Perhaps in no other industry is the notion of identity more crucial, analyzed, crafted and regarded—and at times, vociferously guarded—than the creative arts. To inch a toe into another subset of the arts can provoke a band of incensed attack dogs, and perhaps that’s why musician Kaki King has said, in discussing her brilliant projection-mapped touring art installation and concert The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, that despite having created some of the visuals in the show, she does not consider herself a visual artist.
But I—and likely anyone else who has seen the performance—would. Similarly, I call for calm to the gatekeepers of my own discipline, and declare her to be a writer. (Consider these titles, which capture and reflect the instrumental songs they brand: “All the Landslides Birds Have Seen Since the Beginning of the World”; “Streetlight in the Egg”; “Gouge Both Your Eyes Out (But Eat Only One).” Consider also the writing challenge King faces—to brand an instrumental song in just one line, whereas the majority of contemporary music today has an entire bed of lyrics to fall back on.
King identifies as a musician. And she’s an incredible one. Listening to her guitar work live or on her many albums, one must be reminded it’s all her—there’s no second (or third) guitarist in the room. Innovative fretwork, coupled with percussive elements that harken back to her long experience as a drummer, dominate her style. Her playing begs to be witnessed live, if only in an attempt to decode it.
And attempt to decode it the music press has indeed done. Magazines like putting things in boxes, which landed King on Rolling Stone’s “New Guitar Gods” list in 2006 (in which she was also the only woman on the roster—a reminder of the imbalance in the guitar world). As she has pointed out before, critics tend to obsess over her technique—which is to miss the point of the overall experience of the music. Moreover, perhaps a key test of a musician is how they react to being branded a “musician's musician.” King has said the reason she can take a band out on tour is not by being a “musician’s musician,” but rather by writing songs that resonate with people.
As she says in this episode, “I always knew that I was good at guitar in a way that a lot of people weren't. I didn't let it go to my head, but I think what distinguished me, and what I wanted to focus on more than anything, was the writing. The playing is technical. It can be taught. It can be practiced. … Ultimately, developing my own voice as a writer in an instrumental context, that's the hardest thing to do.”
As it pertains to identity, it’s also worth noting that King exists within an industry that tends to thrive on manufactured image, on mirage. Execs tried to shape King into things that she was not, but she kept her focus on what matters most to her; she has said that the key to being a successful musician is to put 95% of one’s effort and energy into the music itself, and 5% into presentation and other elements.
Listening to King and watching her play invokes a sense of not just wonder, but maybe even envy—you’re witnessing someone who seems to have truly found that elusive pure blend of craft and career, someone doing exactly what they should be doing. While she always figured she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a lawyer, she eventually took a detour to play in the house band of the Blue Man Group, and after 9/11 started busking in the subway. In an era where there was no model for success as a solo acoustic instrumentalist, people kept asking her for CDs as she busked. As a matter of practicality, she made one, her debut Everybody Loves You.
As she says in this episode, “If you make good work, it can have a life of its own that is totally beyond you and out of your control. That's exactly what happened.”
One gets the sense that if her career had not taken off or she’d followed another path, she’d probably still be down in the subway, busking in her off-hours.
King followed her first album with another acoustic instrumental collection, and then, on … Until We Felt Red, she introduced her voice and other musicians into the mix. Evolution has characterized her identity since that point—she has dabbled in pop sounds, indie tones, full-band ensembles, before returning to her roots with the instrumental album GLOW (which got its name because King, while not having full-blown synesthesia—the ability to perceive colors in response to sounds and other stimuli—heavily associates color with things, such as numbers; in this case, the album had a blue-green glow to it).
In interviews, she has dubbed art to be a “giant fantasy,” and has said that her music actually shows a very, very small slice of who she really is, and she doesn’t embody her art the way others do. In other words, in an era and field defined by identity, it’s not her identity.
In this episode, Debbie Millman asks her what, then, the music isn’t showing about who she really is.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-chief
Debbie: "Rolling Stone" has called Kaki King a "genre unto herself." Indeed, Kaki King's genre of bewitching guitar, propulsive rhythms, and unearthly vocals is a great big world unto itself. She's been writing and producing albums of great diversity for over a decade now, both solo and in groups.
She has collaborated with the Foo Fighters, and she has scored music for movies. Recently, she's been collaborating with designers Giorgia Lupi and John Maeda. We're going to hear about that, about the path of her career, and maybe if we're lucky, a song or two. Kaki King, welcome to "Design Matters."
Kaki King: Hi, Debbie. It's good to be here.
Debbie: Hi. Kaki, your wife has said when you first met, she told you that you were cute, to which you replied, "Well, you ought to see me in a panda suit." Tell us about the allure of Kaki King in a panda suit.
Kaki: [laughs] I had just come back from Japan. I had bought a panda suit for my dog, who is a wiener dog. He now lives in Atlanta with my parents. I think I said, "When I see you, I'm going to bring Harvey" ‑‑ the dog ‑‑ "in a panda suit."
She said something along the lines of, "The only thing cuter would be..." I can't remember what you said, but I just responded with, "You should see me in a panda suit."
