kd lang: ‘I am just one aspect of a huge and ongoing evolution’
Singer kd lang on the impact of her breakthrough Ingénue 25 years on, being thrust into the spotlight and being a totem of LGBT culture
kd lang: ‘I never felt like I was misrepresenting my true nature.’ Photograph: Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times
Thirty years ago, kd lang strode on stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York in a black dress, the type Adele might wear nowadays, and introduced her performance. “When Roy Orbison walked off stage, he became an observer of life,” she began, a lick of hair, a suggestion of a quiff, springing downward. She continued, “he could see what made people lonely in the most crowded of honky-tonks, and how we all yearned,” she drew that word’s vowels out, a fist half-clenched, “for each other, in dreams. He’d write it down, make it rhyme, because he was a songwriter”.
The introduction could be construed as confident, with lang pacing across the stage. Or perhaps the urgency of her speech was down to nerves. But when she began singing Orbison’s song, Crying, something bigger than a cover version happened. At the chorus, lang’s vocal was intimidatingly, overwhelmingly powerful.
The concert – The Songwriters Hall of Fame 20th Anniversary… The Magic of Music – was broadcast on CBS, and in the New York Times, the television critic John J O’Connor recognised he was watching a cut above: “kd lang in a simple black dress evoking memories of Edith Piaf offers a riveting version of Crying, which quite justifiably brings the audience to its feet.”
Three years later, lang released the album Ingénue, a record that resonates today, so much so, that lang is on a 25th anniversary tour of it, a performance she is bringing to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for two concerts on July 30th and 31st.
What is the difference between the artist on stage singing Crying, and the artist now? “I was very much focused on summiting some sort of success mountain or something. I felt like I was still travelling uphill and I still had a lot to accomplish,” says lang.
Released on St Patrick’s Day in 1992, Ingénue revealed something much deeper within an already accomplished and well-known artist. The trope that art made by gay women has a tendency to draw from a deeper emotional well is often hard to deny. Ingénue is still compelling, still yearning, still raw, still a perfect album. “I believe that music transcends ownership,” lang says, and now, she’s gifting that record to an audience again.
The album finished with the hit Constant Craving, a song that still sounds vital and expansive. Before Ingénue, lang had already released A Truly Western Experience, Angel with a Lariat, Absolute Torch and Twang, and Shadowland, which was produced by the behemoth of the Nashville sound, Owen Bradley. But Ingénue catapulted her into a stratosphere of fame that few ever reach.
Assessing lang’s level of celebrity in retrospect is a curious task. There’s the iconic Vanity Fair cover and shoot, with Cindy Crawford “shaving” her with a cutthroat razor, as lang leaned back in a barber’s chair – something that still feels transgressive even now when gender fluidity is part of mainstream discourse. There are the nuggets in that profile (“Elvis is alive – and she’s beautiful!” Madonna reportedly exclaimed upon meeting her backstage), and the awkward manner with which media tried to get a handle on a lesbian artist, on butchness, and the how straight culture often fails to understand the louche lounge stance of lesbian style, misinterpreting as uncaring the very particular particulars.
Susan Sontag may have nailed an interpretation of camp, but few can access the intuitive and esoteric idiosyncrasies of the lesbian aesthetic. “She is as different from a female icon like Dolly Parton as if she were another species,” Vanity Fair decided, tying itself in knots to the soundtrack of the simultaneous straining of the extraocular muscles of a million lesbian eye-rolls.
These days, lang feels that she has little left to prove. “I think now I feel like I’ve pretty much accomplished everything I want to accomplish, so there’s a more of a relaxed easiness… it’s really [about] the joy of music and connecting with the audience and letting the musicians stand out.” Not a lot of people can say that, and lang seems slightly perplexed by “some sort of social or external pressure for me to keep needing to succeed, but I don’t really feel like I need to”.
The demands on artists to keep setting and achieving goals is something that “goes past the industry”, lang says. “I think it’s our social construct now. I think we have people who are being successful way into their 90s. I just feel like I’m putting all of my energy into family and into life, which is something I sacrificed a little for the years I was involved in the music business full-time. I feel like it’s a balancing moment for me in life.”
