Some people may find the sight of diminutive songwriter Kaki King lugging around a guitar case a bit incongruous. And unfortunately, they’re often not shy about pointing it out.
“I walk through the airport with a guitar case … and like half the time, swear to God, some douchebag’ll be going, â€˜Oh, you gonna play us a song? Damn, that’s a pretty big guitar for a little lady,'” a flu-stricken and audibly annoyed King said recently, chatting via phone from the Portland airport as she waited for a flight to San Francisco for her next show. (“I decided not to drive and infect everyone else in the van,” she explained.)
But while King doesn’t court fame, the brazen belittlement from gawking onlookers is beginning to get old.
“A lot of things that used to not bother me at all are kind of starting to bother me,” the feisty guitarist continued. “No one’s ever gonna know who I am at the fuckin’ airport and that’s fine (but) it feels like they’re assuming that I can’t play guitar. It sends this message of, â€˜You’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re doing.’ …. For so many years I wouldn’t give a shit, and now it’s like, â€˜Would you say that to a guy? Fuck you.'”
Anyone who has heard or seen King perform knows that, at the very least, she “knows what she’s doing.” In March, the 28-year-old musician released her fourth full-length album, “Dreaming of Revenge.”
Last year, when she wasn’t recording her own album, King kept herself busy by collaborating with a number of artists including the Foo Fighters and Tegan & Sara on their 2007 releases. She also contributed music to the films “Into the Wild” and “August Rush,” and acted as a hand double in the latter.
Despite the occasional aggravations she faces, however, King said the title of her latest effort, which is taken from a quote by painter Paul Gauguin, doesn’t offer a glimpse into her psyche. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“I take (the sentiment) to be so cynical and sort of horrible but also incredibly funny and tongue in cheek and just sort of true at times,” King explained. “I’m certainly not a vengeful person.”
A critical darling, King has noticed that enthusiasts unfailingly mention her gender in the same breath as her musical prowess- but also acknowledges that it’s a factor that sets her apart from many of her peers.
“This is a boys’ club,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re like the lone female a lot of times when you’re doing this job. … I feel like when people go, â€˜She’s a great female guitarist,’ it’s like, â€˜oh, she’s really good for a girl.’ When there’s too much emphasis on me being a girl, I’m like, who cares? Yeah, I’m a girl. Ok, cool. We’ve established that. I definitely don’t need people to acknowledge the fact that I have tits.”
King picked up the guitar at age 5, but initially drums were her instrument of choice.
“I thought the drums were the shit and I was gonna be a drummer, but I was always a better guitar player,” she said.
Her sense of percussion allows her to create a virtual one-woman show during her live performances, although she tours with a full band. King’s innovative playing style involves alternating between fingerpicking and strumming the strings with acrylic nails, and tapping the neck of her guitar. Her fingers fly across the fretboard, creating a mind-bogglingly manic blur.
But King nonchalantly downplays her pseudo-slap technique.
“To me, it doesn’t really seem that outlandish or weird,” she said.
King describes “Dreaming of Revenge” as being replete with “slow, simple melodies,” layered over her intricate guitar parts. The predominantly instrumental record kicks off with “Bone Chaos in the Castle,” a groovy two-and-a-half minute, perk-your-ears jam sure to capture the listener’s attention. Among the few vocal tracks thrown into the mix are catchy first single “Pull Me Out Alive” and the dreamy, folk-sounding “Life Being What It Is.” In keeping with her somnolent motif, the liner notes for “Dreaming of Revenge,” designed by Seb Jarnot, include a build-your-own mobile kit of sorts, complete with cardboard punch-outs.
King said the record brings her a step closer to cultivating her own distinctive sound.
“I write very sad music and I write sad melodies in particular,” she said. “I’m not just a â€˜female guitarist.’ I’m trying really hard to become Kaki King. I want to sound like, me. It’s really, really difficult. Only a few people in their lifetime really get that, but that’s still the goal … to start playing a tune and sound like you and have people recognize it to be you and no one else. That takes a lifetime, and I think people that people know that that’s the path I’m on.”
For songs that don’t fit into that path, King has a side project called Daysleeper (“It’s a reference to the fact that I sleep all day”) with her bandmate Dan Brantigan to record occasionally improvised material and “weird, quirky, techno-y, almost dance-y track” that diverge from King’s typical fare.
Currently in the midst of a tour that runs through mid-April, King said she’s excited about presenting the new tracks on the road.
“I’m really psyched,” she said enthusiastically. “All this material is so fresh.”
“It’s tough to keep it creative though, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do,” she added. “Ultimately, I’d rather be known as like, â€˜Oh yeah, that sounds like Kaki King,’ rather than â€˜Oh, she’s pretty good for a girl.'”