When Kaki King went into the studio in upstate New York to record the tracks for her fourth album, Dreaming Of Revenge, her producer, Malcolm Burn, had one condition: “He said, ‘If someone can’t be sawing a log in half and whistling along to the song, I don’t want it on the record,’” King recalls with a laugh.
And so the bar was set. Burn’s mandate was just the push King needed to make her most accessible CD yet. “Even though half the tracks are instrumentals, I feel like I’m writing pop songs,” she says. “We really concentrated on the melodies. Everything I write tends to be dense and chordal, but this time the idea was to layer the challenging guitar work under very simple, beautiful melodies. I really wanted them to be memorable.”
That strict attention to song craft is a logical step for King, whose previous album, 2006’s …Until We Felt Red propelled this dazzling young guitar player and composer, known to instrumental music fans for her finger-picking, fret-slapping, and percussive thumping style, into previously uncharted indie-rock territory. Produced by post-rock kingpin John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea and Cake), Red was filled with lush, ambient soundscapes that “sound like the abstract, dreamy, and hypnotic end of alternative rock,” as the New York Times noted in its review.
Red found King branching out with songs that featured electric and pedal-steel guitar, horns, and, for the first time, vocals. Dreaming Of Revenge picks up that thread, continuing her evolution from acoustic instrumentalist to full-fledged, multi-faceted songwriter. Previously, her whispery, ethereal voice was used as mainly another element in her sonic arsenal. This time around, King put more effort into both her vocals and the lyrics she wrote for such deeply felt tracks as “Pull Me Out Alive,” “Saving Days In A Frozen Head,” “Life Being What It Is,” and “2 O’Clock,” the latter two of which she describes as break-up songs. “The words mean something now,” she says. “They’re actually telling stories.”
Of course her instrumentals tell stories too. The intricate finger-picked melodies — which she and Burn often doubled and tripled with other instruments — on the airy, sexy “So Much for So Little,” (“a song I think people should make babies to,” King says) and the haunting “Can Anyone Who Has Heard This Music Really Be A Bad Person?” (which was inspired by the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others) convey a heavy-heartedness that feels more raw and emotional than anything King’s done before. Those tracks are balanced out by the upbeat, rhythmically layered “Montreal” and the flash-bang ear candy of “Bone Chaos In The Castle,” both of which feature King, who is the drummer on most of the record, supplying the tight, in-the-pocket grooves.
“Making Dreaming Of Revenge was all about challenging myself,” King says. “And it was also about really letting go and opening myself up to a producer who I needed to just trust. I absolutely knew after the first day in the studio that Malcolm was the right man for the job.” Indeed Burn, a Grammy-Award winning musician and producer who is known for his work with Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris, was the perfect foil for King. “I went in with 11 demos and detailed notes about how each track should sound,” she recalls, “and Malcolm took one listen and said, ‘Throw that stuff away. I don’t care how you think it should sound. Just pick up a guitar right now and start playing.’ He was really adamant, because the way he works is totally spontaneous.”
The process may not have unfolded the way she’d planned, but unpredictability has never been a problem for King. An Atlanta, GA, native who moved to New York in 1998 to attend New York University, she got her start busking in the subway where her dexterous playing style attracted the attention of Velour Music Group, which signed her to a management/recording deal and released her debut album Everybody Loves You in 2003. The following year, she released her second album, Legs to Make Us Longer on Epic Records. These releases coincided with what turned out to be years of incessant touring, and King has since notched headlining performances throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia. She’s also become something of a late-night TV darling, performing on the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and most recently, Later with Jools Holland (UK), impressing fans and critics around the world as her music explores a growing range of emotional spaces.
In 2007, King branched out into film work, composing original music for several scenes in the Sean Penn-directed film Into the Wild, which also features two of her previously released songs. In addition, she recorded two tracks for the film August Rush, in which she appears as a guitar-playing hand double. Aside from Penn, King also has a fan in Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who asked her to duet with him on “Ballad of The Beaconsfield Miners” from the Foos’ current album Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.
“To have these kinds of opportunities has been amazing,” King says. “Just to know that I can walk into a room, pick up a guitar, and play a piece of music that I’ve never heard before without days of rehearsal — I feel good knowing that I’m being asked to do such challenging things.”
For now, King is excited about the March 2008 release of Dreaming Of Revenge. “I want people to listen to it and think, ‘This sounds like something completely new, but it also sounds like something Kaki King would do,’” she says. “I am finding my own voice within the world of instrumental music at large, as opposed to just instrumental guitar. So I’d love for people to hear it and think, ‘If I had to take a guess, I think Kaki King might have written this song. That would be a dream.”