Fame, however, engulfed her to some degree, “I think I wobbled a little after Ingénue was a big hit and there was a lot of attention on me,” she says. “I was doing a lot of fashion stuff and extracurricular showbiz activities, you know? I think I was on the verge of losing it. But then I realised that I was spending a lot of energy on those extracurricular activities and I felt like it was draining my pool of energy towards music, so I stepped back from the limelight, because it really takes a lot of energy; getting your clothes right, hanging out at the right parties, it really is quite draining.” She spent years, she says, on planes, “thinking about how I should be at home hanging out with my mother, or cooking, or walking the dog”.
The context of writing and recording Ingénue was a “very introspective, it was a very introverted time. It was meditative”. There were also external issues: “Aids was full-blown in a social context, there was a lot of pressure on me to come out. So I think the record maintains a kind of relativity because the record’s vulnerability and honesty resonated with the gay community at the time. I think it resembles a type of watermark for the LGBTQ community.”
She remembers the writing process vividly. “It was a very important time for me because I was changing my musical vernacular from the very strong influences to a more personal one and creating a language that resonated with me on a deeply personal level rather than using outer imagery.”
Constant Craving delivered another Grammy for lang – for best female pop vocal performance and she had won a best female country vocal performance Grammy. Constant Craving became so omnipresent, that lang ended up with a songwriting credit on The Rolling Stones track Anybody Seen My Baby, given that their chorus essentially matched hers.
For the past 25 years, lang’s artistry remains uncontaminated by ropey choices, or a desperation for relevance, or shoehorning herself into the zeitgeist. A conversation with her now is utterly devoid of soundbites. Instead she is careful, philosophical. Longevity, she says, depends on what one is after. “First of all there’s the ingredient of fate and your karma, and whether or not you’re going to make it in the music business . . . I think it depends. If you want immediate and instant reward, there’s that path that can happen. You can focus on having a pop hit and focus on really hitting it for a certain time, and that is valid. But if you take a longer more methodical path – which is equal, I think it’s kind of equal, at the end of the day – to me it was really about having integrity and making sure I loved the music I was putting out and never getting lost as a person. I went on different tangents, of course, as one does in their life, but I never felt like I was misrepresenting my true nature.”
Sense of pride
In the sculpture garden of LGBT culture, lang is definitely an Easter Island head, a monumental figure who broke boundaries and queered the pitch in a way that changed not just lesbian and gay culture, but the parameters of gender through her butch visibility. It must be an odd thing to be such a totem of LGBT culture.
“Obviously the more time I have to be objective in retrospect I have a broader perspective, but I don’t think I will ever know because, you know, I just don’t know. I don’t pursue an understanding of how much impact I’ve had,” lang says. “I only get it maybe in the grocery store – ‘that record was important, that had a big influence’ – personal stories that are related to me here and there. Obviously I feel a deep sense of pride of being a link in the chain of the evolution of the LGBTQ community, but also society. The education of people is broader than categorisation. But, I mean, I have a deep sense of pride. I guess that’s all that matters. But I also know that I am just one aspect of a huge and ongoing evolution.”
Now, a typical week involves her cooking, walking her dog, and visiting her mother who lives three hours away. Of her life now, she says: “It’s pretty simple.” Meditation keeps her calm. Buddhism is the most crucial thing she practises for personal development. She doesn’t drink alcohol on the road. She gets nervous about touring, worrying about her voice staying intact (public service announcement: she asks people not to wear perfume, aftershave or cologne to her gigs because it can interfere with her sinuses and breathing). She’s attracted to lush, green environments, and water. Her go-to comfort snack is “anything that is a vessel for butter… Ireland has very good butter. I’m excited about it!”
Of her upcoming concerts in Dublin, she refuses to anticipate her emotional disposition. “I don’t even want to pollute the experience by having an expectation, because you could be surprised by what happens on stage. I could be pissed off about something, but it’s still a process I have to go through. I could be elated. I think music has the power to take you in any direction, and to think that one is better than the other is misguided.”
kd lang performs Ingénue at the National Concert Hall on July 30th and 31st. Tickets from €55 are available from nch.ie