Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #128Subscribe to our print edition here!

Kaki King takes visuals and turns them into music via some surprising methods. Words by Peter Hodgson. Photos by Simone Cecchetti.

Kaki King is a visionary guitarist, but more than that, she’s a visionary musician. Literally. Originally known for her percussive acoustic guitar compositions, King’s style has morphed over the years into a more free-flowing, expressive and expansive repertoire presented with a strong visual component. 

Her current show, The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, is as much conceptual as it is musical, with digital images projected onto King’s all‑white Ovation guitar. Another recent project, Bruises, uses data on King’s daughter’s illness as a jumping-off point for a musical and visual representation of a tough time in her young family’s life. 

You’re about to play the Adelaide Guitar Festival, which is a really interesting event because it’s not just for guitar geeks, it’s more arts-based and broad. 
I think I’ve done that festival in years past and it was fantastic. And you’re right, I think it’s a much wider draw than just the guitar police. I’m very much looking forward to it. I’ll be performing The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body – the multimedia show with projections onto my guitar. I’m able to perform the entire piece too, which is great.

You must be a really visual person if you’re expressing yourself in this way… 
Actually I’m not! I’m pretty new to experiencing the world in this way. Looking back, the impetus behind this show was getting laser eye surgery. Before I was 28, I had corrective lenses and contacts and it was hard to see… It wasn’t difficult to get around and I wasn’t impaired, but I struggled with distance, and looking at this wasn’t as interesting to me as looking at them. 

I have well-trained ears and poorly-trained eyes. And the side effect of the surgery was
that things looked different; they looked incredible. And the contrast! Black was so black, and light was so light. I started to see the world differently, and suddenly, looking at the world was fascinating. How I thought of colour and contrast was completely different, and I think that was the start of me being interested in the world in a visual way. 

I have synesthesia, so I tend to choose guitar colours that evoke certain creative connotations for me. You’ve kind of taken that to the extreme by using a pure white guitar and projecting colours onto it. 
It does look incredible, and even when I walk in and see my video engineer mapping onto the guitar, I think, “This looks so cool!” So essentially, with the projection mapping, we don’t just project onto the top but we also project onto the belly. We set the guitar up on stands so it doesn’t move, and then we take a 3D scan of the entire stage. Then we cut the guitar out of that scan and run it back through the program so that the projector only projects light onto that part of the stage. And then you have to deal with overspill and uneven stages. It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. It doesn’t take that much time. The concept is basically a digital stencil, so you just take everything that isn’t a guitar out of the projector. 

Bruises is a really touching project as well. What can you us about that? 
My daughter developed an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks your blood platelets. It thinks they’re a virus, or something else that needs to be removed. So your platelet levels can drop very dramatically, and that’s what happened to my daughter. One day she was completely fine, and the next day she was completely covered in blisters. It was terrifying. They diagnosed her with Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, or ITP. My son was three weeks old at the time, so he and my wife went away and I stayed with my daughter when she went in the hospital. The project came about when I was working with this artist, Giorgia Lupi, who takes data and turns it into something very meaningful. 

She likes to observe the way you feel about a certain thing or a certain act – the amount of times you use your left hand, the number of times you look in the mirror during the day, the amount of times you check the clock and for what reason... I’d been working with her on several projects where I was collecting data and turning it into music. I knew how to collect data, and I knew it was calming in a way. 

So I started to collect data on my daughter – her bruises, what she looked like – and on myself; my hopes, my fears… We took that data and turned it into something. It’s 120 days of data collection turned into a visual key and an animated presentation that I wrote music to. To this day, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to perform and talk about, but it’s easier than reliving the nightmare that was going on and the fear of the unknown, and the fact that my daughter couldn’t get her platelet levels up. 

It’s definitely a rollercoaster of a disease, and the piece that we did ended up being more important from a caretaker’s perspective. I mean, she was fine. The disease itself doesn’t hurt and she was blissfully unaware. She’d just turned three and didn’t even have the language to describe anything about what was going on. So Bruises is about myself and what I went through as a parent more than anything else, and it’s about taking something horrible and turning it into art.

Kaki King
Tour Dates

Friday August 10th - Sydney Guitar Festival, Sydney
Saturday August 11th - Adelaide Guitar Festival, Adelaide
Sunday August 12th - Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Monday August 13th - Recital Centre, Melbourne
Thursday August 16th - Byron Bay Theatre, Byron Bay
Friday August 17th - TBA, Brisbane
Saturday August 18th - Blue Mountains Theatre, Blue Mountains
Sunday August 19th - Lizotte’s, Newcastle