...We retreated upstairs to an office space and chatted with Kaki while she spent more time checking out the guitars away from the bustle of the store floor.
GC: You’ve gone through quite a change in your career, from being someone who’s known pretty strictly as an instrumentalist to now doing more of the pop songwriting thing, although it’s kind of post-modern. What’s been the most difficult part of making that change for you?
Kaki: I had done two solo guitar records, and then Until I Felt Red, which was the far-out, more post-rock stuff. It still had a lot of challenging guitar work on it, but it was more on electric or just different sounds. On this new record, I decided that I was ready to be a guitar player again, so I wrote a lot of really interesting, challenging guitar pieces. Like the opening track is straight up. But then I worked with Malcolm Burn, the producer. He had so many great ideas. He said, “Let’s try to create simple melodies that fit over your complex guitar work.” And it’s really hard to write a five-note melody that’s memorable and has the right pace and division of time and everything that people kind of want to sing along to. People would kind of think writing simple little melodies is easy, but it’s so hard.
GC: How do you approach writing? Is it new sounds that trigger songs? You stumble across something that triggers an idea, or what?
Kaki: I think tunings. The thing that helped me write this new record was changing up all my tunings. I’m still not used to most of them… Some of it was totally just experimenting, going wherever, and some of it was kind of more I think I have an idea of where this tuning should be. So a different tuning, for me, is always a source of inspiration. If I want to do something brand new, I’ll just put my guitar in a different tuning that I’ve never used before.
GC: There was one cut on the CD that really struck me – Air and Kilometers.
Kaki: Yeah, Air and Kilometers. It’s in 5/4 and actually has this crazy way that we strung the guitar that my ex-girlfriend invented. These two middle strings are an octave up, so we put really light strings on them. For the D and the G, you put 12s or something on and you tune them all the way up to an octave above where they are and then this B is an octave down.
GC: So the tuning changes are kind of running away from ruts, finding new sonic environments.
Kaki: Yeah. That’s kind of the quickest way to do it, to put your fingers in a place that they don’t know where to go anymore, so you’re really going to have to create something musically that your fingers can’t do for you at all. Your mind has to all of a sudden go, “what am I hearing? What do I want to hear out of these sort of basic little runs that I have – now are these sort of basic chord things?” Because I think a lot of times when you’re really accustomed to something your fingers kind of just…
GC: Muscle memory.
Kaki: Exactly. Where you’re just really familiar. For me, even though I’m playing in so many different tunings, I still have comfort zones. And so it just takes your hands out of your comfort zones, so then you really have to sort of feel and think about what it is you want to be doing. But more feel. And your playing becomes more spontaneous and improvisatory… It is hard.
I’d never really been into improvisation. I’d always been so into, and really admired, composers. I read biographies of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Eric Satie and I was fascinated by their lives and how they thought and what they did. So the idea of improvisation to me was less appealing – kind of, I don’t know… pedestrian? [laughs].
GC: Sort of contrary to the way that you were thinking.
Kaki: Precisely. You know, where something is set in stone for a hundred years and it’s played this way and you don’t change it. I sort of romanticized that idea above the freedom of getting on stage and doing something completely spontaneous. And now I’ve completely switched, you know, changed that tune, because now, not only do I improvise a lot in my sort of Kaki King set, but when I do the Day Sleeper thing too.
There are a few things we start off with that are staples, but then we really go off. We did a two-hour show, non-stop – the music never stopped for a second. We [Day Sleeper] did the gig in Sydney, and that was our first gig. It just tests your musical merit. You don’t even know what you are actually capable of. And a lot of times people will be, “Oh, I really loved that. That section, that song you were doing.” And I was like, “That was for you alone.” Like it will never happen again. So through that I’ve really gotten more into improvisation. But it also helps writing so much more, because you don’t sit down and go, “Huh, what am I doing?” You just let things happen, let things come out. The older I get – the more I play and the more gigs I do, the more I learn to just let go, trusting that these musical moments will happen again and again.