Born in Edmonton, Alberta, in November 1961, kd lang grew up in the very small Canadian town of Consort (population 650), the youngest in an artistic family. Trained in classical piano, lang began performing with a group of young artists in Edmonton in her late teens. It was during her years as a performance artist that she began to experiment with country music, eventually forming a band called the Reclines -“ named after Patsy Cline, one of her biggest musical influences.
Lang’s first three American albums were country with a twist, the twist being her androgynous appearance and campy stylings which didn’t fit entirely into mainstream Nashville. Her third album Absolute Torch And Twang in 1989 garnered her a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance and a top 25 country hit for Full Moon Full Of Love.
Then, just as lang’s country career seemed about to take off, she decided to appear in an ad campaign for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in which she declared, If you knew how meat was made, you’d lose your lunch. I know, I’m from cattle country and that’s why I became a vegetarian. The backlash from the country music industry led in part to her decision to leave country behind.
This decision led to her world-wide hit Constant Craving in 1992, taken from lang’s first fully pop album Ing?e. During this time lang became America’s most visible gay icon, and went so far as to pose in drag on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford.
She has continued to push gender boundaries, in particular with her 1997 release Drag.
In a return to mainstream pop music, lang released Invincible Summer in 2000, an album about love (partly inspired by then girlfriend Leisha Hailey, now an actress on The L Word).
Her last album, the Grammy-winning A Wonderful World, saw lang collaborate with Tony Bennett on a series of duets inspired by Louis Armstrong. Her recently released follow-up Hymns Of The 49th Parallel brings us another change of style and is a collection of cover versions of some of Canada’s most inspirational songwriters.
OLIVER HALL Why did you do an album of purely Canadian covers?
KD LANG It was an idea that I had after working with Tony Bennett and doing The American Songbook, thinking about my Canadian heritage and how many great Canadian songwriters there have been and just wanting to explore that.
OH Have you found yourself more proud to be Canadian since gay marriage was legalised?
KDL Actually I kind of forgot about that but yeah, definitely.
OH Is gay marriage not an important issue for you?
KDL No, it’s something I don’t care less about, but I do understand the struggle and certainly the political ramifications and struggle for the gay culture. I’m excited that the envelope is being pushed.
OH Have you noticed the recent influx of openly gay recording artists being signed?
KDL I haven’t noticed really, but I am aware that there are more openly gay artists in the world, and more characters on television and in books. It’s opening up.
OH Does it surprise you that the US seems to be the last to catch on?
KDL The United States thinks of themselves as being extremely liberal and at the cutting edge of things, but it’s such a conservative country.
OH Do you think that might change after the election?
KDL I hate to say it, but no. I think evolution is slow and it’s such a big country, it will take time to change.
OH Some critics have said this album may see you return to the height of your commercial success. Is that something you were hoping for?
KDL Not necessarily. I don’t really care. It’s not what I’m going for in making this and I doubt that that will be the result. Just because it’s critically acclaimed and people like it, I doubt I will have a huge record from it. I’m sure I won’t get played on the radio or end up on the cover of Vanity Fair again. It really doesn’t matter because it’s just another record. To me All You Can Eat is as good as this because it’s an offering that I’ve made. It’s what I do.
OH What was it like doing the Vanity Fair cover and being so much in the public eye?
KDL It was fun. But it felt like driving a car too fast, it felt out of control. I think, in that era of music in the late 80s and early 90s, sexuality was so much in the forefront with Madonna, and with me coming out. Now it seems a bit shallow.
OH Do you admire Madonna?
OH Are you a fan of hers?
OH When she kissed Britney at that awards ceremony some called it exploitation, some felt it was subtle support for gay marriage and others didn’t care. What was your view?
KDL Probably all of the above. In the long run it keeps pushing the envelope open; in the immediacy of it, I think it was a gimmick and they should just go back to the closet. They should in themselves. It was exploitative but in the long run who gives a fuck about Madonna and Britney Spears kissing? Soon no one will care.
OH Why do you think you have been so embraced as a definitive lesbian icon?
KDL Lack of options. I don’t know. I have no perspective on that question at all.
OH But are you aware of it?
KDL Yeah, absolutely.
KDL Over the years at my concerts, but my concerts now are completely across the board. I have 80-year-old couples coming to my shows now, which I completely adore. In a perfect world that’s how I think it should be, wide open. But of course I’m aware of my lesbian and my gay following.
OH Has it been hard for you to resist groupies throwing themselves at you?
KDL The groupie thing has sort of left. It’s really over which is nice. I still enjoy my fans but that whole thing is long gone.
OH Judging by your music, sexuality seems to be less of an issue for you now.
KDL That’s definitely true. It was such a focus of my life for the last seven years, and I kind of feel that I’ve exhausted that for both myself and the public. Really, sexuality is only a small part of my spirituality and my humanity. They are far more of a focus for me right now, and I don’t feel sexuality is something I need to promote at this point in my life.
OH Are you that much of an open book that we can judge your moods by the albums you’re putting out?
KDL I think it’s inevitable that people would make those judgments, but I don’t think you could come to any conclusions.
OH So it’s not necessarily true?
KDL Well, it’s probably true, but not complete.
OH Is that because you hold something back?
KDL I don’t think I hold things back, I just don’t think one thing can completely represent who I am. I don’t think who somebody is can be represented by a record or even by a bunch of records because then there’s the person who leaves the towel on the bathroom floor who isn’t represented in my music.
OH Who is kd lang right now?
KDL I’m middle-aged and I’ve been in the music business for 20 years. I’m in a relationship. My life is pretty stable. I’m on a very good spiritual journey.
Oliver Hall is the editor of New Zealand’s Express.