She might still be best known as an acoustic guitar wunderkind, but in recent years, Brooklyn's Kaki King has proven herself more akin to a chameleon than a one-trick pony.
On the leadoff track to her new album Junior, the 30-year-old King announces, "I have become someone else, someone new." Ostensibly, the song — titled "The Betrayer" — is a narrative about a secret agent turned double agent. But it's hard to miss the parallels here: Five albums into her career, Kaki King is quite confident about who she is, even if the rest of us are still trying to catch up with her.
"I just like to do different things," King explains. "I mean, I don't think too hard about it. It's not a bunch of agonizing over 'Who am I going to be now?!' It's just, 'Hey let's make a record, and let's do something we haven't done before,' you know?"
Case in point: King followed up her lone major-label release, 2004's instrumental-acoustic album Legs to Make Us Longer, with 2006's ... Until We Felt Red — an indie record chock-full of atmospheric electric guitars and — gasp! — vocals.
"And people went fucking ape shit," she says, chuckling a bit. "Like, 'Oh my god, Kaki King opened her mouth!' To me, it was really not some big deal at all. I have never understood this supposed divide between lyrical music and instrumental music. Maybe I'm brain-dead, but it has just never made sense to me."
Consequently, King did not race back to the safety of silence on her next album, Dreaming of Revenge (2008). And on Junior, she's gone a step further, fully embracing her potential as a pop singer with equal parts swagger and fragility. The latter element is particularly evident in the breakup ballad "Sunnyside" — which spins a 180 from the espionage of "The Betrayer," revealing King at her most honest and confessional.
"I put ['Sunnyside'] on the record reluctantly," King says, "because I knew that it would open up a lot of questions about my personal life, and who the song was about, and those sorts of things. But in the end, I just felt it was a really good song, and I hope there's something in there that's universal, and will have someone go, 'Yeah, I feel your pain.' It certainly wasn't the easiest decision to make, though."
King was far less hesitant about exploring new horizons musically on Junior, even if it meant de-emphasizing some of the Preston Reed-style guitar tickling that had helped make her the first female member of Rolling Stone's "Guitar God" club back in 2007.
"It was just about playing what I wanted to play," says King, who's also an accomplished pianist, drummer and lap steel player. "I was writing songs that I felt were good songs and that were interesting and beautiful and fun. I think there's a lot of variety on the record, but I don't think I'm any less of a guitar player now. You know, it certainly wasn't a middle finger to any people who might like my guitar playing [laughs]."
It's a good thing, too, because some of the biggest fans of King's ax skills are her fellow musicians, including the likes of Dave Grohl, Tegan and Sara, and John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats) — all of whom have collaborated with King on recent projects.
"The best part about all that is that it's never been something where our managers are organizing us into a room," King says. "It's more like, 'Hey, we're all friends. Why don't you come play on our record?' I mean Dave Grohl just said, 'Hey, love your work. Let's hang out.' So we hung out first, and then we wrote a song later. Every collaborative project I've done has been with friends, rather than some kind of strategic thing based in industry bullshit."
And yes, that even includes a recording session King did last year with superstar producer Timbaland — one which would result in the single "We Belong to the Music," with vocals later added by ... Miley Cyrus?
"Yes, but I never actually met Miley," King says somewhat faux-regretfully. "I didn't get to have the Hannah Montana experience. But hey, it's cool being on the track."