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Kaki King Dreams of Melody, 'Revenge'

Rock stars have been known to try crazy things with a guitar. Jimi Hendrix picked the strings with his teeth. Pete Townshend smashed his onstage. But guitar phenom Kaki King draws attention by picking the strings of her guitar with both hands, while slapping the body in time.

Her innovative style has been featured in the film Into the Wild, and she acted as a hand double for a guitar virtuoso in August Rush. She was also the only woman on Rolling Stone's list of new guitar gods last year.

King's latest CD, Dreaming of Revenge, has more of a pop sensibility than her early albums, influenced by her collaboration with rock producer Malcolm Burn.

Creating Melody from Technique

In an interview with King, host Andrea Seabrook notes that while playing "Bone Chaos in the Castle," at no point does King touch the strings in a way that a normal guitar player would. King slaps the strings and hits the body of the guitar in a percussive way, to the point where it's easy to wonder how such unconventional techniques result in a song.

"I'm a person that thinks in terms of chordal progressions," King says. "In doing this latest record, I was forced into becoming a melodist by my producer, because he kept saying, 'What you're doing is really interesting. Where is the melody?' So in writing a song, melody's kind of the last thing I do. In doing this last record, everything was fully written — all the guitar parts and then all the melodies were written in the studio."

In the studio, Burn challenged King. He'd constantly push her creativity in new directions, King says, and the result was radically different from conception to realization. Thus, on a few songs, the songwriting process was new to King.

"At first I thought, 'This is not going to work. This is not who I am,'" King says. "But once Malcolm got me into the idea, I loved it. It was really exciting and challenging."

Thwarted Dreams of Drumming

In "Montreal," in addition to playing the guitar, King plays the drums.

"My first unrequited love is, yes, drums," King says. "I think I always wanted to be a better drummer than I was a guitar player, but I always was better at guitar. I think I never really practiced guitar too much; then I just became better at it. Just came naturally. I really, really tried at drums. And honestly, I'm a pretty competent pop drummer, but I can't really go much further than that."

But watching King play the guitar, it's clear that she never quite broke up with the drums. Her guitar work seems to spring from a love of percussion.

"Yes, but deceptively so," King says. "I think that for many years I was asked this question, but really what makes sense to me is when you're learning drums, you have to become ambidextrous. The instinct is to hit things at the same time. All four limbs have to become independent of each other. While drums have influenced my 'percussive guitar playing,' it's really because of my failed attempt at becoming the greatest rock drummer ever."

Finding Her Voice

Coming from primarily all-instrumental beginnings, King has slowly developed her voice over the course of four albums. On 2006's Until We Felt Red, King said she wanted to become more a part of her songs and began to sing.

"I had this super infatuation with shoe-gazing music, like really ethereal-sounding vocals — stuff like Lush or the Cocteau Twins," King says.

At the time, her studio was set up with sensitive microphones, as well as multiple reverb and delay effects. But on Dreaming of Revenge, she wanted her own natural singing voice to be heard. Because of that, King has found herself writing even more personal lyrics than before.

What Would Morrissey Say?

King's songs seem to exist between major and minor, happy and sad. For Seabrook, it reminded her of Morrissey.

"I love Morrissey! That's the greatest thing you could've possibly said," King says. "I'm a humongous fan. And in fact, 'Life being what it is, we all dream of revenge' is a quote from Gauguin, but the reason that I used it in the song and the title of the album is because it reminded me of something Morrissey would say."

In addition to critical and fan acclaim, King has also attracted acclaim from musicians. Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters had King play on the band's latest album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and both groups are in the middle of an Australian tour together. Grohl was quoted at a concert saying, "There are really good guitarists, and then there are really [expletive] good guitarists. And then there's Kaki King."

"It's definitely the most ringing endorsement I've ever gotten," King says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.