Atlanta-born musician makes the guitar the star

Kaki King will perform “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body” at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts on March 10. SIMONE CECCHETTI
Kaki King will perform “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body” at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts on March 10. SIMONE CECCHETTI

A lot has changed since Kaki King last called Atlanta home. The renowned guitarist says she understands if it’s hard for Atlantans to reconcile the musician she’s become with the shy young misfit she was when she lived here as a kid.

“I was a lost little soul,” says King of her girlhood in Atlanta. She has lived in New York about 20 years, but she’ll bring her latest art-meets-tech solo show, “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body,” back to her hometown on March 10 at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts.

King grew up the oldest daughter of two attorneys, the husband and wife team at the head of Atlanta law firm King and King, but she says she felt she never fit in with other kids at school. “I didn’t have a very strong sense of self or who I was or what I stood for,” she says. “I had no idea what I wanted. I was a gay kid from the South who had never really figured out how to speak to other people. It took me a long time to become a normal person.”

King says one of the things that always got her through was her love of music. She was not a prodigy, but from an early age she was drawn to and encouraged to engage with music. Her parents first placed a guitar in her hands at the age of four. “I don’t have any conscious memories of a time where I didn’t know how the guitar works on a very basic level,” she says. “It’s in my earliest memories. When I was ready to pick it up on my own and do my own thing with it, I wasn’t starting from zero. For that, I’m extraordinarily grateful.”

But there was no need for a guitarist in her school band, so King actually played drums throughout her time at Westminster Schools. “Guitar became my more private world, the thing I did on my own,” she says. “I just kind of checked out. While that’s not exactly a fun way to spend your adolescence, it allowed me to spend a lot of time in music and a lot of time in a world that wasn’t Atlanta in the mid-90s. That’s not where my head was. It probably saved me.”

King eventually moved to New York to attend NYU, and while there she began making the guitar a full-time pursuit. Her career as a solo artist took off after she performed on the Conan O’Brien Show, and her virtuosity eventually placed her (the only woman included) on Rolling Stones’ 2006 list of “New Guitar Gods.” She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her collaborative contribution to the soundtrack of the 2007 movie “Into the Wild,” and she now has seven full-length albums and a bevy of acclaimed solo projects under her belt.

King says that her latest multimedia show, which combines the auditory experience of her concerts with the visual experience of state-of-the-art projection mapping, is really about her lifelong relationship with the guitar.

“The story of the show is that the guitar, as I know it and as I see it, is in control,” she says. “As a player, I operate at the whim of what the instrument wants to do. I did not invent the six-string guitar. I did not master it. I’ve always tried to push the envelope a little bit, but I did not make any drastic changes to it. Ultimately, it’s been the thing that’s controlled me and driven my identity and career. There’s a bit of acknowledging and paying homage to that.”

For the show, she had an all-white guitar created so the guitar itself could have images projected onto it. “The thinking was: How can I tell the guitar’s story?” she says. “How can I take myself out of the limelight and put the guitar at the center? That’s really the story of my life … I was looking to design a really simple element to my live show. I had no idea it was a Pandora’s Box I was about to open. Once I knew the functionality was possible, that’s when the show really came into being.”

King lives in New York with her wife Jessica and her two children. She says she’s looking forward to performing the concert in her hometown and to spending some time with family here, but that she certainly understands if some audience members still can’t quite process who it is that’s up there on stage.

“I think there’s still a sense of shock that this very awkward, very quiet, nerdy girl who could barely say a full sentence is now me and I do what I do on stage and I have this career,” she says. “I think there’s still this moment where people are like, ‘You turned out fine.’ I’m probably more shocked than anybody.”

If you go

Kaki King performs “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body”

8 p.m. Mar. 10. $27-45. Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, 349 Ferst Drive, Atlanta. 404-894-9600.