Debbie: Did she ever?
Kaki: Not yet, but it's on the docket. [laughs]
Debbie: OK, good to know. We'll need to see pictures of that. You mentioned your parents being in Atlanta with Harvey.
Kaki: Mm‑hmm, with Harvey.
Debbie: This is where you grew up. You started playing guitar at age four or five, because your parents thought children should take music lessons. You've said that you can't recall a time when you didn't know how to play the guitar.
Debbie: What are your earliest recollections of the instrument? What was the first song you learned how to play?
Kaki: I remember learning how to play "FrËre Jacques," the [sings melody] . "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was up there. I had a four‑string guitar that was...
Debbie: Isn't that a ukulele?
Kaki: No, no, no, it's not at all. It's the top four strings of an actual guitar. Ukulele is tuned differently. I took lessons from a woman named Maxine. I remember having to put my foot on the little footstool. It was classical guitar lessons, but I'm like five.
There's not a whole lot of great repertoire, [laughs] and I wasn't very good, but I could do it, and I could get through the recital. Now that I have children, I'm like, whoa, that actually is pretty impressive.
My earliest memories are being actually in a tiny, soundproofed room with another woman, [laughs] with my guitar. I do have those memories, and then the other memories are of my dad. He would play guitar.
He would go and take a blues lesson, and then he'd come home and teach me, like, "Oh, man, I learned this cool thing. It's called the pentatonic scale." I was like, "Wow." Those are some of my earliest memories.
Debbie: Did he encourage your guitar playing because he loved playing guitar?
Kaki: I think so.
Debbie: Why not piano?
Kaki: Because he was cool. My dad was like, "Why doesn't she take guitar lessons?" It was under the guise of it being classical guitar. My dad loves music more than anything, and I think that he just thought, "Eh, why not?"
This was all in the realm of gymnastics, and swim, and the other things you do to your children. Guitar was the thing that just kept sticking.
Debbie: I understand you saw Fleetwood Mac play on their Mirage Tour when you were four years old.
Debbie: How did that happen? Did you parent take you to a concert?
Kaki: Yeah, it was my dad.
Debbie: So it was you and your dad, let's go see Fleetwood Mac?
Kaki: He took me to see stuff like that, yeah. It was at the Civic Center, and all I can remember is Stevie Nicks' hair. It was just unbelievably...
Debbie: Of course, why would anybody ever think of anything else?
Kaki: It was a sculpture of the '80s. If you could take one item of the '80s and have that representative, it would've been Stevie Nicks' hair.
Debbie: Now, I would think that Lindsey Buckingham would've made more of an impression on you.
Kaki: I was four, and I was far away.
Debbie: [laughs] Fair enough.
Kaki: I think that my trajectory in life is that I wanted to be Stevie Nicks, and I ended up being Lindsey Buckingham.
Debbie: There's something poetic about that.
Debbie: Now, when you were 9 or 10, you recalled that all the boys at school started getting their first guitars, but you could already play. At that point, they thought you were cool, but you thought at that point that you were going to be drummer.
Kaki: Oh, yeah.
Debbie: Why a drummer?
Kaki: They were just infinitely better.
Debbie: You don't still think that, do you?
Debbie: You do?
Kaki: I love the drums. Ranking instruments as far as what I would want to play professionally would be drums, drums, drums, drums, bass guitar, guitar. I just am better at playing guitar.
Debbie: That's why you play it.
Kaki: That is why I play it professionally.
Debbie: Do you still...
Kaki: I play drums every day. [laughs]
Debbie: Interesting. When did you decide, OK, I'm not as good a drum player as I'd like to be or as I should be, so I'm quite good at guitar. I think I'm going to take that path.
Kaki: Not a decision. I, throughout college, played both. I stole the key to the old typing room that was down in the basement of my dorm, and I put a drum set in there. I had bands that I was in, and we'd play.
I was always the drummer or the bassist. Guitar was my thing. It was my private world. It wasn't something I shared with other people.
Debbie: How come?
Kaki: I was playing solo instrumental guitar. It was difficult and challenging. I was writing songs. It was like, I would have to book a gig in order to share that, whereas socially, playing bass drums, rhythm guitar, whatever, in other person's band was the cool, easy thing. That was easy and fun. It wasn't a commitment.
Guitar had slowly become this thing that I did privately. It wasn't until life happening that it became the instrument that I now am known for.
Debbie: Did you ever learn how to play the accordion? I know that was something you wanted to do.
Kaki: I gave away my accordion a couple years ago. I did not ever master the accordion, but there is always time.
Debbie: You've said that you had a rough time as a teenager. You were a gay kid in the South, attending a religious institution, the Westminster Schools. You were the kid with the pixie haircut in the midst of a gaggle of what you've referred to as, "Budding Stepford Wives."
Kaki: Ugh. Sorry. Some of those chicks are super cool, I'm sure, but you know.
Debbie: You said that you were horrifying lonely, and had a bad sense of self. How did you manage?
Kaki: I think music was part of the thing that saved me. The amount [laughs] of escapism that I required on a daily basis just to exist was just astronomical.
