After you’ve spent your whole career pushing the guitar to its limits, where do you go next? Kaki King has been working on answering that question since her 2014 show The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, a multimedia production hatched at Brooklyn’s BRIC in which visuals were displayed on her signature Ovation guitar using projection mapping. She had big plans for 2021 with a new multimedia show entitled Data Not Found—with themes around modern technology and its effects on our world. Unfortunately, the show’s production came to a halt in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
But out of something lost rose something new—the soundtrack to the unborn show, released as an album, Modern Yesterdays. As King says, the recording “would have been this companion soundtrack that was a snapshot in time.” Collaborating with sound designer Chloe Alexandra Thompson, King returns with her trademark exploratory, percussive textures and seas of slowly unraveling moods, this time couched in Thompson’s undulating sonic scenes. Compositions like “Rhythmic Tiny Sand Ball Patterns,” “Lorlir,” and “Default Shell,” in particular, illustrate their inventive collaboration.
Speaking of inventiveness, Modern Yesterdays happens to incorporate a new invention, designed by King in collaboration with Providence-based luthier Rachel Rosenkrantz (profiled in the March/April 2020 issue), called the passerelle bridge. The passerelle is a metal object that acts as a second bridge, fitting under the guitar’s strings and dividing them into two playable sections in a setup that resembles that of the Japanese koto or Chinese guzheng. You can hear King using the bridge on the meditative “Teek.”
King’s personalized guitar is another example of her connection with the mechanics of her music. Her Ovation 2078KK-5S Kaki King Signature has an AA solid Sitka spruce soundboard, Lyrachord rounded back, five-piece mahogany/maple neck, ebony fretboard, and is equipped with an OCP-1K undersaddle piezo pickup and Ovation OP Pro Studio preamp. On the electronics, King comments that they make the guitar sound “fabulous. Plugging into an acoustic and playing it live is usually like the grossest sound in history, but usually what I get back from sound engineers is, ‘Wow, that guitar sounded really good.’”
In our conversation below, King elaborates more on what she loves about her guitar, the making of Modern Yesterdays, and why she prefers affordable models to expensive ones.
What was your creative process for the new album? How did these songs develop?
It’s interesting: A lot of pieces were in place as placeholders. So, for instance, I had old songs—songs from my first album—that were in the show Data Not Found. I was looking forward to going on the road and really figuring out what else would fit inside of this show. But in the meantime, it felt like things were going to start happening and touring was going to get really busy, so I thought I might as well record what I had at the time. It’s almost like I just needed to use that empty space that I thought I had in my schedule. And also, the producer I was working with, Chloe Thompson—we were like, “Let’s just record everything and work from there.” So I don’t know that Modern Yesterdays ever had a really big release behind it. I don’t know that that would have been the case had we just gone about our business and done Data Not Found. It may have just existed as a collection of recordings; I don’t even know. But it did eventually have to stand on its own and become its own album [laughs].
I’ve seen in interviews that you describe your writing style as revisionist.
Yeah, definitely, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The luxury of being a person that mainly is known for live music. It just gives me the ability to try and change and try and change. And eventually things settle. They settle into a place that the songs are pretty happy—but I never really worry about going into the studio and having things be final. That’s something I’ve learned over time to just not worry about. Because it’s all going to change. So you might as well record what you have and let that be its own thing and see where it goes.
How would you describe the sound that you created on this album?
The guitar is so well explored by so many brilliant people—so many talented, talented people for hundreds of years now. I think that I’m always trying to see what else can be done. So this is still very much a solo guitar record. But it wasn’t like I was using the acoustic guitar with pedals. [Chloe and I] were transforming it in very different ways using a much more sophisticated process. So I think that that while it’s very far from any kind of electronic album, I think that those are the tones that are implied by what we’re doing.
Regarding the passerelle bridge, I thought it was interesting that you’d prefer to convert a guitar into a koto-like instrument rather than just play the koto.
