who: Kaki King, with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper
where: Asheville Music Hall
when: Monday, Nov. 19 ($12/$15. 8 p.m./9 p.m. ashevillemusichall.com)
Kaki King, a 33-year-old guitar phenom from Brooklyn, has had brilliant success as a collaborator. In 2007, she added tangled acoustic-blues picking to the Foo Fighters’ “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” a tender standout from the band’s otherwise overwrought Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. She has lent a sense of off-kilter cool to a Timbaland-produced Miley Cyrus “jam” and offered up a poignant and funny collaborative EP with Durham’s detail-driven Mountain Goats. But following 2010’s excellent and exuberant Junior — which she recorded and toured with the same live band — King found herself in an artistic quagmire, an “existential crisis” that could only be cured by a return to the solo guitar basics.
“I loved it, but the minute it was through, I was through,” she says of her time supporting Junior.
Katherine Elizabeth King, who goes by her stage name (evidenced by her voicemail message, which instructs callers to leave a message for “Kak”), has played guitar since the age of 4. She needed to reconnect with the instrument that had come to define her as an artist. To this end, she headed out with her “Traveling Freak Guitar Show,” a solo tour that provided an escape from the constraints of collaboration.
“It was time for me to just think, ‘Is there something else I’d rather do with my time?’” she says. “I didn’t freak out, and I didn’t stop. I kept touring and playing guitar, but I wasn’t connected to it for some reason. I didn’t love it as much, and I didn’t know why. I think the process of touring solo and connecting with just the guitar, just one person on stage, that was what led me to writing the songs and making Glow.”
Glow is King’s newly released sixth LP, an absorbing 40-minute proof of her prowess as a guitar player and composer. It’s a complex and mercurial collection of instrumentals, a stark change of pace following the sleek and cathartic pop songs that dominate Junior. But the two albums share a sense of relentless energy. King’s slyly twisting guitar lines — buttressed by subtle percussion, gorgeous strings, fleeting bagpipes and frequent electronic flourishes — build and crescendo with all the potency of Junior’s powerful, precise hooks. Glow is King’s bid to reconnect with her instrument, and these songs rely on the kind of purposeful melodies that could only come from an artist in full command of her craft.
“I think I had to feel less contrived when I played,” King explains. “I had to feel privately that I was playing guitar as somebody who was a lifelong student of guitar and not Kaki King playing guitar. I had to get humble, and I had to forget everything I had learned. I had to remind myself that the guitar is completely intimate and that I’m never going to stop learning on it and that it’s constantly going to be teaching me things, not just about music, about my physicality, about my stamina, about my life, about my patience, about all that stuff. It did, and the guitar, it kind of gave me a reality check and kept me in line. I’m not the one in charge of this relationship.”
She may be following her instrument’s lead, but Glow finds King mastering and synthesizing myriad techniques with nary a misstep along the way. “Great Round Burn” works from an elliptical, Fahey-esque build, but it’s strengthened by bursts of beautiful strings, which lend the song a Celtic-leaning intricacy while simultaneously imbuing it with an insistent, almost head-knocking beat. The lilting acoustic melody at the heart of “Fences” waivers between post-rock intensity and jazz-inspired complexity as a thunderous bass line stomps underneath. Her instrumentals live in the space between various styles, but she’s adamantly opposed to the idea of genre fusion. True to her word, these songs build from imported elements to create a stylishly modern sound that resists reductive labels.
“I’m not interested in blending old styles,” she says. “That’s a bad idea. That’s called fusion, and I think that what you’re hearing is something new and what your ear wants to hear is a combination of old things. I’m not really thinking about that. I’m making what sounds musically good and not worrying stylistically about how it’s going to relate.”
Free from genre-based restraints and relieved of her rewarding but limiting collaborations, King has created an album with a unique artistic vision. She works well with others, but as Glow effectively proves, she may shine brightest on her own.