Debbie: What do you mean by that?
Kaki: Like, I started to listening to Brit pop music, which was this thing that was happening in London in the mid '90s. I would transport myself there. I was this cool chick, in a band, playing this music. I was there.
I was not in my house in Atlanta, with weird things happening in my family, and weird people at school that didn't...I just wasn't present. I was in fantasy or in escapism, in some sort of self‑medication at some times.
I was gone. That is unfortunate. [laughs] I would not recommend this to anyone, but that's how I got through.
Debbie: When did you stop self‑medicating?
Kaki: When I was, I don't know, 31 and went to rehab.
Debbie: Oh, really?
Kaki: [laughs] Yeah.
Debbie: After graduating, you headed north to New York University. Why did you choose NYU, as opposed to a more music‑centered school like Berklee or Juilliard?
Kaki: I was not encouraged to pursue a music career.
Debbie: Even with your dad so passionate about music?
Kaki: My dad does not wear the pants in our family. It is my mother who...
Debbie: The lawyer.
Kaki: They're both lawyers, but my mother ‑‑ this is a funny story. My mother is the reason my father's a lawyer. Look, it's difficult to look at your child, to be someone who doesn't understand music at all, and say, "Sure. Apply to a music school."
Also, I don't think I really knew what that meant, being a musician. I thought that I just was a musician. I played music with people. I wrote songs on my guitar. I was engaged in it at every level, and it didn't just seem like studying music was a thing I really wanted to do.
I just wanted to get out of home. I wanted to leave Atlanta. I lived in a subdivision with no sidewalks. It was beautiful and woodsy, but there were no people for me to connect with. I craved that, and I wanted to be somewhere where that looked easy.
I also did know that there was music happening in New York City, so there was part of that. Again, escapism. "Just get me out."
Debbie: At NYU, you were in a program in which you created your own major. What did you choose, and what were you expecting at that point you might want to do with your life?
Kaki: I truly expected to become a lawyer. I thought that what I would do, because I was raised in a law firm, and I had done all kinds of jobs for my parents. Actually, when I was graduating, I assumed I would take a year off, and then I would start applying to graduate schools.
Debbie: For law?
Kaki: For law. I think that many aspects of the law fascinate me.
Debbie: Like what?
Kaki: The setting of precedents, how a society depends on laws, even if they're terrible, to function, how we can change laws to make things better, and how laws protect people from themselves.
My parents practiced criminal law for most of their career, and then they switched to bankruptcy law, two types of law that really can help a person that's fucked up saved something, salvage something of their life.
I thought that would be my trajectory. Also, I literally, I had a law firm to inherent. [laughs] It was like, "Eh, you've gone to New York. You've had some fun, but unfortunately, you're going to have to do this." That did not happen.
Debbie: Can you really imagine yourself being a lawyer at this point in your life?
Kaki: No. Well, my younger sister took that path. She went to law school. She took over my parents' law firm. They're all in this little cabal of lawyering and managing. [laughs] I'll call the law firm, and I'll be like, "Can I talk to Karen?"
They'll be like, "Oh, I'll just give you to your dad for now," and then I get my mom on the phone.
Debbie: Catch up with the whole family while you're at it?
Kaki: Yeah, [laughs] why not.
Debbie: In what you imagined was going to be that year between your undergraduate degree and your graduate career, you started playing music in the subway.
Kaki: There's a very specific reason for that.
Debbie: Tell us.
Kaki: 9/11. I took the summer semester. My graduation date of the end of that semester was September 12th. September 11th happened, and suddenly, I went from, "OK, I'm getting out of school. I'm going to figure it out."
There's no jobs. The city is a mess. I witnessed 9/11 from my rooftop. Like many New Yorkers, it was so traumatizing and disrupting. I've recently moved to Brooklyn. All my friends are in Manhattan. Getting around the city's impossible. There's no walking into a place and getting a job.
I needed money. I needed, more than anything, connection with people. I'd always wanted to busk in the subway, and I started playing. It changed everything.
Debbie: What did busking teach you?
Kaki: Stamina, great amounts of stamina, and the ability to focus, despite whatever is happening in your environment.
Debbie: At that point, had you begun to develop your style as a musician?
Kaki: Yes. At that point, most of my first album was written. Yes, some of the very distinctive parts of my style ‑‑ I say style, meaning more compositional, even though a lot of people focus on the technique. The technique is the means to the composition. A lot of that had been already very well established then.
Debbie: You at that point started to work with the Blue Man Group, and you became a musician for this trio of blue men.
Debbie: I have a couple of questions.
Kaki: Oh, sure.
Debbie: That gave you some money to travel. How did you get the job with Blue Man Group?
Kaki: Seminal week of my life ‑‑ I'm 22, turning 23 ‑‑ is the week that I get signed to a record label, and had an audition with Blue Man Group, and I actually got the job. I had a friend who knew Ian Pei, who is the son of I.M. Pei. He was the original drummer.
