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Kaki King. Photo via kakiking.com

Q&A with Guitarist Kaki King: Performs at MIM Thursday

Written by Nikole Tower Category: Performing Arts Issue: September 2017
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In April of this year, a gaggle of talented musicians gathered in Boston’s intimate Red Room at Cafe 939. Berklee College of Music had invited renowned guitarist Kaki King to record a live album with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra, made up of 12 Berklee students and faculty. The resulting live album, “Kaki King Live at Berklee,” will be released September 22. 

When you think of King, you might think of versatile guitar chords and acoustic instrumental ballads. She was the youngest person (and the only woman) named to Rolling Stone's "New Guitar Gods" list in 2006. Since then she's enjoyed some pretty heady collaborations, including with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Timbaland.

“Kaki King Live at Berklee,” King’s first album in two years, introduces many of her older songs re-envisioned, or rather, re-energized with an orchestra. It’s not only an album that is the first of its kind for King, but was a unique experience for the students. BirnCORE, Berklee’s own record label, gave students the chance to experience the ins and outs of recording and producing under an independent record label.


"Magazine" is the only single released prior to the album dropping.

Ahead of her performance in Phoenix this week, PHOENIX checked in with King to chat about her new album, the challenges of recording live and her thoughts on being a woman (and mom) in the music world.*

Check out King, along with guitarist Derek Gripper, at the Musical Instrument Museum this Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

What prompted you to make a live album?
I was invited by Berklee College of Music [in Boston]. It was sort of an idea they had initially that we collaborated on to figure out how to use the talent they have in their students but to also do something that will have a real world release. While the students are still in school and haven’t graduated yet they can put out a record that will have legs outside of their studies and I thought that was a great idea. The idea was to take songs from my catalogue – some of them are my much older songs – and reinvigorate, reinvent them… then do the whole thing live. There were a lot of challenges involved. Even though it’s not new material, there is definitely a freshness to it.

How would you characterize the sound of this album? How will it compare to your previous work?
In this situation [I approached the songs] very differently. For some of them I have string arrangements added and that’s a completely new world [for me]. Even though there are some tracks that I wrote many, many years ago and I’ve been playing them all the time, I still had to attack them as if they were brand new [on the new album].

How does performing with an orchestra compare to playing solo?
The stakes are really, really high [playing live with an orchestra]. We had four different orchestrators, myself included. We had some rehearsals but then we only had two shows to get it right. The emphasis was much more on technicality. If this had been something where this was a really well-rehearsed show or we had been touring for a long time, that’s a totally different vibe. [But for this, I thought,] let’s just make sure that we are getting the notes right but we are still getting into some kind of magic.

It was 11 years ago that Rolling Stone placed you on their guitar gods list. What’s been your favorite experience since then?
There really isn’t [a specific moment] because the things that look spectacular on paper are usually less so because of maybe logistics. For me, the thing that is spectacular is that I’m still doing this. Here I am, I’ve got my daughter and my son in the car and I’m parenting and adulting… I still have a lot of life in what I do and the fact that what I do has been based solely in guitar, the fact that I have been able to breathe new life into the instrument… There is never going to be one moment because you can’t boil down a 15-year career into that but the thing that always strikes me and makes me so thrilled is that I am still able to do this despite it being completely unorthodox and kind of weird. I’m just really grateful.

Who are some ladies in the music world you looked up to growing up? Who are some that you look up to now?
I don’t really know what’s happening in the world of music because all I know now is the soundtrack to Doc McStuffins [the Disney animated TV series, for those kid-less adults]… I think that despite my entirely strong feminism and wanting to promote women, I think that it’s really healthy for women to have males to be able to look up to and be wowed by the fact that they did something really amazing. My role models were pretty weird, they were either dead English guys or middle-aged California dudes playing guitar. It wasn’t a really inspirational group of people.

I was a teenager in the mid-90s. I think for me there was no one cooler or more interesting than PJ Harvey. If I had to name one artist who was always doing incredible things and reinventing herself but still sounding like herself it was definitely her. As far as women are concerned, she definitely steals the show for me. Then again when you hear something for the first time when you’re 13 or 14, it affects you in a different way. She is one of my superheroes. She always sounds like herself, even instrumentally it sounds like this is something that PJ Harvey wrote and played.

What was influencing you during this recording?
I think the good thing about life is that you never really run out of horrible feelings, you just learn how to manage them. My depressions and anxieties and insecurities, they’re still there. I can still connect to who I was when I first starting writing music but I don’t have to live in it and make bad decisions because of it. For me I do need – I don’t want to call it negative energy – but I do need despairing and frustration in order to feel the music will be a satisfying medicine. I just think that those feelings are under control and I’m able to tap into them when necessary but I still have tons of fears around life and around death and irrational stuff and imposter syndrome. I think that stuff is still inspirational but it isn’t damaging like it was when I was younger. I’m not holding on to it, I don’t need it. Unfortunately when I was younger, I did.

*Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.