Transforming Your Guitar Into a Glowing, Shape-Shifting Work of Art

Kaki King talks about the successful Kickstarter campaign she launched to use the guitar like it's never been used before.

Kaki King has always done unusual things to her guitar. Watch her very first music video for 2004's “Playing With Pink Noise,” and it’s clear from the percussive, frenzied fret-tapping that the Brooklyn-based musician is not your average axe-shredder. In her near-13-year career that’s seen six studio albums and a Golden-Globe nomination for best original score, King has earned critical acclaim for the way she combines unusual tunings, complex fingerstyle picking, and slap bass techniques to create soundscapes that range from instrumental acoustic work to high-voltage rock songs.

Now, she’s using her guitar in an entirely new way: as a projection screen. In late January, King and New York production company Glowing Pictures launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, an hour-long performance featuring all-new material that treats her guitar as a blank canvas. As King plays the guitar, software will analyze the sounds she’s making and project them back as a variety of different textures and skins, creating an immersive light show about the complex relationship between musician and instrument.

So far, fans have raised close to $40,000 in advance of the project’s February 20 deadline—well above the original goal of $25,000. King, who recently finished recording the album that she’ll debut live in New York on March 6, spoke to The Atlantic about the project’s inspirations, her synesthesia, and what she’s still learning about the guitar after three decades of playing it.

If a band wrote on their website said, “Give us money so we can make an ambitious multimedia experience,” I’d be skeptical. But this project seems so in line with what you normally do as a musician and performer. Did it always seem natural to you?

It came out of a long period of brainstorming—what can I do next, what would work, what wouldn’t. Really lighting up the guitar in that way, once you see it, even on the video, it looks like it should have been done already. It’s not a big stretch for me, having tried to stretch the guitar’s boundaries for a long time.

Why is it important for you to do?

At this stage of the game, it’s becoming more than just a guitar. I call it the Instrument with a capital I. It’s a human relationship with an instrument, and it could be any kind of tool. It’s part of my identity. So really, the story that I’m telling, it’s the story of the guitar, it’s the story of how music inspires vision and how vision inspires music, and the relationship between the creative process. It’s less about the six-string guitar being an icon and more about the instrument being a thing that creates a person’s identity.

Musicians and artists decorate their guitars and use them as art objects all the time. What makes it a great outlet for self-expression, besides the fact that it’s big and flat? I feel like I don’t see the same creativity with a kick drums, for example.

Oh yeah! Well, I would argue the kick drum point, but guitars, they are very portable. They run the gamut from very cheap to very expensive. It’s not this deep sacrifice if you paint over the guitar, and I think it’s about the personalization of the instrument. It’s rare that you see someone who hasn’t created something unique out of their own instrument just because of the wear and tear and the unique patterns that show up there. Think about Willie Nelson’s guitar that’s full of holes and falling apart! There’s something particular about the way the guitar disintegrates and feels connected to the body that lends itself to a re-imagining of it.

In your project, you talk about the guitar as a shape-shifter, as if it had a mind of its own. How do you convey that?

With the shape-shifting segments of the show, it’s going to be wearing all these different skins. It might be a waffle, it might be floating fabric, it might be a pool of water—all these surfaces projected on it. What I’m trying to say is it’s a very versatile instrument, and music in that way is very versatile. The guitar is pretty much in every single culture now. Where there might not have been guitar at the start, there’s guitar now. The guitar has inserted itself into the musical language of the world. And, again, it’s portable, it’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to learn, it’s not the most complicated instrument on a basic level, and I think that’s why. The guitar in its present form wears a lot of skins already.

What do the visuals bring out in your music that wouldn’t come across otherwise?

For instance, I do a lot of body percussion on the guitar. People think that’s really special, but I think it’s just something that people have done for a long time, and I enjoy doing it. There will be an entire song where I’m just playing hand drums on the guitar, and the way it’s reflected back visually, it’s so much more powerful. Instead of someone banging out a beat on the guitar, there’s this black and white projection that’s affected by how loud I am and what textures I’m making. It makes it a more immersive experience. It’s less intimate and more grand and exciting without taking me out of my element [or] putting me inside a field that’s completely different.

Is going grander a foreign concept? Your live shows are incredibly intimate.

They are, and I want to keep them that way. “Grand” to me means instead of watching something on Netflix, you go down to your local art theater and watch something on a screen. Grand is by no means gigantic. My relationship with the audience and my ability to read the audience and see what they’re feeling has been important to me. It changes the way I play shows. I’ve had the opportunity to be in crowded rooms that are lively and loud and fun, and I’ll play that completely differently than a room where you can hear a pin drop. I am concerned that the show will have too much of a barrier between myself and the audience. We’re working on that. It’s not like you’re just watching a movie I’m playing guitar to. My visual collaborators, my lighting guys, my sound techs—everyone’s playing a piece of visual theater. We’ll be able to tell what’s working and not working and try to give the people what they want. There’s nothing wrong with that.

