Watching Kaki King perform—a five-foot-one-inch-tall woman grappling with a six-string Ovation, armed with nothing but half a set of acrylic nails—is like seeing guitar-playing for the first time. 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.
The Atlanta-born Brooklynite, who cut her teeth busking in the subways after 9/11, made her name as a guitar phenom with her 2003 debut, Everybody Loves You. Her you-gotta-see-this-to-believe-it technique, as evidenced in her video for “Playing With Pink Noise” (from King’s second album, Legs to Make Us Longer), led Rolling Stone to name her a female “Guitar God,” in 2007, and prompted comparisons to fingerpicking legends like Preston Reed.
With Dreaming of Revenge, King’s sound edges toward accessibility. “The reason I can take a band on the road is not by being a musician’s musician but by writing songs people love,” she says. Yet even her poppiest tracks sound new, in part because she still writes music like an instrumentalist, thinking in chords; the melody comes last. “I’d get to the studio with all these acoustic tracks, and [my producer] would say, ‘These are great, but I don’t hear a melody. We’re making pop music, and if I don’t hear a hook, forget it.’ ” Working with drums, violins, and synthesizers—not to mention spatulas, spoons, and boxes—the pair built layer upon layer of melodies over polyrhythmic grooves, keeping King’s voice, which in the past she’d buried in reverb, clear and unadorned. “If you’re saying something that will mean something to someone,” says King, whose lyrics are mined from diary entries, “you don’t want to fuck that up. You’ve got to put the lyrics up front.”
This weekend, King opens for Beirut for two nights at BAM. What can fans expect from this ever-evolving artist? “Just me and my drummer,” she says. “It’s going to be louder and more rocking than I’ve ever been before.”