Rolling Stones has called Kaki King a genre unto herself—she joins to talk about her career path and even plays a song or two.
Rolling Stones has called Kaki King a genre unto herself—she joins to talk about her career path and even plays a song or two.
Kaki King: What?
Speaker 2: You have to start again.
Kaki King: I have to start again?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Kaki King: Why do I have to start again?
Speaker 2: Because I was talking.
Kaki King: (Singing)
Debbie Millman: This is not this song.
Kaki King: Yes, it is.
Debbie Millman: This is from Hedwig.
Kaki King: (Singing) I told you.
Debbie Millman: I know, but didn’t think you’re going to do it on the air.
Kaki King: Are we on the air?
Speaker 2: From the Ted Audio Collective, this is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For 17 years, Debbie Millman has been talking with some of the world’s most creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are and what they’re thinking about and working on. And now, some of those interviews appear in print in Debbie’s brand new book, Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People. It’s coming out in February of this year. In anticipation of the book, we’re releasing interviews from the archives this month. We thought it would be fun for listeners to hear not only some great interviews, but also to hear how the podcast has evolved over the years. So we’ve been releasing the oldest ones first and proceeding chronologically. In December of 2018, Debbie spoke with Kaki King, whose music you’re hearing now.
Kaki King: Developing my own voice as a writer in an instrumental context, that’s the hardest thing to do.
Speaker 2: Khaki King, after the break.
Debbie Millman: Take your business online with Wix, the leading website creation platform that’s got all the tools you need to create, manage, and grow your brand. Whether you’re starting your online business, or you’ve got a side hustle, you can design a site to showcase your brand that’ll look great on any device. Join over 200 million people already using Wix’s wide range of solutions to enhance their businesses. Like ultra smart SEO tools designed to get you found on search engines, faster loading times to create outstanding user experiences and payment solutions to help you boost your revenue. Plus with enterprise grade security built into every site, you know you’re in safe hands. You can manage everything from one dashboard on desktop and mobile so you could be available anywhere at any time, in the office, at home or on the go. Want to get started? Head over to Wix.com and create your website today.
Rolling stone has called Kaki King a genre unto herself and indeed Kaki King 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 Fu Fighters and she has scored music for movies. Recently, she’s been collaborating with designers, Georgia Lupi and John Mata. 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 Millman: 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.” So tell us about the allure of Kaki King in a panda suit.
Kaki King: 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. So, I think I said, “When I see you, I’m going to bring Harvey, the dog, in a panda suit.” And she said something along the lines of the only thing cuter would be… I can’t remember what she said, but I just responded with, “You should see me in a panda suit.”
Debbie Millman: And did she ever?
Kaki King: Not yet, but it’s on the docket.
Debbie Millman: Okay, good to know. We’ll need to see pictures of that. So, you mentioned your parents being in Atlanta with Harvey. This is where you grew up and you started playing guitar at age four or five because your parents thought children should take music lessons and you’ve said that you can’t recall a time when you didn’t know how to play the guitar.
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: What are your earliest recollections of the instrument? What was the first song you learned how to play?
Kaki King: Mm, I remember learning how to play for Frère Jacques. The (singing). Twinkle twinkle little star was up there. I had a four string guitar that was-
Debbie Millman: Isn’t that a ukulele?
Kaki King: No, no, no. It’s not at all. It’s the top four strings of an actual guitar. Ukulele is tuned differently and I took lessons from a woman named Maxine and I remember having to put my foot on the little foot stool. It was classical guitar lessons, but I’m five, so there’s not a whole lot of a great repertoire and I wasn’t very good, but I could do it and I could get through the recital, which was, now that I have children, I’m like, whoa, that actually is pretty impressive. So yeah, my earliest memories are being actually in a tiny soundproof room with another woman with my guitar. So I do have those memories and then the other memories are of my dad. He would play guitar and he would go and take a blues lesson. Then he’d come home and teach me like, “Oh man, I learned this cool thing. It’s called the pentatonic scale.” And I was like, “Wow.” So yeah, those are some of my earliest memories.
Debbie Millman: And did he encourage your guitar playing because he loved playing guitar? Why not piano?
Kaki King: Because he was cool. My dad was like, “Why doesn’t she take guitar lessons?” And it was under the guise of it being classical guitar, but I think that my dad loves music more than anything. And I think that he just thought, why not? This was all in the realm of gymnastics and swim and the other things you do to your children and a guitar was the thing that just kept sticking.
