Q&A with Kaki King: The evolution of a guitarist

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In 2008, Kaki King charmed and impressed the TED community with her melodic and exuberant style of guitar-playing. Yesterday, TED’s Media Production Specialist Angela Cheng spoke with Kaki over the phone in hopes of learning more about her influences, the ever-changing music writing process, and what she gleaned from TED.

How was your day?

Good. I ran around a lot and lost track of time. It would have been more fun if it wasn’t for the rain. I’m doing this new project where I’m looking for twelve artists to provide blank guitars for them to design or re-create. And the theme of each piece would be the title of one of my songs. I haven’t been on tour for the last two months, which is rare, and I’m a bit of a workaholic so I’m keeping busy. Otherwise I go stir-crazy.

Do you enjoy touring?

I’m very used to it. There are a lot of places that I know extremely well. Like if I were to visit Sydney, Australia, I’d feel very comfortable there. I’m very comfortable in many many cities.

You’re originally from Atlanta, but New York is now your home. Do you ever miss the South?

Yes. My mom and dad and uncle and sister all live in Atlanta. I have relatives in Texas. I do try to visit as much as possible. It’s wonderful that all my family is there and I get to go there and chill out. It’s very peaceful. I have a very strong tie – not necessarily to the South – but to nature.

How much of the South is in your music?

I definitely will say that being in the vicinity gave me a lot more access to bluegrass music. Bluegrass is not a clear influence. But you have to play bluegrass music at a very high level of skill. Anything involved with taking things to a higher level of skill really interests me.

A lot of people have characterized your music as “percussive.” In fact, you started off wanting to play drums. Does it make sense to say that percussion has a lot of influence on your style?

Yes it does, and not only “percussion,” but the independence between the hands that you learn as a drummer helped me become a much more creative guitar player.

You started off as a solo musician, but now you collaborate with a full band. What was it like making the transition, in both writing and playing?

The writing remains the same. I write almost every single part of my songs, even the actual drum parts sometimes, whether they be simple or layered with many different instruments. The great thing about havinga band for the first time was that I didn’t have to work as hard onstage at making all of these different sounds myself. I could just sit back and let the band play the parts I had written.

Do you have a typical music writing process?

Right now I’m at the very beginning of the new writing process for a new album. The process changes for every record, every song. For my first two records, there was an intimacy between me and the songs because I hung out with them so much. You have less time the busier you get. At this point, after putting out an album, I have to re-learn the songs that I’ve written.

In the past, most of what I’ve written, I’ve written during times of pain or loneliness, and the music is therapy. Things change when you get older. I’ve followed the lives of great musicians and have learned that you don’t have to always write in pain. You have all of your past experiences, feelings, and thoughts that you can turn on when you need them and turn off when you don’t. Right now I feel a bit older and wiser and I don’t need to go out and create a painful or sad situation or feel estranged from the universe.

Also, all experiences are relevant to making art or music. Right now I’m learning the piano. I’m not going to become a piano player, but I do know that in some way it will open up my world and give me inspiration for my music.

READ MORE: Kaki talks about her experience at TED, being remembered by Al Gore and what it’s like to be short. What was your experience at TED like?

I remember so much about TED. I still have friends I’ve met at TED. It’s interesting because leading up to the conference, I was completely unprepared. My record [Dreaming of Revenge] was released just 10 days after TED so I had been doing all sorts of promo work. But once I got there, I was looking at the speaker program and it was like, “Oh wow, this is going to be incredible.”

I obviously remember <a href="Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk – I was in the audience for that. And I also remember Phillip Zimbardo, who wrote The Lucifer Effect. In fact, I went out and bought The Lucifer Effect after the conference. There were also these incredible underwater pictures of leopard seals. And of course watching Al Gore present a completely new talk was great.

I was just in Nashville to perform for The Climate Project. When Al Gore introduced me, he mentioned that he had seen me at the TED Conference last year. I was surprised and happy that he remembered me.

Did you know about TED before you were invited to perform? What made you accept the invitation?

I’d known about TED Talks because I had seen them online. Just knowing that it’s a place where you can go and have your mind opened by the brightest minds working, calculating, and discovering – it would have been foolish not to accept.

We were talking in the office about all the great statements you made onstage…..

I had to come up with something because my session included Peter Ward, John Hodgman, and that woman who spoke about dark matter and I thought, “I gotta put this somehow together” because otherwise I just get up there and play and people will be like, “There’s a dumb musician.”

You mentioned onstage that people like to comment on your height. Does that annoy you?

Ha, not really. I am quite short but that never comes across when I’m onstage in front of people. When I get offstage and greet an audience afterwards their first reaction is to comment on my height because it seems like a very drastic difference.