When Kaki King started circulating a home-brewed CD of acoustic guitar instrumentals in 2002, she could hardly imagine it would lead to a record deal, national tours, and enthusiastic media attention. But the response to her music was so positive that the 23-year-old New Yorker suddenly found herself swimming in the deep end of the solo-guitar pool. Re-released in 2003 asEverybody Loves You, her self-produced debut featured a mind-blowing range of techniques. With its intricate, slapped-body percussion and overhand fretted melodies, the album’s opening track, “Kewpie Station,” heralded the arrival of a major new guitar talent. Though King had clearly absorbed ideas from Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, and Leo Kottke, her playing was distinctive and unique.

On her second album, 2004’s
Legs to Make Us Longer, King began weaving other instrumentation into her music. The subtle sounds of cello, violin, upright bass, drums, and lap steel highlighted her skills as a composer and also signaled her desire to venture beyond the realm of solo guitar. King’s restless creativity became more evident on her next two albums,Until We Felt RedandDreaming of Revenge. On both discs she played drums and percussion, bass and baritone guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, lap steel, and electric guitar. She also increasingly began featuring songs with lyrics and vocals. Some fans of her early solo acoustic guitar pieces were dismayed when they heard her loops and heavily textured sounds. But other listeners were drawn to the innovative spirit at the core of her music, and King’s audience continued to grow.

Given that history of musical morphing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that, once again, King has embraced change. On her latest album,Junior, King makes an abrupt shift away from the overdubbing approach she has pursued in recent years. Opting to record with a rhythm section, King enlisted drummer Jordan Perlson and multi-instrumentalist Dan Brantigan to lay down the basic tracks forJunior.

To learn more about these sessions—and to get the lowdown on her current tunings, gear, and songwriting approach—PG caught up with King on the final leg of an extended tour that included Australia, Europe, the UK, and the US.

Drummer Jordan Perlson (left) and multi-instrumentalist Dan Brantigan (right) onstage with Kaki King and her 1972 Fender Telecaster Deluxe. Photo by Jennifer Ebhart

What prompted you to form a band to record Junior?

On my previous album,Dreaming of Revenge, I played most of the instruments myself, which meant layering bass, drums, and keyboards in addition to my guitars and lap steel. This time I wanted to try something I’d never done before, which was to put together a trio and cut the tracks as a group, live in the studio. Obviously, that’s the way many bands make their records, but for me it seemed like a real adventure. I feel it’s important to try new ideas and keep growing as a musician, and working with a trio was one way to accomplish that. This time, I relied on Jordan and Dan to help me arrange and develop the music—a very different approach for me.

Did you rehearse before going into the studio?

Yeah, and that was fun. I got together with Jordan and Dan, and for about three days we worked out the basic tracks in Jordan’s basement. I’d bring in ideas and we’d develop them as a group by jamming and trying out different arrangements. I liked getting input from the other musicians—it wasn’t my job to come up with all the ideas. For example, I wasn’t worried about finding the right drum parts or developing a groove. That was Jordan’s job. And of course, because these guys are amazing musicians, they’d come up with parts I wouldn’t have thought of, and that inspired me as a guitarist. Playing with a rhythm section I was able to explore lead lines and solos, and that was exciting, too.

Malcolm Burn produced Dreaming of Revenge, and you tapped him to produce Junior too. What drew you to work with him again?

We’d already gone through the process of learning how to communicate, and that’s important when making a record. When things get difficult in the studio, it’s good to know how someone will react to the situation. Plus, Malcolm has seen me struggle with ideas or parts, so I don’t feel self-conscious working on my vocals. We’ve developed the ability to trust each other’s creative process.

I’ve seen wonderful YouTube videos [The Making of Dreaming of Revenge, Vignettes 1-5] of you and Burn working in his studio, Le Maison Bleu. Did you return there to record Junior? With all the lamps and couches, it looks like an inviting space.

Yeah, it’s really cool. He has all these instruments and the environment is relaxed—more like a living room than a sterile studio. He has a lot of old analog equipment, too. Having a familiar place to record really helps, especially because I was trying this new trio approach.

Did you cut your band tracks live?

Except for “Sloan Shore” and “Sunnyside,” two songs I recorded solo, we cut the rhythm tracks live. Malcolm just mic’d us up and we went at it. Dan played bass with me and Jordan, and then later set up his EVI [Akai’s Electronic Valve Instrument, invented by Nyle Steiner] to overdub tracks of strange and beautiful sounds. The EVI is an electronic trumpet that Dan runs through all kinds of processing to create these amazing textures.

How long did you spend recording Junior?

Not long. We really didn’t want to labor over the music. We recorded as a trio for three days, and Dan came back for two days to add his EVI sounds. Then Malcolm and I spent probably a week and a half working on overdubs, developing lyrics, and doing some vocals. We took a break because he had another project, and then I came back for less than a week of singing and mixing. It felt like we worked relatively quickly, but then again, some people complete their albums in a week.