Debbie Millman: I understand you saw Fleetwood Mac play on Mirage Tour when you were four years old. So how did that happen? Did your parents take you to a concert?
Kaki King: Yeah, it was my dad.
Debbie Millman: So it was you and your dad let’s go see Fleetwood Mac?
Kaki King: 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 Millman: Why would anybody ever think of anything else?
Kaki King: It was a sculpture of the eighties. It was like if you could take one item of the eighties and have that representative, it would’ve been Stevie Nicks hair.
Debbie Millman: Now, I would think that Lindsay Buckingham would’ve made more of an impression on you.
Kaki King: I was four and I was far away. I think that my trajectory in life is that I wanted to be Stevie Nicks and I ended up being Lindsay Buckingham.
Debbie Millman: Oh, there’s something poetic about that. Now, when you were nine or 10, you recalled that all the boys at school started getting their first guitars, but you could already play. So, at that point they thought you were cool, but you thought at that point that you were going to be a drummer.
Kaki King: Oh yeah.
Debbie Millman: Why a drummer?
Kaki King: They’re just infinitely better.
Debbie Millman: You don’t still do think that, do you?
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: You do?
Kaki King: I love the drums. Ranking instrument, 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 Millman: So that’s why you play it.
Kaki King: That is why I play it professionally. I play drums every day.
Debbie Millman: Interesting. So when did you decide, okay, 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 pass.
Kaki King: Not a decision. So I, throughout college played both and 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 and I had bands that I was in and we’d play, but 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 Millman: How come?
Kaki King: I was playing solo instrumental guitar and it was difficult and challenging and I was writing songs and it was like, I would have to book a gig in order to share that, whereas socially playing bass drums or rhythm guitar, whatever, in another person’s band was like the cool, easy thing. That was easy and fun and it wasn’t a commitment and it was just… But guitar had slowly become this thing that I did privately and it wasn’t until life happening that it became the instrument that I now am known for.
Debbie Millman: And did you ever learn how to play accordion? I know that was something you wanted to do.
Kaki King: I gave away my accordion a couple years ago. I did not ever master the accordion, but there is always time.
Debbie Millman: 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.
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: And 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 King: Ugh, sorry. I mean, some of those chicks are super cool, I’m sure.
Debbie Millman: But you said that you were horrifyingly lonely.
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: And had a bad sense of self.
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: How did you manage?
Kaki King: I think music was part of the thing that saved me and the amount of escapism that I required on a daily basis just to exist, was just astronomical.
Debbie Millman: What do you mean by that?
Kaki King: I started listening to Britpop music, which was this thing that was happening in London in the mid nineties and I would transport myself there and I was this cool chick in a band playing this music and I was there. I mean, I was not in my house in Atlanta with weird things happening in my family and weird people at school that didn’t… I mean, I just wasn’t present. I was in fantasy or in escapism in some sort of self medication at some times. I mean, I was gone and I would not recommend this to anyone, but that’s how I got through.
Debbie Millman: When did you stop self-medicating?
Kaki King: Oh, I was, I don’t know, 31 and went to rehab.
Debbie Millman: Oh, really?
Kaki King: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: Okay. After graduating, you headed north to New York University. Why did you choose NYU as opposed to a more music centered school like Berkeley or Juilliard?
Kaki King: I was not encouraged to pursue a music career.
Debbie Millman: Even with your dad so passionate about music?
Kaki King: My dad does not wear the pants in our family. It is my mother who-
Debbie Millman: The lawyer.
Kaki King: They’re both lawyers, but my mother, well, that’s a funny story of how my mother is the reason my father’s a lawyer. So, look, it’s difficult to look at your child and 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 musician. I played music with people, I wrote songs on my guitar, I was engaged in it at every level and it didn’t 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 and I lived in a subdivision with no sidewalks. It was beautiful and woodsy, but there were no people for me to connect with and I craved that and I wanted to be somewhere where that looked easy and I also did know that there was music happening in New York City, so there was part of that. But yeah, again, escapism, just get me out.
Debbie Millman: At NYU, you were in a program in which you created your own major.
Kaki King: Mm yes.
Debbie Millman: What did you choose and what were you expecting at that point you might want to do with your life?
Kaki King: I truly expected to become a lawyer. Yeah. I thought that what I would do, because I was raised in the 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 Millman: For law?
