Aside from being an accomplished solo musician who has recorded four critically-acclaimed full-length albums, guitarist Kaki King also has an impressive list of collaborations. She contributed music to Sean Penn's screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild; she's played on albums by the Foo Fighters, Tegan and Sara, and Northern State; and those were her hands playing the guitar in the 2007 film August Rush. Most recently, she befriended John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, and after they decided to tour together (they'll be playing Club Congress Wednesday, Oct. 29), they collaborated on a six-song, vinyl-only EP, called Black Pear Tree.
"At the time, I was touring all over the place and John wrote most of the songs," explained King. "We co-wrote a couple. But it was really collaborative in the sense that he would write a simple guitar part and a vocal line, and then I would change the guitar part and play that, and I would add sounds and he would add some things. So it was kind of going back and forth in the studio with who wants to play what and do what."
The EP includes a song whose title might remind you of a certain legendary video game ("Thank You Mario but Our Princess Is in Another Castle"), and blends King's light voice and technically adept guitar work with Darnielle's minimalist pop sensibilities. It sounds spontaneous but controlled--it was recorded in only two days.
"You have to go with what you have and not overthink things," she said about the time constraint. "So there's a very improvisational feel to the extra sounds that are on the record."
In contrast, King's most recent full-length, Dreaming of Revenge (Velour, 2008), took King and producer Malcolm Burn (Daniel Lanois, Lisa Germano) hours upon hours to painstakingly craft. Dreaming of Revenge was a departure of sorts for King: It's more personal, and more melodic, than her previous records.
To bring in more melody, King explained that it was a process of uncovering what was already there.
"Over this intricate, complicated guitar work, there are all these very simple melodies, and all of the melodies were found within the guitar parts that I originally wrote," said King. "All music implies a melody."
Likewise, writing the lyrics for the four songs on the album where King sings was a careful process of extraction.
"I'm very good at writing extremely impersonal lyrics that mean nothing, and I'm very bad at writing lyrics about myself and my life that are very meaningful," said King. "I was really having a hard time getting out what I wanted to say and what I was feeling without sounding maudlin and melodramatic."
Dreaming of Revenge is far from maudlin or melodramatic--instead, it seems to embrace and understand that certain states of melancholy need to be allowed to run their course for a while before they pass.
"There were just things inside, events in life that had happened--it's not anything groundbreaking crazy; it was just a bad relationship that I finally got out of-- but these things were screaming to be let out, and talked about, and sung about," explained King. "That was a very strange thing, dealing with that choice. I've been so protected and veiled in mystery as an instrumentalist for so long, and now, letting people see who I am and letting them into parts of my personal life was very different."
But part of who King is is a flexible musician with many sides; this is what allows her to work with so many varied artists and projects, with intriguing results. King's style of guitar-playing--non-traditional, along the lines of Leo Kottke or Michael Hedges--is distinctive, but King can just as easily step up to the drums or pedal steel or keyboards and lend her musical ideas, without ever stepping on anyone's musical toes, so to speak. When asked what her favorite project has been so far, she hesitated to name one ("A lot of things I've done have been with people who have ended up being friends of mine," she explained), but then admitted that "getting cold-called by Sean Penn to work on Into the Wild--that was pretty special, just because it meant that my name and reputation had gotten around enough to the extent that someone trusted me to come and work on their big movie and not go through a bunch of, like, 'Well, is she any good, and can she handle this, is she OK to work with?' It just simply meant that people knew not just about my music but about who I was as a person."
On Dreaming of Revenge, one informs the other: King's skill at crafting and executing complex soundscapes is enhanced by her more personal, meaningful lyrics. Her music is unmistakably her, an aural expression of determination and focus.
Oddly enough, though, King said, it's the easiest songs she plays that get the most notice. "What really frustrates me is that all of the stuff that I've really, really worked on, that's really, really fucking hard to play, doesn't ever get any attention."
But that may be because King manages to make highly complex, difficult-to-play music sound effortless; and that may also be what draws other musicians and artists to her. The current collaboration with the Mountain Goats is just another byproduct of what happens when talented musicians join forces.