4 min

Exploring her “musical DNA”

kd lang celebrates the Canadian songbook

A TOUCH OF MINK. For her latest album, the beautiful Hymns of the 49th Parallel, kd lang worked with her old Reclines bandmate Ben Mink. Credit: Jeri Heiden

Although she began her career pushing musical boundaries and people’s homophobic buttons, these days kd lang – Canada’s most famous and successful lesbian export – finds herself pushing around a cartful of musical awards and accolades from around the world.

“I think I’m about as middle-of-the-road as you can get right now,” she says. “Which actually is a good place to be, because it gives you the liberty to go either way. I’m a centrist if there ever was a centrist, at least in terms of music.”

After visiting the left and right US coasts for musical inspiration for two of her last three albums, we find lang dreamily looking up to her native Great White North.

Lang’s new album, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is a beautiful 11-song compilation that features interpretations of classic songs penned by some of Canada’s most gifted songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn and Ron Sexsmith.

The emotional connection lang has with these songs is apparent on every track. Espe-cially moving are her renditions of Young’s Helpless, Siberry’s Love Is Everything and her haunting, almost sacred-feeling covers of Cohen’s Bird on a Wire and Hallelujah.

“These songs are beautiful songs,” says lang. “I mean, yeah, I want Canada to love this record and I want Canada to appreciate it and to fall in love with their songwriters again, or still, or more or whatever it is. But these songs are so immensely emotional and well-written, and I think or hope that [the album] would transcend the borders.”

Fans who have longed for lang to return to her alternative country roots will be pleased to hear a decidedly moody, progressive folk sound on many of the songs. This is in sharp contrast to much of her more recent work, such as the shiny, perky California-inspired pop of 2000’s Invincible Summer and the jazz of last year’s Grammy-award winning Wonderful World, a collection of Louis Armstrong-inspired duets with the legendary Tony Bennett.

According to lang, the new album’s “Canadian songbook” concept began to take shape last year as she toured and promoted Wonderful World alongside Bennett. “Being with Tony, talking to him about Louis Armstrong and his musical heritage and the American songbook – and growing up in Astoria, Queens where Tony grew up – I started thinking about the Canadian songbook and how it really has never been cultivated,” she says. “And I was thinking about my heritage and the songs that really helped develop me and my musical DNA. [I] decided that it would be a good thing for me to do, or something that I wanted to do.”

With Hymns of the 49th Parallel, lang returns to familiar territory in more ways than one, as former Reclines bandmate Ben Mink both plays on and co-produces the new record – the first time since 1995’s All You Can Eat.

“It just made sense that Ben and I would produce this record. He knows these songs as intrinsically as I do – as well as David Piltch and Teddy Borowiecki, other musicians on this record. We’re all Canadian, we’ve all [been] friends and co-workers for 20 years,” says lang. “So it just made sense that we would go in and do it as a team. It was just really a beautiful expression of our love and understanding of our cultural musical heritage.”

The album, which was recorded in Los Angeles over a five-day period, is lang’s first for her new label Nonesuch Records. It’s slated for release on Tue, Jul 27.

In addition to lang singing some of her favourite songs, another concept cover album (a follow-up of sorts to 1997’s brilliant Drag) allowed lang to make an emotionally driven record without having to develop original material. Lang says she has been suffering from a severe bout of writer’s block. “I really don’t have the confidence or the interest in writing right now. I really feel that I have nothing to say,” she says with a laugh.

To support the new record, lang began her first orchestra tour Apr 30 in Houston and played Ottawa on Jun 27. Over the next several months, lang will torch and twang along with some of North America’s foremost symphonic musicians, performing a set list of songs spanning her career, including material from the forthcoming album.

So far, the reviews of lang’s performances – both from fans and the press alike – have been glowing.

“It’s really, really musically quite fulfilling,” lang says of the tour. “And working with new musicians every day is very, very inspiring and adds to the momentum and to the musicality of it.”

When asked how she stays fresh and focussed through a grueling 46-show schedule, lang says the act of singing itself – that special connection between singer, song and audience – recharges her entertainment batteries.

“If I’m doing my job properly I’m just a vessel and it’s just flowing through me and I’m just a part of the synergy that’s happening in the building. It’s not me giving and them taking, but it’s about a moment happening. The stressful part is getting up at 7:30am and getting on a plane and sitting in the airport for four hours… and carrying your bag around everyday and wearing the same stinking clothes for two weeks,” lang says with a laugh. “But the singing part is the respite – that’s what energizes me.”

Next month, lang will take a short break from her tour to deliver two special performances during an historic Olivia “honeymoon cruise” between Boston and Montreal, as dozens of same-sex couples are married during a mass on-board ceremony.

“I’m a wedding singer now,” lang says, giggling.

And though she has gone on record as a solid supporter of same-sex marriage, lang says that her decision to take part in the Olivia cruise has more to do with trying to have a good time than trying to make a political statement.

“It’s more fun than anything. It’s not any big political gesture or anything like that. It just sounded fun.”

But, lang adds, that doesn’t mean she’s not concerned about the outcome of the upcoming federal elections – and their impact on the queer community and the rest of the world – in both Canada and the US.

“I’m not political at all, but I’m very emotionally involved in the way things are in the world…. Obviously [when] we have things happen like they have in the last three years in the United States, that’s a universal problem,” the California resident says, carefully weighing her words. “So I don’t think of myself as a political person. I’m a humanitarian and a Buddhist practitioner and things affect me greatly. But I try not to get involved in the real day-to-day politics of it.”

Of course, these days, the big question for lang no longer centres around her sexuality, nationality or intense individuality, but whether or not the big-boned gal from Alberta is gonna “go country” one more time.

“There’s no question there will be another country album in my future someday. I don’t know when – maybe when I’m 90.”

kd lang.

Hymns of the 49th Parallel.

Nonesuch Records.

Release date: Tue, Jul 27.