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Interview: Kaki King - Embracing Change

Photo by Jennifer Ebhart
What guitars did you use?

I have several Hamer Newports, and I used them a lot on this record. I really like playing a hollowbody electric, and the Newport is light and the right size for me. On “Sloan Shore,” I played Malcolm’s Fender Jaguar baritone. I was looking for a different sound and he suggested I try it. Though he had it tuned down in the bass register, it has the sonic clarity of a guitar—it gave me a bit of both worlds. I also played my Gretsch Electromatic lap steel, which first appeared on Legs to Make Us Longer.

How about amps?

Malcolm has a nice collection of recording amps, so I used whatever he’d set up. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were, but I recall one was an old Ampeg. [For details on King’s amp rig, see our conversation with Malcom on p. 3]

Did you get involved with mixing?

Yeah, certainly. I leave it up to Malcolm to do the first mix, and then I’ll respond to that. If I want to hear more of a particular part, I’ll ask him to emphasize it. But it can get tricky because he doesn’t do any digital mixing at all. He does each mix manually— it’s almost like this dance he does with the faders—and every one is different. So if I want to hear a little more guitar 30 seconds into the song, he has to reconstruct an entire mix. It’s a dangerous game, so I have to live with some things I might prefer to hear a bit differently.

Describe how you wrote the songs for this album.

It was a bit unusual, in that I wrote almost all the lyrics and many of the vocal melodies in the studio after we’d laid down the rhythm tracks as a trio. We came in with grooves and arrangements, which had evolved from ideas I’d brought to the band, but the songs themselves took shape as Malcolm and I worked on them after tracking with the trio. Every night, he’d give me a mix of what we’d done musically—a little compilation of soundtracks, basically. I’d take them home, stay up late and write lyrics, and then try them out during one of the next vocal sessions. Some people keep notebooks full of potential lyrics, but I never found that to be very helpful, though I do keep a journal. Occasionally, when something brilliant comes out of someone’s mouth or I hear something I want to remember, I’ll jot it down. But for the most part, I prefer to react spontaneously to the music we’ve just recorded. Sometimes Malcolm would set up a mic and I’d sing some lyric fragments, and we’d develop the ideas right there.

Open and altered tunings have played a central role in your previous records. Was this also true of Junior?

Every song except “Sunnyside” was in an open tuning of some sort.

Were these favorite tunings you’ve used before or were they discoveries you made while writing for this album?

Some are favorites, but often I’ll think, “Let’s see what happens if I lower this string here and raise that one there.” I often find my hands can get locked into formations they’re familiar with. When you tune your guitar differently, all of a sudden your fingers and your mind have to be creative again because you’re not relying on shapes and places that sound good or feel familiar. You have to explore the fretboard to find new fingerings and sounds, and that leads to new discoveries.

How do you keep track of your tunings?

Now that I’m playing with a band and everybody has to be in tune with each other, I actually have a guitar tech, Anna Morsett, and she does all my tunings for me [laughs]. If you want to know what they are, you’ll have to ask her. It’s especially important when we’re switching tunings from song to song. If I retune the same guitar to something radically different onstage, I can just feel the audience energy start to taper off and off and off. When Anna hands me a guitar that’s already tuned up, we can keep the momentum of our performance. It’s a big improvement.

How many guitars does it take to stay on top of all your tunings?

Right now we’re doing a two-hour show and, not counting the lap steel, I use four guitars.

Do you use more than four tunings? Does Anna retune some of those guitars while you’re playing?

Oh yeah—I use lots more than four tunings. Probably ten per show.

Charting Kaki's Tunings
Kaki King’s guitar tech, Anna Morsett, keeps her stage guitars strung, tuned, and ready to play. She uses .012-.053 Elixir Polywebs on King’s acoustic guitars and .010-.046 Nanowebs on King’s electrics. The following chart lists the 10 tunings King used most on her latest tour. (6-5-4-3-2-1)

“Bone Chaos in the Castle” - C# A# C# F A# C#
“Pull Me Out Alive” - B B C# F# B C#
“Montreal” - E B C# G# B D#
“Everything Has an End, Even Sadness” - E G E G B D
“Death Head” - C# G# C# F A# C#
“Jessica” - E A D G B D#
“Can Anyone Who Has Heard This Music Really Be a Bad Person?” - C# G# C# E B D#
“Doing the Wrong Thing” - E G D F# B F#
“Playing with Pink Noise” - C G D G A D
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