Backed by an orchestra, Kaki King shape shifts yet again on ‘Live at Berklee’

By: Mike Mettler

September 22, 2017

If there’s one thing you can predict about the iconoclastic avant-guitarist Kaki King, it’s that the only thing you expect her to do next is that she’ll do the unexpected, every time.

Case in point: Kaki’s 2016 The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body project, a boundary-pushing multimedia extravaganza that utilized her signature acoustic guitar as a projection-mapped A/V device to explore the nexus where haunting soundscapes and transformative visual skins meet.

So how does one follow-up something as badass as that? Why, you go to Berklee, sit down with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra at The Red Room @ Café 939, and perform eleven of your most interesting songs in creatively revised or new arrangements — of course.

Fittingly, the resulting release, Live at Berklee, is available today via Birncore, albeit only in digital download form (for now). “Will we do physical copies on CD or vinyl? I don’t know,” King admitted to Digital Trends. “That stuff is expensive! Since I’m not actually going to be touring this show that much, we’ll probably hold off on a physical release. Maybe we’ll have a limited release of CDs, but vinyl? Well, you know — vinyl’s heavy, man! If this album had turned into its own tour, I definitely would have made vinyl for it. Since it’s more of a Berklee-managed project, I’m letting them set the tone, and I’m following their lead.”

Digital Trends called King right before she conducted a soundcheck for one of her own solo shows to discuss the philosophy behind Live at Berklee, how to bring classical performance and composition into the modern era, and the ways to keep evolving as an artist.

Digital Trends: I know you and the chamber orchestra worked through a few rehearsals together before you cut the album live back on April 21. Did those rehearsals give you a comfort level for a recorded performance that could have been a “no mistakes allowed” kind of thing?

Kaki King: Well, you know, there are always going to be mistakes. It’s just a matter of, “How bad are they?” (chuckles)

Well, I’d rather hear real players playing, rather than have live recordings cleaned up or Auto-Tuned past the point of feel.

In the case of this record, you’re definitely hearing all of us pretty much unedited.

Good. I prefer that, because I want to get into the character and identity of the players, especially someone like yourself who’s morphed and transformed over the years. The perfect example of that is this Berkleeversion of Magazine, a song that’s been in your repertoire for many years. [The studio version of Magazine is on her 2004 album, Legs to Make Us Longer.] As the song’s composer, what was your thought process as to how you’d bring that song forward into 2017?

I think the version I played at Berklee had been evolved over the years of playing it live. This particular arrangement [Kaki plays some of the song’s signature riffs over the phone] was done by Tom Hagerman, who did six of the arrangements on the record.

And it was quite the barnstorm, I must say. It was a thrilling piece to play. The conductor [Kari Juusela] was trying to keep up with me, I was trying to keep up with the conductor, and everyone was trying to keep up with each other! But it was definitely very satisfying when we got all those “hits” together. [Kaki mouths Magazine’s most dramatic surges for emphasis.]

I have to say, I’m really enjoying comparing and contrasting the differences in the sound design of The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body with that of Live at Berklee.

Cool! Moving forward, as I continue in this world of performing arts and multimedia, no matter what, my own personal sound design has to continue to grow and become more interesting.

And live, it’s always difficult when you’re on the performance side to witness what the audience is experiencing. I mean, there’s no substitute for me. I can’t ask another Kaki King to get up there and play my parts while I go out in the audience. (both chuckle)

Right. We haven’t perfected Kaki cloning as of yet.

(laughs) We haven’t gotten to that level of advancement yet. But as I continue to work with different types of media and experience the world a lot more, it shows that with amazing sound design, you don’t even know how good it is — like how the subwoofers are being used to push you physically other than aurally. All kinds of amazing things happen. I’m looking forward to getting into that more, actually.

I can see that. You’ve said you view the guitar itself as a “shape shifter,” but I also see you as a shape shifter. We don’t get the same thing from you each time around.

Oh, that is always my goal — but maybe it’s just because I get bored so easily.


But that’s good. I think your specific audience basically expects you to do something different.

They do, and I’m really grateful for that. I’m really grateful that people are willing to go along with my whims.

I think it’s good to have an audience that expects something new each time. It’s challenging, but it’s what I truly want to be doing for the rest of my career. I mean, I love playing the old tunes, and Berklee was a way of changing them up a bit, and push the boundaries.