I'd met him, and at some point, given him a CD that I had made. He emailed me, and he said, "There's auditions in two for Chapman Stick." I've never seen a Chapman Stick, but it's an instrument you tap on.
He's like, "Call so‑and‑so, and tell them I said I sent you, and it's fine." I got the first audition of the day, which is like, "This is going to be bad." I remember walking out of my audition saying, "From now on, I'm always going to be able to tell people that I auditioned for Blue Man Group."
You just don't ever dream as big as you should. I got the job, which was amazing. I'm 23, and I have been signed to a record label.
Debbie: How did you get the deal? How did you get the record deal?
Kaki: I'm in the subway. I'm playing guitar. People are really grateful. It's post‑9/11. People are grateful for life returning to normal, musicians being in the subway being something that feels normal. People keep saying, "Can I buy a CD? Can I buy a CD?"
It wasn't a decision based on, "I really feel like I need to put all my material on a record." It was literally like, "I could make 10 bucks off of every sucker that asks me this? Sure, I'll make a CD." I made this CD of all the material that I had been recording and working on.
I tell people this all the time, that if you make good work, it can have a life of its own that is totally beyond you, and out of your control. That's exactly what happened. I made this record, and gave it to friends.
A friend gave it to someone at the Knitting Factory, back when it was in Tribeca. They contacted me, and they said, "Hey, like what you do. Can you come in, and play a weekly residency? We will pay you," which even in the early 2000s, was unheard of.
For two months, I played this weekly late night gig at the Knitting Factory, for which I was paid $100. I brought CDs, I would sell them, and I could afford to take a cab home. It was amazing. From there, a guy bought my CD. I had my contact info on it.
He emailed me. He said, "Hey, I've got a record label, and I manage artists. I think you're cool." He managed me for the next 12 years.
Debbie: That's amazing.
Kaki: It is. It's the Hollywood story. I feel terrible, because I feel like there's never the struggle story, of like, "I tried this, and I tried this. No one cared, and it was awful."
Debbie: You alluded to some struggle a little while ago, which I could ask you about. If you want to talk about it, we can. I'm not going to push.
Kaki: [laughs] That's the story of the record. I get this record deal. I'm working at Blue Man Group, and I'm 23 years old. This is kind of a problem, because I'm not prepared for the things that are about to start happening.
Debbie: Absolutely, I'm going to read. "Your first two albums were solo acoustic efforts, spotlighting your talent." This is what "New York Magazine" wrote about you.
Kaki: New York Magazine said something?
Debbie: Yeah. "With both hands curling over her instrument's neck, she hammers, plucks, strums, drums, and slaps at frets, strings, and body. The effect is of sculpting, rather than of playing music." On AllMusic, Thom Jurek wrote, "Simply put, Kaki King possesses the most original voice on the acoustic guitar in a generation."
How do you handle that kind of response? 23 years old.
Kaki: Yeah, it's hard, because there's also the counterpoint to that, which is I'm living in Brooklyn with 5,000 roommates. I don't have any money. I'm touring, I'm opening for jam bands, and I hate my life.
Kaki: Because I'm opening for jam bands.
Debbie: You're opening on tour for musicians and for audiences of people.
Kaki: That gets old quickly. No, really. It's hard. It's hard work being an opening act, really hard work. I wasn't in my comfort zone. People that wanted to get really high and listen to some band noodle for five hours, it just wasn't my scene.
Debbie: You had already been through rehab at this point?
Kaki: Oh, no. [laughs] That's so much later. I didn't even drink until I was 25. We'll talk about that on our terms later, Debbie. It's a very boring story.
Debbie: How did you manage what I can only imagine were the expectations people were putting on you?
Kaki: There weren't really expectations placed on me. The only expectation that I had placed on myself was to always play well, under whatever the circumstances. There was never a moment where I showed up to the stage, and I phoned it in, or I played the easy stuff. I always had held myself to a very high standard of performance.
Debbie: Did you ever question your ability?
Debbie: Have you ever?
Kaki: No. I always knew that I was good at guitar in a way that a lot of people weren't. I didn't let it go to my head, but I think what distinguished me, and what I wanted to focus on more than anything was the writing.
The playing is technical. It can be taught. It can be practiced. The writing is very important. Ultimately, developing my own voice as a writer in an instrumental context, that's the hardest thing to do.
I think that maybe the technical prowess, I knew that I was a hot shit player, but the writing part didn't hit me until later, where I thought, "OK, I really sound like me, even though it's just one guitar playing."
Debbie: You've said that the six‑string guitar is your absolute truth, that for you, the guitar is infinitely interesting. You know that you'll never master it, and you'll always be challenged. While there are those who would argue that you have mastered it, what do you consider to be mastery? What is mastery?
Kaki: There just is none. There's so many routes that you can go with this instrument. There's so many paths it can take you down. I think that probably the worst thing that was happening to me as a young person was that the things that you read, the quotes, the...
Debbie: Rolling Stone calling you, putting you on the list of the new guitar gods?
Kaki: Yeah, that's ridiculous. That's just insane bad copy.
Debbie: Why do you think that?
