Guitarist Kaki King is known for a lot of things — her virtuosic technique, her experimental songwriting, her idiosyncratic sound and her futuristic multimedia shows, just to name a few.
In a pre-pandemic world, King lit up some of the most prestigious venues in the country with an elaborate system that projected colors, lights and patterns onto the surface of her guitar with every note she plucked.
But when King performs on the Tech Arts Skyline Stage on Apr. 15, it will be just her and a few of her guitars, stripped of her typical highly visual show. It will be King’s first live concert since the pandemic.
When she was just starting out, King sold her own CDs in the tunnels of the New York City subway. She’s come a long way since then — now considered one of the greatest guitarists of her generation. King has released 9 albums and performed at the Kennedy Center and The Met, as well as creating film and TV soundtracks that include “August Rush” and “Into the Wild.”
She’s known for both her technical ability and the immersive, boundary-breaking quality of her music.
But growing up in Atlanta, King never expected solo guitar to be her career. Music was just something that she loved and something she was good at, her way of working things out emotionally.
She never stopped playing.
“It just keeps happening no matter what I do,” she said about her music, “despite circumstances and my amazing ability to self-sabotage.”
King’s music is wonderfully intricate and absorbing, and can sound like whatever the listener wants it to sound like.
But when asked to describe it herself, King says that “it’s all a bit sad, and it’s all a bit dark.”
She wants nothing to do with the nostalgic, pastoral joy that encompasses much of the world of solo guitar — she doesn’t want her music to sound like background music. She wants her listener to hear it and know that it’s Kaki.
She gets a lot of attention for her technique, which involves slapping the guitar, drumming her nails against it, and more. But the hard part is the songwriting.
“When you’re an instrumentalist, finding your voice is really hard,” King said, “I want it to be identifiable as me.”
King describes herself as a revisionist, reworking her songs over and over and even while she’s performing. Over the years, she’s become less critical of the process, and she’s learned to have faith that eventually the song will get written. If it’s good, good; if it’s bad, then back to the drawing board, and that’s okay too.
Her songs are typically born out of a very small phrase of music — a seed, she says, from which the rest of the piece takes shape.
As far as what her songs are about, King says that they’re almost never based on a specific topic.
“It’s like asking what an abstract painting is about,” she said, “It’s just a culmination of all my life experiences.”
On Apr. 15, King will perform songs from her most recent album, “Modern Yesterdays,” as well as material from throughout her career.
She’ll play a few pieces using a passerelle, a device she herself invented in collaboration with Luthier Rachel Rosencrantz that allows her to play 12 notes on a standard six-string guitar. She might even dig into her past to play some material from her teen years in Atlanta.
But mostly, she’s just excited to perform again.
“You can look forward to seeing a miniature 41-year old lady who is thrilled to be doing her job,” King said, “I’m a little rusty, and I’m a little nervous — I don’t know how to behave in public anymore. But you’re going to get to be an audience again, to be there, to be present. It’s so exciting.”
King’s performance will take place as part of the Tech Arts Skyline Series, an ongoing series of live outdoor programming on Tech’s campus. Tickets are on sale now at artsgatech.universitytickets.com. Tech student pricing is $20 for a 2-person pod and $40 for a 4-person pod. Login with your Tech email address and use coupon code BUZZ10 at checkout to receive the discount. Find King online at kakiking.com.