You’re literally swinging for the Fences, to borrow another title. Speaking of that song, did you play off of the orchestra in the moment there, or was it more predetermined?

In terms of the Berklee record, it was all predetermined. As it was intended to be a live show, we had to try as hard as we could to nail the performances and get the notes right, to be honest with you — which everyone did, and they did a great job. But this record would have never happened in a studio, you know? Just doing old material with strings is boring.

Did you always know you would be sitting at stage right, or on the left, from the viewing audience’s POV?

Oh no, no! Berklee is a very professional organization, but when it comes to production, you just don’t really know beforehand. We didn’t know exactly what the dimensions of the room were, or exactly how the engineers wanted to record it until we got into the space for the first time. We had never rehearsed on that stage before, and they put me stage right because… (slight pause) well, that’s the place they had their microphones, probably! (laughs)

But also, with you being a right-handed player, you’d be more inclined to be looking left and towards the orchestra as you play.

That is true. If I had been on stage left, I would have requested to have been moved to the right, so that I could see the conductor.

Now that you have this taste of it, would you be inclined to do more orchestral shows like this live in the future?

Oh yeah! Yeah, totally. I’ve already done a couple of tours with a string quartet called Ethel, and I’ve done some basic string arrangements for records I’ve produced, and for my own records.

At some point, it would be really amazing to do this — and this is not totally Kaki’s ideal bucket list world (chuckles) — but I’d love to have a live ensemble with a multimedia production. I could combine the two things I’ve worked on in the past few years that have been the most new, and the most challenging for me — and the most rewarding.

The thing about modern classical music, and people playing music on classical instruments, is they all have a very huge challenge in front of them. Their audiences are literally headed into nursing homes. The modern audience is not satisfied with Mozart and Bach — even though I find it hard to believe that’s something you can’t be satisfied with! (chuckles)

People are really hungry for contemporary music, and there’s a renaissance of contemporary composers and ensembles, and people who are familiar with that language of music. Even in the most uptight of conservatories, they know their students are going to have to graduate by playing something John Cage wrote, or something Bryce Dessner or Nico Muhly just wrote — artists like them who are saying, “OK, we’re still writing on classical instruments, but we’re thinking outside the box — and we need you to be able to interpret this music, because this is the future.”

Since vinyl isn’t currently an option for Live at Berklee, I imagine you’re cool with listeners streaming it as well as downloading it.

Oh, I knew long, long ago that you can’t defeat the machine. I remember a lot of people going, “No, we’re going to make a lawsuit, and have a musician’s coalition against downloading.” And I said, “Listen — you can’t stand in the way of a cultural change that’s so great that literally every corner of the world will be taking part in it.” You can’t.

I don’t want my intellectual property to be undervalued, and I would like to feel I’m getting what I deserve as an artist, but things shifted. They changed. They just changed way too fast for certain people.

Me, I was like, “OK, cool.” But I would be standing there after a show where people would buy a CD from me, and literally in front of me, someone else would go, “Why don’t we buy just one, and then I’ll make you a copy?” This would be in the early 2000s. I would be like, “Ahhhhhh!” and would put my hands over my ears and go, “La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you saying this illegal shit right now!”

And that’s why the price of CDs at merch tables went up from $10 to $20, so artists could cover that two-for-one thing…

Right? And then Radiohead released In Rainbows for free [in 2007], and music suddenly cost zero. So, rather than trying to worry about that, fret about that, and stand in the way of it — I just got creative. I said, “I’m going to make my living from live performance. That’s where the money’s going to come from.”

You can’t sell that live experience, and you can’t copy that. Watching it on YouTube is not going to be the same thing. People are going to want to come out of their house, sit in a seat, and look at something beautiful and hear something amazing. That’s the shift.

I also like seeing how material from an artist evolves over the amount of time you spend on the road, like how Magazine continues to change the more you play it.

Sometimes we don’t even have a choice in the matter. The music does what it wants to do.

I often say the studio version of a song is always the snapshot of the moment you finished it.

That is exactly what I say! You took the words right out of my mouth, precisely. I just call it, “I took a photograph of it that day.” And it continues to grow, always.

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