Kaki: Because I think that it limits the scope of other people doing something on the guitar by saying, "Here's the top 10, and everything else is junk." The implications are really bad. The implication that "a genre unto herself," blah, blah, blah, it's just that it's like, you've hit the ceiling, and there's nowhere else to go.
For me, there is an infinite world of possibility on this instrument. I've played it forever. I know. The hyperbole was just upsetting, because it wasn't measured with something like, "and she's working hard to do more good work."
Debbie: I think the most ridiculous thing I read was somebody referred to you as Bootsy Collins meets Van Halen.
Kaki: Like, what the hell is that? Can you imagine Bootsy Collins and Van Halen in a band together? That would sound like just garbage.
Debbie: Or a mash‑up.
Kaki: [laughs] A mash‑up would be fun, but if those two assholes tried to make a band together, it's nonsense. I didn't know how to really process that, other than to ignore it.
Debbie: You have likened touring with just you and an acoustic guitar as almost a martial arts‑like challenge. You talked a little bit just a few moments ago about the resilience needed for being an opening act.
You've said that holding the audience's attention for 90 minutes with that format is the hardest thing you've ever done.
Kaki: I'll rephrase that, and say it is when I am at my best. When I am taking on the biggest challenge that I can, and making it work. When it works, I can't come up with anything more difficult and more satisfying.
Debbie: You've had real success with your first two solo acoustic efforts, but after those two albums, you decided to mix things up a bit for your third album, "...Until We Felt Red," which included more musicians playing on the record, in addition to you singing.
When I first became aware of your work, you were doing the solo acoustic work, so when this album came out, I was astonished.
Kaki: Were you upset? Were you so mad?
Debbie: No, I actually really liked it very much, but I was surprised, because when you weren't singing in your first two, I thought, "Well, maybe she has a bad voice."
Kaki: You're actually a fan.
Debbie: Yeah, I am a fan.
Kaki: Oh, my god. This is so cool.
Debbie: I saw at, it was probably at the Knitting Factory.
Kaki: Where did you see me? No.
Debbie: I don't remember where I saw you, but I saw you in 2004 for absolute sure.
Kaki: No shit. Was it just me?
Debbie: Yeah, just you. You had dark brown, long hair. You were a baby. I was like, "How does this woman do this? It's crazy. It's crazy." Will you play us a song?
Kaki: Right now?
Debbie: Play us a song. Yeah, play us a song from ...Until We Felt Red.
Kaki: Oh, god. Well, you know the song I have to play. This is a song called "Jessica." It was written about a camp counselor. She had a thing for me. I didn't really know what to do with that, but I had a thingish for her, and I wrote this song.
Kaki: [sings] Jessica, said she'd wait for me. I'd be 18 when she is turning 23. Decorate her room with greeting cards. They burn up when she turns the light on in the dark.
Trying to remember love that never really was. When the milk tasted like perfume, you had been drinking from the carton, and I knew.
Debbie: Thank you.
Kaki: You're welcome.
Debbie: That was beautiful. When you started to write songs with lyrics, and sing them, did you worry about how vulnerable that might make you? I know that a lot of the lyrics from those early songs were taken from diary entries.
Kaki: Yeah. It was all about trying something new, and still keeping the six‑string guitar first and foremost. As long as I had that, it became my security blanket. Then I realized I could try a lot of other things.
It's funny, because Jessica, that song, I wrote it when I was 15, and put it on a record at 25. I think it was like, Debbie, you talk about brands. I'm going off‑brand. My brand is solo acoustic guitar. What's going to happen when I change this up?
I also knew that the pigeonhole of that world was, I did feel like the walls were closing in. "Kaki King, solo guitar, Kaki King, solo guitar," it seemed like...Also, honestly, I just felt at the time, I remember saying, "I don't think I have an acoustic guitar record in me right now. I just don't think it's there.
"Let me go and be in Chicago for a month, and work with John McEntire," who was the producer on this record, who's in Tortoise, and Sea and Cake, and amazing, "and try something different." It was all about trying something different, but keeping the guitar at the forefront. Even that record's half vocals, half instrumentals.
Debbie: You've stated that songs that are purely instrumental come easier to you. You've said that lyrics can in fact diminish a song.
Kaki: Yes, that's true.
Debbie: In what way?
Kaki: What did Balzac say, "That which is too stupid to say can always be sung"? [laughs] I think that a lot of times, songs happen, I'm listening to the intro, I'm like, "This is great," and then someone starts singing, and I'm like, "Ugh. I wish they had just not sung at all."
I gravitate towards instrumental music. I gravitate towards vocalists who just create their voice as a new instrument. Now, that's not to say I don't love certain singers.
Debbie: Who do you love?
Kaki: I can't say it. It's just too embarrassing.
Debbie: Oh, now, you have to. [laughs]
Kaki: I love Morrissey. He's two weird comments away from tinfoil hat InfoWars, yes. He's just become a horrible person. I think that I love Morrissey. I love Jarvis Cocker, I love PJ Harvey, and I love, KD Lang is amazing.