Kaki King: For law. I mean, I think that many aspects of the law fascinate me and-
Debbie Millman: Like what?
Kaki King: The setting of precedence and how a society depends on laws, even if they’re terrible, to function and how we can change laws to make things better and how laws protect people from themselves. My parents practice criminal law for most of their career and then they switched to bankruptcy law. So, two types of law that really can help a person that’s fucked up, save something, salvage something of their life. Yeah, so I thought that would be my trajectory. Also, I literally had a law firm to inherit. I mean, it was like, hey, you’ve gone to New York, you’ve had some fun, but unfortunately you’re going to have to do this and that did not happen.
Debbie Millman: Can you really imagine yourself being a lawyer at this point in your life?
Kaki King: No. Well, my sister, my younger sister took that path. She went to law school. She took over my parents law firm and they’re all in this little cabal of lawyering and managing. I’ll call the law firm and I’ll be like, “Can I talk to Karen?” And then they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll just give you to your dad for now.” And then I get my mom on the phone. I’m-
Debbie Millman: Catch up with the whole family while you’re at it?
Kaki King: Yeah. Why not?
Debbie Millman: In what you am imagined was going to be that year between your undergraduate degree and your graduate career, you started playing music in a subway.
Kaki King: There’s a very specific reason for that.
Debbie Millman: Tell us.
Kaki King: 9/11. I took the summer semester. My graduation date of the end of that semester was September 12th. So, September 11th happened and suddenly I went from, okay, I’m getting out of school. I’m going to figure it out. There’s no jobs. The city is a mess. I mean, I witnessed 9/11 from my rooftop. I mean, it was like many New Yorkers, it was so traumatizing and disrupting. So now I’ve recently moved to Brooklyn, all my friends are in Manhattan getting around the city is impossible, there’s no walking into a place and getting a job. That’s just… And so I needed money. I needed, more than anything, connection with people. I’d always wanted to busk in the subway and I started playing and it changed everything.
Debbie Millman: What did busking teach you?
Kaki King: Stamina. Great amounts of stamina and the ability to focus despite whatever’s happening in your environment.
Debbie Millman: And at that point, had you begun to develop your style as a musician?
Kaki King: Yes. At that point, most of my first album was written. So yes, some of the very distinctive parts of my style and 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 in.
Debbie Millman: So you, at that point, started to work with the Blue Man Group and you became a musician for this trio of blue men. So, I have a couple of questions.
Kaki King: Oh, sure.
Debbie Millman: So that gave you some money to travel and how did you get the job with Blue Man Group?
Kaki King: Okay. 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 that and I actually got the job. I had a friend who knew I. M. Pei, who is the son of I. M. Pei. He was the original drummer and I’d met him and at some point, given him a CD that I had made and he emailed me and he said there’s auditions in two days for Chapman Stick. I’ve never seen a Chapman Stick, but it’s an instrument you tap on. So he’s like, “Call so and so, and tell them, I said, I sent you and it’s fine.” And I got the first audition of the day, which is like, this is going to be bad.
And I remember walking out of my audition saying from now on, I’m always going to be able to tell people I auditioned for Blue Man Group, right? You don’t ever dream as big as you should and I got the job, which was amazing. So, I’m 23 and I have been signed to a record label.
Debbie Millman: How did you get the deal? How did you get the record deal?
Kaki King: Okay. So that’s a whole… Okay, 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 in the subway being something that feels normal and people keep saying, “Can I buy a CD? Can I buy a CD?” And it wasn’t a decision based on, I really feel like I need to put all my material in a record. It was literally like, I could make 10 bucks off of every sucker that asked me this? Sure. I’ll make a CD.
So, I made this CD of all the material that I had been recording and working on and 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 and that’s exactly what happened. So I made this record and gave it to friends and 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 and we will pay you.” Which is just, I mean, even in the early two thousands was unheard of.
So for two months I played this weekly late night gig at the Knitting Factory for which I was paid a hundred dollars and I brought CDs and 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 and I think you’re cool. And he managed me for the next 12 years.
Debbie Millman: That’s amazing.
Kaki King: It is. It’s the Hollywood story. I feel terrible because I feel like there’s never the struggle story of I tried this and I tried this and no one cared and it was awful.
Debbie Millman: Well, you alluded to some struggle a little while ago which I could ask you about, but if you want to talk about it, we can. I’m not going to push.
