the point. I wanted it to be sonically more complex."
It might be ear candy, but it’s not all sugary sweet. This confection has some bite. Despite the attention on King’s technical ability, there has always been a raw, emotive quality to her songwriting that hasn’t been lost in her latest work. It’s a quality that makes her music disarmingly accessible, whether you know who Leo Kottke is or not.
If you have any technical interest in guitar at all, the opportunity of seeing Kaki King play live simply should not be missed. Watching her fire away frenzied hammer-ons or build a melody out of looped pedal steel will change the way you think about playing guitar. But you don’t have to be an expert on bar chords to see that King is in a class, and perhaps a genre, by herself.
King in Portland
Who: Kaki King, w/ Christine Baze & Sarah Bettens
Where: Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi
When: Saturday, Sept. 30, 9:30 p.m.
Cost: $15 / 21+