There are certain singers that I absolutely loved and appreciated, but for the most part, I think the ability for instrumental music to...Again, escapism. Getting out of one's self, taking the emotional part of the brain to another world, that is what instrumental music does. Lyrics ground me in a way that sometimes I don't want.
Debbie: As you've evolved, you've also been involved in film work. In 2007, you played all of the guitar pieces in the movie "August Rush." I remember seeing that movie and thinking...
Kaki: You saw that movie?
Debbie: I did.
Kaki: Were you with a child?
Debbie: [sheepish] Yes.
Debbie: Of course. Isn't everything that goes to that movie with children? I remember thinking, "They've ripped off Kaki King."
Kaki: That's hilarious.
Debbie: I was furious during the movie, thinking...
Kaki: Oh, that's so cute.
Debbie: ..."They have stolen her style and her music." Then I watched the credits go by, and it's like, "Oh, that's all Kaki King playing."
Kaki: It's my hands.
Debbie: I know, I know. You had the hands of a little boy in that movie.
Kaki: Yeah, most expensive hand job.
Debbie: [laughs] How did that gig come about?
Kaki: It's such a great story. I'm on tour, and I think I was in LA. I'm on a tour bus, which is a weird thing for me. The director brings the movie, and they show me these shots of the actor, Freddie Highmore, doing...They've already shot the movie. The movie's done.
They show me the songs that they had chosen, and they show me him playing. I'm like, "It looks great. It looks perfect. He totally looks like he's playing this part." They were like, "Eh, well, actually, we need this to look better. We need this to look more amazing."
They chose the wrong songs, basically, especially this Michael Hedges song. They chose this Michael Hedges song, and he was always known for his amazing playing, his hands moving all over the neck. They just chose the wrong tune. They just chose a song that looked more like traditional guitar playing.
They were like, "Can you write an ending to this song that makes it look better?" Michael Hedges is dead, and he is a...
Kaki: He is a legend, and he is in the pantheon for people who play solo acoustic guitar. I'm being asked to take a legend's song, and to rewrite the ending. I don't have permission from him to do this, and it's weird. I really had to wrestle with that. In the end, I decided to take the money.
I did a new rendition. The plan was like, "We're going to take this, and you're going to film yourself. We're going to teach it to the actor, and he's going to learn how to do it," and that just didn't happen.
[laughs] My manager comes. I was in another recording studio, and he comes in. He's like, "Yo, I got to take a picture of your hands." I was like, "What?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah, just stick your hands out. Here's a ruler."
I'm like, "Uh, OK." He takes a photograph of my hands, and they were like, "Yep, small enough." All of the close‑ups of the hands you see are mine.
Debbie: You ended up experiencing some massive burnout after you toured for your album, "Junior," which was a very rock and roll tour, and involved a lot of singing and jumping around.
Kaki: It did.
Debbie: At that point, you considered hanging your guitar up, and going back to school. You said that after the initial fun and accolades, there just didn't seem to be a lot left in music.
Kaki: Here's where I am not consuming anything that has calories, other than alcohol, [laughs] which is not good. I was amazingly...I played on Jimmy Fallon in a blackout. I was a really good drunk, but then it got really bad.
Yes, there was this moment of reckoning of, "I clearly have a problem." It came up really suddenly, because I didn't drink until I was 25. I didn't even start drinking until I started to experience jet lag, because I was traveling overseas.
It was like bam, bam, bam. Suddenly, I go from normal person to, I am falling apart, but somehow able to tour the world and make records while falling apart. It was a very confusing thing. I didn't really know what you do. I just knew that rehab was the thing that you do.
I went to rehab, and was like, "OK, I get it. I have a problem, but it's actually this allergy," whatever, blah, blah, blah. Recovery is important, and it's an important part of my life. I've been sober for seven years, but [laughs] more importantly, it was like, "What do I do now?"
What happens? Now that I have to go through the world as this person that I've become, without my stuff that makes me feel good, what do I do? There's these looming question marks, and the answer was "Glow."
Debbie: You returned to your acoustic instrumental form. You declared that the album wasn't actually going to do well, because of the state of the industry, but you wanted to do it, anyway. Talk about Glow. Describe Glow for our listeners.
Kaki: Glow's my favorite album that I've done, because of just the context in which it was done. I'd never really joined the acoustic guitar with other instruments. That was an electric thing.
I'm up in Woodstock, New York. I'm living in the studio, where I'm making Glow, and the music is just really, really good. I really felt like I was back, somehow. My playing was back, my stamina was back, and my ability to function, think, and be not...
Part of the insanity was fun. It was fun jumping off of amps, throwing beer at the audience, and literally writing my number on the key card of a hotel room, and handing it to someone. It was crazy. It just wasn't sustainable, and it ultimately got dangerous.
Suddenly, I'm not doing that. Glow was where I became an adult, and the music became adult music again.
Debbie: Your music often has a connection to the visual arts, from the title of ...Until We Felt Red, to the show you curated in 2009, in which more than a dozen artists created thematic pieces on guitars based on your work.