Kaki King: So that’s the story of the record. So the record, I get this record deal. I’m working at Blue Man Group and I’m 23 years old and this is a problem because I’m not prepared for the things that are about to start happening.
Debbie Millman: Your first two albums were solo acoustic efforts, spotlighting your talent. This is what New York Magazine wrote about you.
Kaki King: New York Magazine said something?
Debbie Millman: Yeah.
Kaki King: God.
Debbie Millman: With both hands curling over her instruments neck, she hammers, pluck drums, drums, and slaps at frets, strings, and body. The effect is of sculpting rather than of playing music and on AllMusic, Tom Jerich 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 King: Yeah, it’s hard because there’s also the counter point to that, which is I’m living in Brooklyn with 5,000 roommates. I don’t have any money. I’m touring and I’m opening for jam bands and I hate my life.
Debbie Millman: Why?
Kaki King: Because I’m opening for jam bands. I mean-
Debbie Millman: But you’re opening on tour for musicians and for audiences of people.
Kaki King: Yeah, that gets sold quickly. No, really. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard work being an opening act. Really hard work and 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 Millman: And you had already been through rehab at this point?
Kaki King: Oh no.
Debbie Millman: Oh, okay.
Kaki King: 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 Millman: How did you manage, I can only imagine, were the expectation people were putting on you?
Kaki King: 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. So 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 Millman: Did you ever question your ability?
Kaki King: No.
Debbie Millman: Have you ever?
Kaki King: No. I mean, I think that 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 and ultimately developing my own voice as a writer in an instrumental context, that’s the hardest thing to do. So 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, okay, I really sound like me, even though it’s just one guitar playing.
Debbie Millman: You’ve 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 King: There just is none. I mean, 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 when people say things… I think that probably the worst thing that’s happening to me as a young person was that the things that you read, the quotes, the-
Debbie Millman: Rolling Stone calling you, putting it on the list of the new guitar gods.
Kaki King: Yeah, the accolades. I mean, that’s ridiculous. That’s just insane, bad copy. It’s just-
Debbie Millman: Why? Why do you think that?
Kaki King: 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. I mean, the implications are really bad and the implication that a genre under herself, blah, blah, blah. I mean, it’s just that it’s like, you’ve hit the ceiling and there’s nowhere else to go and 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 Millman: Yeah. I think the most ridiculous thing I read was somebody referred to you as Bootsy Collins meets Van Halen.
Kaki King: What the hell is that? Can you imagine Bootsy Collins and Van Halen in a band together? That would sound like just garbage.
Debbie Millman: Or a mashup.
Kaki King: A mashup would be fun, but if those two assholes tried to make a band together, it’s nonsense. So I didn’t know how to really process that other than to ignore it.
Debbie Millman: You have likened touring with just you and an acoustic guitar as almost a martial arts like challenge and you talked a little bit, just a few moments ago, about the resilience needed for being an opening act, but you’ve said that holding the audience’s attention for 90 minutes with that format is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
Kaki King: 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. And when it works, I can’t come up with anything more difficult and more satisfying.
Debbie Millman: You 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 King: Were you so mad?
Debbie Millman: 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 King: You’re actually a fan.
Debbie Millman: Yeah, I am a fan.
Kaki King: Oh my God. This is so cool.
Debbie Millman: I saw you. It was probably at the Knitting Factory because I don’t remember where I saw you, but I saw you in 2004.
Kaki King: No shit? Was it just me?
Debbie Millman: Yeah, just you. You had had dark brown, long hair.
Kaki King: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: Yeah and you were a baby. I was like, how does this woman do this? It’s crazy. It’s crazy. Will you place a song?
Kaki King: Right now?
Debbie Millman: Play us a song. Yeah, plays a song from Until We Felt Red.
Kaki King: Oh God. Well, you know the song I have to play.
Debbie Millman: Okay.
Kaki King: 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 thing ish for her and I wrote this song. (singing)
Debbie Millman: Thank you.
Kaki King: You’re welcome.
Debbie Millman: That was beautiful.
