“The guitar becomes a paintbrush,” says guitar virtuoso Kaki King about her new live venture, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body. “I play a note and a film plays, or the color changes and everything’s blue, and the effect is so powerful.” She’s speaking from her home in Brooklyn on a beautifully sunny spring day. The previous night, she performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “playing jazz standards,” she says. After more than a dozen years of making classic and classical guitar music, including contributing to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, King is now onto something very different.
Her March-released album of the same name turns the normal tour-a-record situation on its head, and Neck Is a Bridge, though a complete musical work, is an artifact for the performance. With her dark hair bleached blond and her guitar painted white, performer and instrument become a blank screen for sound-triggered visuals, painstakingly put together by Glowing Pictures, whose résumé includes the likes of Animal Collective and David Byrne. Sound and sight unite to make a seamless show, neither sense relegated to backing element.
“For years when I played, I was very focused on being a solo guitar performer and being under the microscope: Just me, the guitar, and one spotlight. At some point someone said, ‘It would be great if you had some lighting design that changed with the atmosphere,’ ” says King. “I’d always wanted to do that, so I explored what lighting means, and I discovered projection. Normally, people associate it with large-scale projects against the sides of buildings, but I wanted to make it small and intimate.”
It doesn’t get much more intimate than King’s unique event at Rough Trade NYC this month, which brings the London-raised, New York–based artist Shantell Martin into the live mix to re-create her live drawing for Anthropomorph as King plays.
“The pre-recorded interpretation of her live drawing is in the show, so it will be the same thing, but she’ll be doing it live as I perform the song,” explains King. So: She’ll be doing the live drawing…live? “Exactly: She’ll replace herself live in the show. I imagine it will be a bit longer than usual, so we can get the full effect of her being present. We will be improvising, too, and collaborating. It’s really exciting; we’ve never done this before. We have to figure out a couple of things, but it’s an awesome opportunity to see what we can create.”
On the next page: “It’s telling the story of my guitar and telling my own story”
This visual twist to her career is somewhat ironic; after nearly 30 years of living with poor vision, King had Lasik surgery in 2008, after which she began to see things for the first time, and in a very new way. “Before, sounds had been the interesting thing in my life; now there were colors and shadows, and all these things that added to it,” she says.
Putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, and creating an album, or rather a soundtrack, to a visual show is a response to what King sees as an increasingly visual world. “Since the development of smartphones, we’ve never looked at more stuff before than we do now. Sharing photos and videos, I feel the language we speak is getting more and more visual. I spend so much time looking at what’s going on. I think it played a part: I had new eyes and a lot more things to see.”
King has a bright wit, and a keen sense of fun and exploration, but The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, both musically and visually, is a continuation of her profound relationship with her guitar.
“It’s telling the story of my guitar and telling my own story,” she explains. “I have virtually no skills outside of playing guitar. It’s been my focus and my income throughout my adult life. I owe everything to it, and it feels like it’s become something beyond an instrument I manipulate and control. The tables have turned. We’re not the masters here. The thing that we become proficient at is the thing that controls our lives.
“There’s a lot of interesting relationships happening in the show,” she adds. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this.”
As record sales decline, most artists make a living by performing, and expanding her reach with something new is King’s way of staying in the game. In that regard, taking on a show like Neck Is a Bridge is a practical move.
“Did I mention I have no skills?” she laughs. “I want to earn a living playing guitar. I hope more people will come to see this. I had a trio of guys come up to me who were totally tripping on ‘shrooms. I don’t think they would have come otherwise — maybe that’s the angle: I’m opening up to the drug crowd,” she jokes, before offering a warning. “There are some intense moments, so I don’t recommend it if it’s your first time on mushrooms. Those guys said to me, ‘It was really great, but that second-to-last song was a bit much for us.’ ”
The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body is out now on Short Stuff Records. Kaki King performs on May 21 at Rough Trade NYC; Glockabelle opens.
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