Well, the guitar is something that I know and I’m familiar with and makes sense to me and that I have several of. It would feel really strange to go out and purchase an instrument that I have no skillset with, no cultural history on. But fundamentally [the passerelle bridge] is a noisemaker. It’s a way to take your guitar and create something that’s in the realm of a six-string guitar, except you’re now playing a 12-note instrument. I have not defined the bridge or how it is to be played or what can be done with it. I think that obviously there are tones of guzheng and the koto, but it’s for other people to determine what can be done with it.
What made you fall in love with the guitar?
I’ve been playing since I was very young, so in so many ways I grew up with it; it’s always been familiar. The guitar is so intimate and interesting, but very limited in its scope. Yet what people have done with it, from a musical place and a cultural place—the amount that the guitar has spread across the globe in the last century—it’s alluring and fascinating. And there’s a lot of mystery around it, clearly. Without that there wouldn’t have been all these people that have gotten so deeply attached to it, built careers around it, pushed it to its limits, pushed themselves; it has a magic quality. So I’m just caught up in that like everyone else.
You have your own signature Ovation guitar. What is it that distinguishes that guitar from other guitars for you?
Two main things: One is that I like to tune really low and that guitar can always handle really low tunings without becoming muddy. There’s still a lot of clarity. I think that is really, really important. The other thing is that it’s well-balanced, so, to me, every note is the same volume. Maybe that’s a trick of the mind, because I’ve just gotten so used to playing it. But it feels like it almost has a natural compression because I feel like whatever I’m doing, whatever I’m playing, everything is mixed very well. And I mean everything: The note I’m playing, the overtone that’s happening, the decay from the string that I just played the chord before; it all is very evenly balanced, which I think I don’t find often. I found it more often in nylon-string guitars but not nearly as often in steel-string acoustic flattops that are wood. But I think that the [Ovation’s] carbon-fiber top has something to do with that. And obviously the rounded back.
Are there any particular specs you look for in a guitar?
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What I don’t like in a guitar is any kind of struggle at all. These days, the affordable entry-level guitar is so much better than it ever has been. It used to be that you were spending $400 on what amounted to a piece of furniture. And now you can get a guitar that’s responsive and plays well for a pretty cheap price. A lot of people say, “What kind of guitar should I get?” I used to be really specific, but now I say just go and see what speaks to you. I think it’s responsiveness. Some people get a lot of mileage out of guitars that you need to really dig into, but for me, the lighter touch the better. If I can whisper at a string and it gives me something back, then I’m very happy. I’m not really a sucker for anything old and vintage and all of that because I find a lot of those instruments are more sort of art pieces than anything. I like new things, new luthiers, new technology, and I like really responsive, playable instruments.
Are there any luthiers whose guitars you really like?
My friend Julian Gaffney—I’ve put down a deposit for one of his guitars. I work with Joe Veillette, and he’s done the Gryphon, which is a high-strung 12-string guitar. He also has several versions of high-strung tiny guitars that are really magical.
It’s really easy to spend $10,000 on an incredibly well-crafted, beautiful instrument. It is totally something that I would want to do if I wasn’ta professional musician, because my gear cannot cost that much money. I am not going to take a one-of-a-kind precious thing that I waited for three years to have made and put it on a plane and fly to California and play. I need instruments that are workhorses that last, so my focus is on having guitars that do just that. I wish I was more of a refined collector, but it does not make any practical sense for me.
You seem to have a conceptual approach to writing. Has that shifted over the years?
It’s funny, because people say that but I don’t ever see that. I feel like I write tunes that sound good. I’m not really into any kind of concept. I prefer to feel things and have them come out. All I know at this point is that if I play guitar, if I try to play every day, eventually something will happen and a song will get written or an idea will be had. And sometimes I play guitar to just work out other things in my life. I think I always have. So my approach hasn’t really changed. I think definitely when I was younger, there was this feeling of “I need to prove something,” especially live. I needed to get up there and rip and show off. I’ve certainly let go of a lot of that. Now, I really just need to write songs that move me and move other people, and however I get there is not important.
If you listen to my albums and songs that really got popular, they were never songs that I played on television. They were songs that were slow and pretty and people loved. Some people know me like, “Kaki King, she uses crazy technique,” and that’s kind of the end of the story. But the people who stuck around for a long time are like, “Wow, she’s a really good writer on the guitar,” and that’s all I’ve ever aspired to be.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.