A nickname should be justly earned, and they don’t call Kaki King a “guitar god” for nothing.
The Sandy Springs native used her vaunted “fingerstyle” technique to create a multimedia, one-woman show, DATA NOT FOUND, which ambitiously explores artificial intelligence and how it functions in our natural world. In collaboration with Georgia Tech faculty and students, King worked with a team that included sound designer Chloe Alexandra Thompson to create the show, which had its international premiere in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and its U.S. premiere at the 2019 Ellnora Guitar Festival.
The production was set to tour in 2020 with the goal of recording the soundtrack album. Covid-19 scuttled those plans — but not for long. Now King is bringing her show home on October 23. It is one of the first shows back in Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts since the shutdown. Because of the University System of Georgia guidelines, audience members will not be required to be vaccinated, tested or masked. Masks are encouraged.
King has been called “a genre unto herself,” and has performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Design Museum in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She sat down with ArtsATL to discuss how she began to play guitar, her intentions as a guitarist and breathing a second wind into this project on her home turf.
ArtsATL: Who are some of your influences? How, if at all, has Atlanta influenced your artistry?
King: As a gay kid growing up in Atlanta in the ’90s, who went to a conservative school, Atlanta provided the perfect backdrop for a young artist who became as angsty and self-hating as they come . . . who found solace and escape in writing and playing music. The need to go internal and crawl into my own shell led to a very creative time in my young life that has impacted me ever since. It led to the birth of my career.
ArtsATL: How did you learn music? What was your inspiration to pursue it as a calling?
King: My father had so much music in the house; he was a huge music fan. Music is always something I’ve done as a hobby or just for enjoyment as a child. I had an incredible band teacher in high school who recognized the musical talent in me early on, and nurtured that talent. I went on to New York University and studied music. But my real apprenticeship was playing on the streets and all of the musicians I met in New York. I was signed to a record deal very young. It had a huge chain reaction I’ve been enjoying ever since. I’m grateful to be so lucky — but I’ve worked hard for it as well.
ArtsATL: Tell us about the show. It’s being described as “cutting-edge” and “innovative.” What makes it so?
Kaki King: It’s funny, because these aren’t phrases I would use to describe my own work. I’m flattered should anyone think my work is innovative. For me, I’m staying true to something I’ve stayed true to my entire career: deconstructing and reconstructing what is possible with the guitar. DATA NOT FOUND incorporates so much more scenic design and actual theater than I’ve ever used before. I speak lines. I move around the stage at dedicated times. I use multiple types of guitars for sonic and visual effect. But as far as what the audience takes away, and how they describe what they see and feel — that’s up to them.
ArtsATL: How has your residency and time spent with Georgia Tech influenced your show?
King: I have been so lucky to have a partner like Georgia Tech over the years. They have been a huge supporter of mine, through multiple projects, and they were a co-commissioner of DATA NOT FOUND, along with several other institutions. While in residency at Georgia Tech, I was able to write quite a bit of music that contributed to the final show, and continued to develop much of the visual content you will see on stage.
ArtsATL: It’s also described as multimedia — what other elements have you incorporated? What are you hoping they achieve?
King: DATA NOT FOUND uses projection mapping on nearly every surface of the stage, including a tent in the middle of it all. One of the most technical parts of the show is the audio-responsive sound design, in which my music is cueing changes in lighting, for example. The sound design is rich. In the upcoming performance, I will be working with incredible partners like Chloe Alexandra Thompson (associate sound designer) and Attilio Rigotti (production design and video design), and when you come and see the show — look at the program (or go to my website) to see the long list of collaborators and artists I brought into this project. It was a huge team effort: directorial consulting, text writing, lighting design and more.
ArtsATL: DATA NOT FOUND is essentially a one-woman show. What can audiences expect?
King: They can expect my authentic self — it’s still just me and my guitar. But I’ve just expanded my performance vocabulary by working with expanded forms of media, reciting lines and richer storytelling.
ArtsATL: What is the overarching message of DATA NOT FOUND? What do you want your audience to take home from it?
King: I’d rather the audience take away from it what they need to. Everyone has experiences of leaving things behind — of loss. Patterns surround us. Beauty abounds. Microorganisms live among us. There’s a running theme of sand in this show as a metaphor for data. But these are all just motifs. What the audience takes away from this show is their own and unique experience.
ArtsATL: How would you characterize your style — what makes you different on a guitar from other artists? Is there a signature sound that identifies you?
King: I’ve been working my entire career to put the guitar front and center, and push the boundaries of what is possible for the guitar — while still trying to keep it all accessible. I’m someone that wants to break the guitar . . . and then put it back together in better and more interesting ways.
ArtsATL: Who gave you the “guitar god” appellation? How do you feel about the recognition?
King: Yikes, I feel like that’s something you’d have to research and tell me. I don’t think about those kinds of things. To be able to have a style of playing and composition that you could hear and say “I bet anything that’s Kaki King” is a challenge that has always appealed to me.
Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.