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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 King: Yeah. It was all about trying something new and still keeping the six string guitar first and foremost. So as long as I had that, it became my security blanket. Then I realized I could try a lot of other things. So that record, it’s funny because Jessica, that song, I wrote it when I was 15 and put it on a record at 25. So I think it was like, okay, 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? But I also knew that the pigeon hole of that world was I did feel like the walls were closing in and Kaki King, solo guitar, Kaki King, solo guitar. I mean, it seemed like…
And also, honestly, I just felt, at the time, I remember saying, I don’t think I have a acoustic guitar record in me right now. I just don’t think it’s there, so let me go and be in Chicago for a month and work with John McIntyre, who was the producer on this record, who’s in Tortoise and The Sea And Cake and amazing and try something different, so it was all about trying something different, but keeping the guitar at the forefront. And even that, I mean, that records half vocals, half instrumentals.
Debbie Millman: You’ve stated that songs that are purely instrumental come easier to you.
Kaki King: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: You said that lyrics can in fact diminish a song.
Kaki King: Yes, that’s true.
Debbie Millman: In what way?
Kaki King: What did Balzac say? That which is too stupid to say can always be sung? I mean, I think that a lot of times songs happen and I’m listening to the intro, I’m like, “This is great.” And then someone starts singing and I’m like, “Oh, 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 Millman: Who do you love?
Kaki King: I mean, I can’t say it. It’s just too embarrassing.
Debbie Millman: Now you have too.
Kaki King: I love Morrissey. He’s two weird comments away from like Tin Foil Hat, Infowars guest. He’s just become horrible person, but no, I think that I love Morrissey and I love Jarvis Cocker and I love PJ Harvey and k. d. Lang is amazing. I mean, there are certain singers that I absolutely loved and appreciated, but yeah, for the most part, I think the ability for instrumental music to, again, escapism, getting out of oneself, taking the emotional part of the brain to another world, that is what instrumental music does and lyrics ground me in a way that sometimes I don’t want.
Debbie Millman: 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 and I remember seeing that movie and thinking-
Kaki King: You saw that movie?
Debbie Millman: I did.
Kaki King: Were you with a child?
Debbie Millman: Yes, of course. Isn’t everyone that goes to that movie with children? But I remember thinking they ripped off Kaki King.
Kaki King: Oh, that’s hilarious.
Debbie Millman: I was furious during the movie thinking they have stolen her style and her music and then I watch the credits go by and it’s like, oh, that’s all Kaki King playing.
Kaki King: It’s my hands.
Debbie Millman: I know. I know. So you had the hands of a little boy in that movie.
Kaki King: Yeah, most expensive hand job.
Debbie Millman: How did that gig come about?
Kaki King: It’s such a great story. So I’m on tour and I think I was in LA. I’m on a tour bus, which isn’t a weird thing for me. The director brings the movie and they show me these shots of the actor, Freddie Highmore doing the… They’ve already shot the movie. The movie’s done. And they show me the songs that they had chosen and they show me him playing and I’m like, “It looks great. It looks perfect. He totally looks like he’s playing this part.” And they’re like, “Well actually, we need this to look better. We need it to look more amazing.” Because they chose the wrong songs, basically. Especially this Michael Hedges song.
So they chose this Michael Hedges song and he was always known for his amazing playing, his hands moving all over the neck, but they just chose the wrong tune. They just chose a song that looked more like traditional guitar playing. So they were like, “Can you write an ending to this song that makes it look better?” And Michael Hedges is dead and he is a-
Debbie Millman: Legend.
Kaki King: He’s a legend and he is in the Pantheon for people who play solo acoustic guitar, so I’m being asked to take a legends song and to rewrite the ending and I don’t have permission from him to do this and it’s weird. So I really had to wrestle with that, but in the end I decided to take the money and so I did a new rendition and then the plan was, we’re going to take this and you’re going to film yourself and we’re going to teach it to the actor and he’s going to learn how to do it and then that just didn’t happen. So my manager comes… I can’t remember. I was in another recording studio. He comes and he is like, “Yo, I got to take a picture of your hands.” And I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. Just stick your hands out and here’s a ruler.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So he takes a photograph of my hands and they’re like, “Yep. Small enough.” So all the close ups of the hands you see are mine.
Debbie Millman: So, you ended up experiencing some massive burnout after you toured for your album Junior which was a very rock and roll tour. It involved a lot of singing and jumping around.
Kaki King: It did.
Debbie Millman: And 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 King: So here’s where I am not consuming anything that has calories other than alcohol, which is not good. But I was amazingly… I mean, I played on Jimmy Fallon in a blackout. I was a really good drunk, but then it got really bad. So 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 lags. I was traveling overseas. So 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.
