Kaki King on the record

  • by Peter Galvin
  • Tuesday August 15, 2006
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Recording artist Kaki King: 'I don't know if anyone really cares that I'm a lesbian.' Photo: Ian Allen
Recording artist Kaki King: 'I don't know if anyone really cares that I'm a lesbian.' Photo: Ian Allen

Kaki King may have earned her musical reputation as a supernaturally talented acoustic guitar player, but you'll never be able to pigeon-hole her as just some strum-happy guitar virtuoso. King is also an out-loud and proud lesbian.

Both bad-ass and demure, fiercely intelligent and playfully silly, King is an artist who instinctively wriggles free from the confining boundaries of any reductive label. She may give listeners teasing hints about what her songs are about, but she'd rather have fans interpret her work to suit their own emotional needs.

Though she won critical acclaim, and spots on Letterman and Conan O'Brien with her first two releases, the instrumental acoustic albums Everybody Loves You (2003) and Legs to Make Us Longer (2004), King goes further with her new album, Until We Felt Red (Velour Records), produced by John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab). An emotional song cycle, Red showcases King at play amidst an exhilarating instrumental array, including buzzing electric guitar, bashing drums, twangy lap steel, majestic trumpet, and the techno sounds of various bleeps, loops, and samples. She has also added the sound of her own voice to a few songs, using her girlish instrument to big effect on lyrics that touch on such disparate topics as nuclear warfare and her first lesbian affair.

Peter Galvin: When did you know that you were gay?

Kaki King: I had figured out by about 14 that being gay was something I was going to need to think about later on in my life. I was dating boys at the time, so I thought, "I'll just deal with this later!" Then my parents ended up finding out through a letter I had written to a girl at summer camp, but it became something we really didn't discuss. It's a pretty typical story.

When did you feel like you started living openly as a gay person?

In college, I guess. My high school was in the South, and it was very conservative. It was a Christian high school, and I didn't fit in there to begin with. I was one of the only girls who had short hair. I didn't have a butch haircut, just a short, little pixie haircut. I mean, it was a really Stepford Wives kind of vibe. At the time, it was like, "This is just not worth it, to try to be openly gay. They just won't get it."

When did you start playing guitar?

I started playing when I was five. My parents thought children should take music lessons, and it was probably my dad's decision that guitar would be my instrument. I actually didn't like playing the guitar at all. It was a very difficult instrument to play when you're that young. But my father just kept a guitar around the house, and because it was always there, and I developed a love for music, I just kept learning and playing over time.

All the boys started getting their first guitars around 10, but I could already play. So they thought I was really cool. It's funny, because although I'm a lesbian, I've always really appreciated the attention of men. I've always sought it out. I don't know what that means! Maybe because I feel like I'm one of them.

Have you ever felt pressure from anyone in the music business to keep quiet about being a lesbian?

No. I do as I please, I wear what I want. But I have to say, the way I look doesn't particularly spell "stereotypical lesbian" the second you see me, especially when I'm all dolled up in a photo. Had that not been the case, some people probably would have wanted to fem me up a bit. I don't know.

You mean your package was already fem enough?

Apparently. And no one was trying to market me to a mainstream crowd, so there was none of that pressure. But I definitely know of other artists, both gay and straight, who have been pressured to be something they're not. Ultimately, I don't know if anyone really cares that I'm a lesbian. Liking a musician just because they're gay is ultimately a superficial reason. It's like buying a record because a singer is dating some Hollywood star. To be honest, I never really think about it. It's not something that I have to protect or be dishonest about it.

I've lived my entire gay life in New York, and it's been so easy. I've never lived anywhere else as a gay person. But I'll tell you, the day I'm turned down to buy a house or get a loan because I'm gay, I would be so outraged I'd have the ACLU on the phone within minutes.

Tell me about "Jessica," which was written about one of your early lesbian experiences.

I wrote that a long time ago. I was about 15 or 16. It sounds like I'm pining away for this woman, but in reality, she's the one waiting for me. She was this 21-year-old teacher's assistant at this nerd camp that I went to during the summer.

"Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers" is an instrumental track, the most electronic song on the album. Was there a specific gay son of a lesbian mother?

I'm sure there was. It's really me wondering if that particular family dynamic makes life more complicated.

Do you see yourself getting married someday?

You know, it's having that choice to get married that's important for gay people. Personally, I don't believe in God, and I don't believe that anyone needs to sanctify my relationship. But at some point, I think marriage might become a very practical stage in a relationship for me, so yeah, I might get married someday. No ceremony though, but I like having parties, so I'm going to throw a big one!