At the exhibition, you played your song, "Playing With Pink Noise" with your hands covered in pink paint, providing a bit of a visual coda to the song on the guitar itself. In 2015, you've created what has been likened to a touring installation, "The Neck is a Bridge to the Body."
In the show, an amazing array of images, video, animation, they're all projection mapped onto a stationary guitar, which you play, and a large screen is behind you, also filled with images. Your playing interacts in real time with the visuals.
Things like the volume of your guitar affect the elements, such as the exposure of the images. How did this show come about?
Kaki: I, post‑Glow...Actually, no, as part of Glow, I had returned to playing alone on stage, 90 minutes, getting the audience focused, at my best, etc. I really felt awesome.
A friend of mine said, "Hey, you know, for all the people that aren't just super fascinated by looking at your hands, maybe you should make the stage a little prettier, like a lighting show. Maybe bring an LD with you, and just have something that's nice."
I thought, "What does that mean? What does lighting mean for someone like me in 2013?" which is when this started to develop? I looked around, and I discovered projection mapping, is part of my Google search of literally, cheap lighting for stage.
I discovered projection mapping, which most people would associate with large architectural pieces. It was like this little click, click, click in the brain. "What if you made this small, to fit you, and what if you did this on the guitar, and then you played it at the same time?"
Lots of questions had to be answered, such as, "Is this affordable? Is this tourable? Is this stable enough of a system to work. Can I play the guitar if it's sitting on a stand?"
Kaki: All of these things. It was longish time, some months went by, before I and a team were able to test all of these things. We did, and I remember the moment where they had been scanning the guitar, and doing this 3D scan that they had to take out, and put back through the projector.
I saw the guitar lit up, and I knew I had a show. Instantly, I knew this would be a big deal. From there on, I started to create one. I wrote a script. No one in the audience would ever know that there's a script, but upon the script was what we were able to hang all the elements of the show.
Again, yes, some animation and some video. I produced several of the videos, and some of it is created by the guitar and my video engineer performing with me. There's a lot of things happening. That has opened up this totally new chapter in my life. I feel like I'm at the beginning. It's miraculous.
Debbie: You were invited recently to work on a project John Maeda, and the artist Giorgia Lupi. The project was to redesign Hennessy's VSOP Privilege blend cognac, super swanky. Then you composed a 200‑beat instrumental piece, which Georgia and John interpreted visually for the bottle label. What was it like to work with a consumer brand?
Kaki: What in the heck? Those people got some money. [laughs] I was like, "This is cray. " It was very luxurious. It was very interesting. John was the person that got hired. John was like, "OK, creating packaging for a brand. This sounds really boring. Why don't I shake things up, and see what happens?"
Debbie: You just sounded like John, by the way. You really just did. You just sounded like him.
Kaki: The way he looks around like, "Ah, I think maybe this would be something that I could really make difficult for people." Not coming from the design world whatsoever, I have no idea who he is.
John Maeda had seen the neck, and he invited me to play as his musical guest at a speech that he delivered at the Kennedy Center. That was how we were connected initially. I was trying to really absorb the vibe.
What does this brand mean to people? The history's interesting. I tried to write a song that made some kind of sense. I think that ultimately, the song became the visualization, which is totally Giorgia. My role was just like a...
Debbie: You were the conduit.
Kaki: Yeah, I guess so.
Debbie: You have continued to collaborate with Giorgia.
Kaki: I know. She's amazing.
Debbie: In August, you discovered a lesion on your daughter's tongue.
Kaki: Jump right in.
Debbie: Your doctor sent you to the ER, and she was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. Is that how you pronounce it? It's an awful, awful word, awful phrase of words, ITP.
Kaki: It's awful. It's just yes, ITP.
Debbie: It's an autoimmune disease that causes her body to attack platelets, and creates random bruises all over her body. Kaki, I'm so sorry.
Kaki: Yes. Well, I have good news.
Debbie: Oh, good. You started working with Giorgia on this other project, and then you began to record your own data in your own life, and you and Giorgia connected, as she put it, "To channel your stress and anxiety into a semblance of control through a meditative action that could help you and your wife make sense of what was happening." What did you do?
Kaki: I collected data.
Debbie: Did it alleviate some of the stress?
Debbie: Did it make it more concrete?
Kaki: It made me see trends, as opposed to the just daily freak‑out. ITP is very rare. Your perfectly healthy kid suddenly turns up, and there's just bruising happening, spontaneously. You cannot believe it. It's like your child's made of glass, and you don't know what to do.
She was admitted to the hospital. I was there with her. We had just had a baby. My wife had just given birth to our son. They were like, "Get that baby out of this hospital." The family was divided. This is this other thing that really was the darkness, was that my son wasn't doing well.
He had a heart murmur that was kind of big. He was struggling to breathe, he was struggling to gain weight, and it was just like, "How much shit can you just put on us at the same?" Everything was coming apart all at the same time.
He's fine, too, which is really great, once he grew. His heart was enlarged, his liver was enlarged. All of it was very traumatic. From working with Giorgia, I had learned how to collect personal data. Part of being the caretaker for someone that has ITP is you have to watch them.