And I didn’t really know what you do. I just knew that rehab was the thing that you do. So I went to rehab and was like, okay, I get it, I have a problem, but it’s actually this allergy. I mean, whatever, blah, blah, blah. Recovery is important and it’s an important part of my life. I’ve been sober for seven years, but more importantly, was 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? And so there was these looming question marks and the answer was Glow.
Debbie Millman: You returned to your acoustic instrumental form. You declared that the album wasn’t actually going to do well given the state of the industry, but you wanted to do it anyway.
Kaki King: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: Talk about Glow. Describe Glow for our listeners.
Kaki King: Glow is my favorite album that I’ve done because of just the context in which it was done and I had never really joined the acoustic guitar with other instruments. That was an electric thing. So, 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 and I really felt like I was back somehow. My playing was back and my stamina was back in my ability to function and think and be not in… Because part of the insanity was fun. It was fun jumping off of amps and throwing beer at the audience and literally writing my number on the key card of a hotel room and handing it to someone. I mean, it was crazy. It just wasn’t sustainable and it ultimately got dangerous. So suddenly I’m not doing that, so Glow was where I became an adult and the music became adult music again.
Debbie Millman: 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 and in the show, an amazing array of images, video and animation. They’re all projection mapped onto a stationary guitar, which you play and a large screen is behind you also filled with images and you’re 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 King: Post Glow… Well actually, no, as part of Glow I’d return into playing alone on stage, 90 minutes, getting the audience focused, at my best, et cetera and I really felt awesome. And a friend of mine said, “Hey, for all the people that aren’t just super fascinated by looking at your hands, maybe you should maybe make the stage a little prettier, like a lighting show. Maybe bring an LD with you and just have something that’s nice.” So I thought, okay, well, what does that mean? What does lighting mean for someone like me in 2013, which is when this has started to develop. So I looked around and I discovered projection mapping as part of my Google search of literally cheap lighting for stage.
And so 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 stand? All of these things. And it was a long-ish time. I mean, some months went by before I and a team were able to test all of these things and 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 then put back through their projector. And I saw the guitar lit up and I knew I had a show. Instantly, I knew this would be a big deal.
And from there on, I started to create one and I wrote a script and no one in the audience would ever know that there’s a script, but upon the script was where you were able to hang all of the elements of the show. And again, yes, some animation and some video and I produced several of the videos and some of it is created by the guitar and my video engineers performing with me. There’s a lot of things happening and that has opened up this totally new chapter in my life that I feel like I’m at the beginning. It’s miraculous.
Debbie Millman: You were invited recently to work on a project with John Mata and the artist Georgia Lupi and the project to redesign Hennessy’s VSOP Privilege blend cognac.
Kaki King: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: Super swanky, but 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 King: What in the heck? Those people got some money. I was like, this is cra… Okay. It was very luxurious. It was very interesting. John was the person that got hired and John was like, “Okay, creating packaging for a brand. This sounds really boring. Why don’t I shake things up and see what happens.” So he really-
Debbie Millman: You just sounded like John, by the way. You really just did. You just sort of sounded like him.
Kaki King: And the way he looks around, like, “Huh, I think that 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. And so John Mata had seen The Neck and he invited me to play as his musical guest at a speech that he delivered at the Kennedy Center, so that was how we were connected, initially. But I was trying to really absorb the vibe. What does this brand mean to people? And the history is interesting and I tried to write a song that made some kind of sense. And I think that ultimately the song became the visualization, which is totally Georgia. So my role was just like a-
Debbie Millman: You were the conduit.
Kaki King: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
Debbie Millman: You have continued to collaborate with Georgia.
Kaki King: I know she’s amazing.
Debbie Millman: In August, you discovered a lesion on your daughter’s tongue.
Kaki King: Jump right in.
Debbie Millman: Yep. 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 words. Awful series of words.
Kaki King: It awful. Yes, ITP.
Debbie Millman: It’s an autoimmune disease that causes her body to attack platelets and creates random bruises all over her body and Kaki, I’m so sorry.
Kaki King: Yes. Wow. I have good news.
Debbie Millman: Oh good. Well, you started working with Georgia on this other project, and then you began to record your own data in your own life and you and Georgia 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. So what did you do?
Kaki King: I collected data.
Debbie Millman: Did it alleviate some of the stress?
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: But did it make it more concrete?