You’ve spoken before about how you associate color with your music. Do you identify with synesthesia, or is that putting it too clinically?

It’s funny, because I think of synesthesia as something that’s a problem that affects you and interrupts your life. But I identify with it. Every number has a color for me. The number 3 is light green and the number 4 is yellow, and that’s just the way it is. Certainly, when I made my first record, I was really upset that it had a red cover, because, obviously, in my mind, it is so clearly a blue-green record. That is not even something that can be argued, it just is. Color and texture are things that have been descriptors for music. It’s very hard to describe music, as we all know.

Had you been trying to play with visuals before in other ways in your career?

Not really. I was very against any kind of tricks. I love the very sparse stage setting. I love the very plain, simple, and elegant lighting. I was so devoted to my two hands and what they could do. So after the record Junior, that’s a rock record, that’s a whole different story for me. I thought, what am I good at? How do I do what I’m good at? How do I enjoy it? Let’s just go back to playing guitar. No tricks, no frills, no pedals. It was almost like taking on some sort of martial-arts challenge, where it’s me and the guitar, and that’s all you get. Building a show that was 90 minutes long after that was an incredible challenge because there’s nothing to hide behind. And I embraced that for a long time. Now I’m ready to do something different. But I will always love that kind of show. That’s how I learned to perform. That, to me, is the ultimate goal and challenge. If you can hold people’s attention for an hour or longer with you and the guitar and nothing else? That’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do.

When your last album, Glow, came out, you talked about being at a crossroads and having an existential crisis after putting out Junior. Did this project come out of that crossroads, or was it all worked out by that point?

It had. I really spent a long time touring prior to Glow, and then after, really getting those skills back. It’s a humbling experience to tell you the truth, after the cockiness and fun, fucking Blink-182-sounding jams that were on Junior. That record’s not my favorite. I was trying something, and some things worked, and some things didn’t. I had to remind myself that I am not the master, the guitar is. I’ll always be the student. I’ll always be learning. To think otherwise is ridiculous. So in that vein, going toward this project is just continuing to peel back the onion of the guitar and myself and what can be done. The truth is, projecting images onto a guitar just looks really pretty! We don’t have to go too deep here! It’s a beautiful form of expression for that instrument. Before I move onto my next thing, this is worthy of some serious exploration.

It sounded like you had the idea for the project before you wrote the songs.

It was a chicken-and-egg type thing. I knew I wanted to do something with visuals for the first time. I started taking meetings with various lighting and design companies. And these guys, Glowing Pictures, they were very interested in it, but they were like, “Send us some music!” And I was like, “No, you send me some design!” Who takes the step in creating something like that? The first step was to get the room, get the projectors up, and see what the guitar looked like when you shine a light on it. Once we saw that, I wrote a script. The script came first. We were really going and rolling, and out of the script came the music. It’s been a very interesting and circuitous process for me. Normally I would have these pieces of music lying around and a couple songs finished, and I would fill in the gaps. This was almost like scoring. It was like taking the idea of these images and what they would eventually look like and pulling photos off the Internet and writing to those pictures.

Why Kickstarter? Would your label not help?

Labels don’t really have that kind of money to put into a project like this. How are they going to make money off it? I’d have to give them a part of it, and I’m not going to do that. While the label was very helpful in making the record, which is happening, the project is pretty unique. It’s a piece of theater. So I was either going to have to get some kind of investor, i.e. someone’s parents or my parents, and I didn’t want to do that. I thought, hey, let’s let it be the people’s project.

In the statement you talk about how, after nearly three decades of playing guitar, this project brought you even closer to your instrument. What did you learn?

It just continues to baffle me! It continues to be a great challenge. This is sort of subtle guitarist stuff, but the guitar is on stands. It’s immobilized. So instead of that embrace we talked about, I’m no longer supporting my guitar with my leg, nor am I supporting the weight of the neck with my left hand. And let me tell you, it’s like playing a totally different instrument. Totally different! Taking the weight off of myself, I can’t say I like it at all. It looks exactly the same, but the feeling of it is so different. Suddenly my left hand is almost too strong. It doesn’t have any weight to support, therefor it’s kind of flopping all over the place. I’m not grounded. When I really need to dig in, I can’t push into the guitar the way I normally would. It’s a completely different way of playing. Once again, I’m back to this place where I have to learn it all again from the start. It’s really good when you’re job challenges you like this. You make a few changes and suddenly the whole game is different. I can’t say I don’t mind. I can only say that it’s worth it.