You have to look at their skin. You have to see what their skin is telling you. I had to have some kind of way to watch this stuff. I also knew that I was unraveling. We had this new baby. It was exhausting. Cooper has this crazy thing. She's had several platelet transfusions. It was really, really disturbing.
Data collection allowed me to see the trend and to see the big picture. Ultimately, the project became more about me than anything else. Her platelet level count was affecting my ability to be sane. That was not acceptable, because thankfully, this is a disease that you don't feel.
Kids don't feel it. They're totally normal, and then they're hospitalized. She didn't have fever. She didn't have exhaustion. She didn't have any fatigue. She was totally, completely, and utterly normal.
The night before she was hospitalized, we walked the entire High Line from 34th down to 14th, or something. She was jumping off of the benches, and running into skateboarders, just having a total ball, and the next day, she's in the hospital. It comes out of nowhere.
The data collection itself helped me. "Her bruises are going away. Now, they're coming back. Now, they're getting a little bit worse. I should probably call the doctor." It was more of looking at trends.
It was also looking at my behavior and my comments of, "I just had a fight with someone about something completely nonsensical." Things were coming out sideways, emotionally. Being able to watch all of the factors at play, and see how they were affecting my behavior, and my ability to parent was really helpful.
Debbie: The end result is a beautiful visualization, and a song based on the data. This song has 120 measures in three‑quarter time, covering the 120 days that you collected the data. How is your daughter doing?
Kaki: She was going down at some point in that time period. She was like 31, 26, and they say, "OK, Monday, we're going to give her another transfusion, and we're going to start her on this really intense drug," that hadn't really super been tested on children. I was beside myself.
Monday, they tested her blood first, and she'd gone back up to 30. We were like, "OK, we're going to wait a week." Then the next week, she was up again. She just kept going up, until she had hit a range where you can exist normally in your life, and nothing bad's going to happen.
She stayed there for quite some time. The normal range is 150 to 400. Yesterday, she was 155. [laughs] She's grown out of it. Anything can happen with this crazy thing. She could relapse. Things can change, but in most children, they do eventually grow out of it.
Debbie: That's amazing. That's fantastic.
Kaki: I had a really long cry in the bathroom of the hematologist and oncologist clinic where she goes, where there are very, very ill children. Every time you walk into a room, and there's a child with no hair, you're like, "OK, perspective." We're OK.
Debbie: That sounds wonderful. I'm hoping that you'll play one more song for us. I have one last question, if you would play another song. You've said that your music shows a very small slice of who you really are. You've said that art is a giant fantasy. If your music shows a very small slice of who you are, what isn't it revealing?
Kaki: [laughs] Everything. I play instrumental guitar music. Did you expect to get all of the hilarious emails that I have been sending you in the past few days?
Kaki: There's a good example. I also have this problem where my eyes sink in here. I've got these intense brows, and I've just got this focal point of, it's like a vortex of anger in my face, so people always think I'm pissed off.
Kaki: Yeah, this happens in photos. My face has changed. Actually, my makeup artist was just like, "You know, you don't look the way you looked 10 years ago. I know you know that, but your brow has moved forward, so you look angrier." [laughs]
Debbie: Does that have anything to do with the eye surgery? You were legally blinded.
Kaki: I was legally blind without glasses for a while, but then I got LASIK. It was great. My point is that people see this photograph of me, and they see me playing. It's just like, "Ah, she just must be the most serious person," which could not be further from the truth.
Now, I slammed my face into a microphone stand the other night, and I have crescent‑shaped scar. As if I didn't look sinister enough, let's top it off with this half‑moon cut. [laughs]
Debbie: I thought your son might have done it to you.
Kaki: No, no, it was me doing it to me. I think that I am not what I do on the instrument. I embody a lot of other stuff. I have interests in lots of other things. I do not live my art the way some artists do. Maybe I wish I could, but I don't, and that's OK.
Debbie: With the music that you make and create, I don't know that anyone would want it any other way, honestly. Would you play another song for us?
Kaki: I'd be happy to. I had written this song, and I had a friend who at the time, was living on Bowen Island. I sent it to her, but as a demo. Just as the demo, I named it "Bowen Island." I think I was in Italy. Someone filmed the show, and then took the set list that I had written, and uploaded it to YouTube as Bowen Island.
Now, it's a thing. I basically was forced into calling it "Bowen Island," which is a lovely name. Then I had a baby to name, which is really difficult. I was texting with a friend who actually, she's a writer at SNL.
I was like, "You're a writer. Name my baby." She was like, "Chocolate chip cookies." She was just being ridiculous. Then literally, out of the blue, she goes, "What about Bowen?" I was like, "Whoa." I look at Jess, my wife, and I said, "What about Bowen?" She goes, "Oh, that's going at the top of the list."
Debbie: There it is.
Kaki: There it is. Owen with a B. [plays guitar]
Debbie: Kaki, thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters. Thank you so much for contributing to the soundtrack of my life.
Kaki: Aw, that's so sweet. You're welcome.
Debbie: You can find out where Kaki King is performing, and learn more about her projects and her music at kakiking.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.