One of the most innovative guitar players in the world is coming to the University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival October 14th-17th. Kaki King, who in 2006 was declared a “new guitar god,” by Rolling Stone magazine (the only woman on the list at the time), is one of several pioneering artists playing the Festival this year.
King, who’s career began about 20 years ago, is highly regarded in music circles for her innovative technique as well as her groundbreaking multi-media approach to performance. She’s released several albums and composed scores for television and movies, including Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, where along with Eddie Vedder and Michael Brooke, she received a Golden Globe nomination in 2008 for “Best Original Score.”
I spoke to King last week from her home in New York as she was working on post-pandemic plans. In an animated conversation, she shared a little bit about her work and the state of the music business over the past year and a half.
She’s certainly looking forward to being a part of the Festival, where many talented colleagues will be performing. “You gotta’ bring your ‘A Game,’ right?” she chuckled. “Its fun, at this point, so many people are my friends, and so many who I haven’t played with but admire … never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in the company of some of these names. It’s a super big honor and you get to nerd out, and complain about the same stuff. It’s really lovely.”
King’s music defies genre, and often leaves critics dumbfounded. (Rolling Stone calls her “a genre unto herself.”) She wasn’t classically trained, started off playing drums, and later moved to guitar. “I had some amazing teachers who guided me on my musical path … It was just a thing I did for fun,” she explained.
The URI Guitar Festival began as a mainly classical music event, but the Festival has evolved and broadened its program. I wondered how King fits in among more traditional players.
“I’m a guitar player, man,” she joked. “Classical ain’t what it used to be, the repertoire has changed radically, people are so much more open to playing contemporary compositions these days. It isn’t this sort of pissing contest that perhaps it used to be. The field of players out there has changed radically over the last few years, and it’s so cool!”
King waited out much of the pandemic but is getting very busy, very fast.
“It wasn’t great, but I’m a Mom and have been playing with my kids and making sure they find joy,” she explained. “At some point, things shifted to the point where life is now livable, we just got to figure out some new stuff. I’ve been workshopping and am debuting two new shows … all of the sudden everything was happening at the same time.”
As mentioned, King’s style defies convention, and her multi-media shows are far more than a typical recital.
“This new show called ‘Modern Yesterdays’ is kind of a response to what existed before the pandemic. It is a very tech-heavy show involving the guitar and the drum and all kinds of samples and videos and it’s very cool and interactive. It’s like I built this giant beast and now I have to figure out what it does.”
“I debuted that at Lincoln Center this summer in their outdoor program,” she continued “and then I’ve been working on a show called ‘SEI’ with a friend of mine, Tamar Eisenman, which has about 16 guitars on stage. We move around them as a duo, play with them and pluck them, and that creates the music, and the movement creates this relationship between she and I that encompasses different levels of intimacy. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done before.”
King will be showcased twice at the Festival. She’ll be there Sunday October 17th conducting a Master Class from 9AM-11:30AM and then later that evening, she’ll perform as part of the Awards Ceremony at 7PM the URI Fine Arts Center along with Derek Gripper and Mike Block. It’s a show you don’t want to miss!