She’s been a cowgirl, a punky bride, a smoky crooner and an ingénue. But no matter what the outward incarnation KD Lang’s honesty and introspection always seems to shine through.
It’s been 25 years since Canada’s preeminent dyke singer first captured the country’s heart. None who saw it could ever forget that first televised entry into the nation’s consciousness: a gangly tomboy with spiky hair, galumphing joyfully onto the Juno stage to accept her first award, wearing a wedding dress, work boots and a sly grin. Few knew what to make of her and plenty were ready to ridicule this exuberant misfit — that is, until she opened her mouth and shared that glorious voice with the world.
“Used to be I’d laugh it off,” Lang sings on “Upstream” from her new album. “Now it’s just this joke I’ve got/ A halo’s promise and a sinner’s dream/ The punch line is/ I always swim/ Upstream.”
Swim upstream she certainly has. From her “well, duh” coming out to controversial stances on wearing fur and eating meat, Lang has never shied away from stating her business with the world. Lang (who uses lowercase letters and periods as part of her trademark image: k.d. lang) is a straightshooter. Her renowned candour may have gotten her into hot water from time to time but even the homophobic creeps who spray painted “eat beef, dyke” on the vegetarian’s hometown sign have to admit that the singer is not afraid to speak her mind.
Watershed, the first collection of original tunes since 2000’s Invincible Summer, hit stores in February. Lang’s vocals sweep luxuriantly through a pastiche of country styles that she calls “countrypolitan.”
Crafted in solitude, it’s Lang’s first-ever self-produced album. Hard to believe it was actually created in Lang’s dining room.
“The recording technique was far from perfect,” Lang says. “You hear traffic and air conditioner fans and stuff that would drive a studio engineer crazy. But when we tried to clean up the sound we really lost a magical essence.”
Surprisingly, many of the tracks on Watershed are actually first takes. “I think that adds to the realness of it. People feel like they’re in a room with me. And they really are.
“A lot of those first performances had something that could never be recreated. There was something more endearing about them being slightly shaky and vulnerable.”
Shaky and vulnerable aren’t words that immediately come to mind when considering the statuesque Lang. Long and solidly lean (whoever dresses her in those unflattering satin pants for TV needs a stern talking-to), she projects a calm strength that tempers her outspoken views.
She’s modest about her own role in furthering visibility for gay men and lesbians but recognizes that her coming out was part of a pivotal moment in gay liberation.
“I’m very aware that there were a lot of people laying the bricks down on the road before I got there,” she says. “If I was a part of the enlightenment of society in some small way, I take a tremendous sense of pride in that. If I can live in people’s hearts and minds a little bit, that’s very rewarding.
“I’ve always maintained that I don’t represent the whole gay and lesbian culture. I mean, how could you? It’s such a diverse culture. I tried to be gracious and to be available.”
Her upfront attitude seems as unforced and good-humoured now as it did 15 years ago, receiving that infamous shave-job courtesy of Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair.
“I never was really in the closet,” she says. “I came out to myself at 13 and my mother at 17; it was very normal for me.”
Normal but still a little naughty. When Lang recalls her early days in the lesbian community, a Cheshire grin lights up her face and fires my thoughts on what a young rakish dyke could get up to back then.
“Part of me is titillated by the fact that I’m gay,” Lang says. “I remember when being gay was all very cryptic. You’d sneak into the back door and down the stairs and back around and then you’re suddenly in some magical world called gay culture. It was very exciting and very underworld.
“I actually kind of miss those days. But when you’re entering the public realm it’s a different ballgame. It’s really important not to exploit it or hide it, to give people a window into a culture they didn’t understand or have chosen to be ignorant about.”
Lang believes displaying her unapologetic persona is a significant strategy in bridging the gaps between the gay world and the religious nut jobs screaming for our collective heads.
“The ultimate defence against hate and fear is to stay open. I know [homophobes] are judging me and that’s fine. But I’m going to show that I’m not going to judge them.
“We may have different religious opinions and political opinions but ultimately we breathe the same air and drink the same water. We have a lot of common ground to work with.”
Does she still run up against the occasional creep or struggle with a sense of being one of society’s outcasts? “It’s hard and yet it isn’t,” she says calmly. “You’re a poof and I’m a big ol’ dyke. To celebrate your own uniqueness is the biggest celebration of confidence. It’s a testimony to your parents and to yourself to live your life as who you are.”
But just when you think you’re dealing with a kindler, gentler KD, glimpses of the rambunctious cowgal of yesteryear emerge. When asked about actress Jodi Foster’s recent acknowledgement of her long-term lesbian relationship, Lang is thrilled. “Fuck off! Really? Congratulations Jodi!” she whoops, then grins slyly, “Now if only Oprah would come out.”
Oprah? As in St Winfrey of the Boobtube? “She said on her show recently that people were saying vile things about her, saying that she’s gay,” Lang fumes. “Miss Fucking Empathetic is calling being gay vile?”
It’s nice to see sparks of the old Lang but nicer still to witness the aura of serenity surrounding the surprisingly soft-spoken chanteuse. Perhaps this softer side is due to Lang’s six-year relationship with partner Jamie or in part to a creative outlet that may surprise even the most ardent of fans.
“I’ve painted for a long time,” says Lang. “Painting has a very big impact on my songwriting. I tend to go through a big painting cycle before I go through a writing cycle.
“Staring at a blank page is far more daunting than staring at a blank canvas because my painting isn’t public. It’s a strictly personal expression… but to me, it’s kind of oiling the mechanics.
“Music’s always been very much about colour for me,” she says. “It’s all a broad spectrum, everything from beauty to ugliness.”
Watershed certainly embraces Lang’s emotional range. Her singing on the album seems more laid back and reflective, resonating with a gentler tone hinted at in earlier recordings. There are no belters this time out.
“To me, the subtleties and stillness of my voice are more representative of my evolution as a human being,” she says. “It seems more honest to represent that with my voice, to refine or tame my voice rather than constantly try to project more.”
Not surprisingly, caring for her remarkable instrument figures largely. “I have basically designed my lifestyle around protecting my voice and keeping it healthy. I go to bed early, I get up early, I don’t smoke, I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years.
“Even coming out as a lesbian was important. When you’re holding in things or not being honest, all these things affect your voice. My voice is definitely designated to who I am as a person.”