Espionage, particularly the idea of living a double life, was the basis for Kaki King’s brand-new, stunning album Junior. And like a tantalizing spy novel that’s full of surprises, Junior delivers twists-and-turns: lyrically from exuberance and anger to heartbreaking melancholy; and sonically from experimental pieces to accessible pop. While there is some of the dazzling musicianship King has been renowned for, Junior showcases her further maturation as a well-rounded artist that defies categorization and expectations.
“I never made records for other people,” she says. “My evolution from record to record has been personal not commercial. For example there’s none of the “guitar tapping” that I’m known for. There not a single bit of it on the record except for a half a second on ‘The Hoopers of Hudspeth.’”
As with her previous album, 2008’s Dreaming of Revenge, Junior was produced by Malcolm Burn (Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris) and recorded at his studio in Kingston, New York. But in contrast to that record, which was marked by deep textures and layers as well as unusual instrumentation, Junior was specifically made with only three musicians in mind—in this case, King, multi-instrumentalist Dan Brantigan and drummer Jordan Perlson. The result was something more direct. “Prior to this I would have written a lot in the studio and played all the instruments myself,” King says. “This time, I really leaned on Dan and Jordan to help shape the songs and help me get the record written.”
The nearly-D.I.Y. aesthetic employed by King can be found on a couple of Junior’s tracks starting with the album’s punkish “Falling Day” and the noisy “Death Head.” “I was dragging this little ukelele around with me,” she says of the former song. “I tuned it weird and I came up with this one riff. The lyrics are basically nonsense. It’s a kind of rumination on a weird dream I had and imagery from that. It’s also got all these strange sounds that Dan came up with.”
Longtime fans may be surprised to hear a different side of King with the dance rock of “Spit It Back In My Mouth.” “I really wanted that to be my Cure song,” she says. “Like how the Cure would write these really happy, jangly songs and the lyrics would be utterly depressing. When I came up with that little groove, I thought this is way too happy, so I changed it to make people depressed.”
King’s mesmerizing guitar playing continues through Junior with a few instrumental pieces, including the electrifying number “My Nerves That Committed Suicide.” “I found a tuning on the guitar,” King says of that track, “and I was writing a little theme and a little melody. All of a sudden I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ and it really took off. Part of it is ear candy and a part of it is emotive air candy. You just go with that anthemic feeling and it kind of wins every time.”
The rawest song on Junior in terms of King’s passionate singing and wrenching lyrics is the folkish ballad “Sunnyside,” which is about the end of a relationship. “It happened very close to the time I was making the record,” the artist recalls. “It’s a very personal story about something that I went through with another person. Every reference to every lyric is true to life. I’m hoping there’s something universal in that song that someone’s gonna listen and think ‘Wow, I can relate to that,’ because I don’t want it to by my pity party.”