Kaki King: It made me see trends as opposed to the just daily freak out. So ITP is very rare, so you’re perfectly healthy kid suddenly turns up and there’s just bruising just spontaneously and you cannot believe it. It’s like your child’s made of glass and you don’t know what to do. And so, 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. So they were like, “Get that baby out of this hospital.” So 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 big and he was struggling to breathe and 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. And he’s fine too, which is really great and I mean, his heart was enlarged, his liver was enlarged. All of it was very traumatic.
So from working with Georgia, I had learned how to collect personal data and 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 and so I had to have some way to watch this stuff. And I also knew that I was unraveling. I mean, we had this new baby, it was exhausting. Cooper has this crazy thing. She’s had several platelet transfusions. It was really, really disturbing. So data collection allowed me to see the trend and to see the big picture and ultimately the project became more about me than anything else because her platelet level count was affecting my ability to be sane and 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 like 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 highline from 34th down to 14th or something and she was jumping off of the benches and running into skateboarders. I mean, just having a total ball and the next day she’s in the hospital. It comes out of nowhere. So the data collection itself helped me see, okay, 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 and then 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. So 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 Millman: 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 King: So she was going down at some point in that time period and she was 31, 26, and they say, okay, 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 and I was beside myself and Monday, they tested her blood first and she’d gone back up to 30 and we were like, okay, we’re going to wait a week. And then the next week she was up again. And 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. And she stayed there for quite some time and the normal range is, is 150 to 400, yesterday she was 155.
Debbie Millman: Oh.
Kaki King: So she’s grown out of it and I mean, anything can happen with this crazy thing. She could relapse, things can change, but in most children they do eventually grow out of it and-
Debbie Millman: That’s amazing.
Kaki King: Yes.
Debbie Millman: That’s fantastic.
Kaki King: So 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, okay, perspective. So yeah, so we’re okay.
Debbie Millman: Good. 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 and you’ve said that art is a giant fantasy, so if your music shows a very small slice of who you are, what isn’t it revealing?
Kaki King: I mean, everything. I play instrumental guitar music. I mean, it’s like, okay, did you expect to get all of the hilarious emails that I’ve been sending you in the past few days?
Debbie Millman: No.
Kaki King: Okay, so there’s a good example. I also have this problem where my eyes sink in here and 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.
Debbie Millman: Really?
Kaki King: Yeah, this happens in photos. Well, my face has changed. Actually, my makeup artist was just like, “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.”
Debbie Millman: Well, does that have anything to do with the eye surgery? You were legally blinded.
Kaki King: Yeah. I was legally blind without glasses for a while, but then I got LASIK and it was great.
Debbie Millman: Okay.
Kaki King: My point is that, people see this photograph of me and they see me playing and it’s just like, ah, she just must be the most serious person, which could not be further from the truth and now I slammed my face into a microphone stand the other night and I have this crescent shaped scar as if I didn’t look sinister enough, let’s just top it off with this half moon cut.
Debbie Millman: I thought your son might have done it to you.
Kaki King: No, no, it was me doing it to me. No, I think that I am not what I do on the instrument. I embody a lot of other stuff and I have interests in lots of other things. I do not live my art the way some artists do. And maybe I wish I could, but I don’t and that’s okay.
Debbie Millman: Well, 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 King: I’d be happy to. I had written this song and I had a friend who at the time was living on Bowen Island and I sent it to her, but as a demo. And so, just as the demo, I named it Bowen Island and I think I was in Italy and someone filmed the show and then took the set list that I’d written and uploaded it to YouTube as Bowen island, so now it’s a thing. And so I was forced into calling a Bowel Island, which is a lovely name. And then I had a baby to name, which is really difficult and I was texting with a friend who actually, she’s a writer at SNL, and I was like, “You’re a writer. Name my baby.” And she was like, “Chocolate chip cookies.” And I mean, she was just being ridiculous and then literally out of the blue, she goes, “What about Bowen?” And I was like, “Whoa.” And I look at Jess, my wife, and I said, “What about Bowen?” She goes, “Oh, that’s going at the top of the list.” So-
Debbie Millman: There it is.
Kaki King: There it is. Owen with a B.
Debbie Millman: 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 King: Aw, that’s so sweet. You’re welcome.
Debbie Millman: 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. And 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.
Speaker 2: Debbie’s new book, Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People is coming out in February of 2022. Design Matters is produced for the Ted Audio Collective by Curtis Fox Productions. Interviews are usually recorded at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program in New York City, the first and longest running branding program in the world. The editor in chief of Design Matters media is Emily Wila.