HAPPIER TIMES "I've learned that I don't have to be in a place of suffering or anxiety or depression to write music."
"Listen, I will go on record saying I love Feist, I love Neko Case. I love that music. But that shit's easy listening for the twentysomethings. It fucking is. It's not hard to listen to any of that stuff." Kaki King is right, of course — whatever edge indie rock used to boast has been worn away by all the familiar cultural grindstones. But then, it's not as if her music landed rough around the ears either. What does she have to say for herself?
Seated in the lobby of her Brooklyn apartment building, King (who comes to the MFA this Wednesday) is up-front about her music's multiple uses. "Now, some people have done yoga to them," she says, referring to her first two albums, "and some people have gotten massages to them. But some people have told me, 'I wanted to kill myself, and I didn't because I listened to your records.' "
That makes sense. Constellating around her agile, imaginative guitar work, King's music speaks to nothing so much as a state of agitated mental loneliness. As she points out, "They're not Northern-California-guitar-playing records." It's the feeling of being the only one up at four in the morning, and it turns out that's when she writes most of her songs. This does not mean she's a confessional songwriter — at least, not anymore. "I've learned that I don't have to be in a place of suffering or anxiety or depression to write music, the way I used to when I was younger."
Now, she says, she writes from past musical experience, and though she's only 29 (and looks younger), she has a lot to draw on. Her father started her on a nylon-stringed guitar at age four, but it wasn't till she found herself playing in New York City subways after college ("It's pretty mundane," she says, deflating a whole subset of musical romanticisms) that she began to put "music" and "career" into the same mental sentence. "People kept saying, 'Do you have a CD?' And I thought, 'Well, I can make one,' so I did."
Then came two albums of instrumental music, write-ups in Acoustic Guitar magazine, gigs at performing-arts centers. "They're very very wonderful places to experience music, but they're not fun. They don't have bars. The lights come on and people scoot out." Diving into her third album, . . . Until We Felt Red (Velour), she decided to sing. "I knew I didn't have another solo-guitar record in me."
Singing was a good decision. She's right (if a little cocky) when she talks about the "intricate beauty" of her instrumental tracks, but they can get fastidious. Although her breathy voice is not a sophisticated instrument, it anchors her guitar playing to powerful currents of feeling. Her fourth album, Dreaming of Revenge (Velour), has moments that blow the heart open.
With her singing, King's music began to attract indie attentions. John Darnielle (a/k/a the Mountain Goats), whom she affectionately describes as "one of the worst guitar players I've ever met," fell head over heels for . . . Until We Felt Red. Last year the two toured together, and they ended up releasing an EP called Black Pear Tree (4AD). "He doesn't need to be a good guitar player," she says. "The songs just work."