"Fame, success... none of that matters": k. d. lang talks about her journey through stardom

With her multi-platinum breakout album Ingénue, k.d. lang emerged as one of the most singular and expressive singers of her generation. Now, 25 years later, she returns to her roots – performing the album that shot her to stardom in its entirety – with favourites like Constant Craving and other classics from her 30-year repertoire and one of the stops for her tour is Symphony Hall on 27 July.

k.d. lang credits Classical music as the starting point, “All my siblings were accomplished pianists, so I got Chopin, Haydn, Beethoven and Bach for hours and hours every day, which I think developed my ear.”

Yet despite her having country as her first record and Patsy Cline as a favourite singer, lang admits “I was never a fan of country music as a kid. In fact I shunned it, because I thought I was cooler than that.” At that time, the Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn movies came out – country appeared to have been experiencing a hip renaissance. “On my 21st birthday I was given some Patsy Cline records. My initial reaction had been sort of ironic, but then I started listening to those records and I started to realise the direct nature of country music, how it can enter you like a kind of emotional intravenous. Patsy spoke to me spiritually. This deep, deep connection.”

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At the same time that this was happening, lang “was doing sort of avant-garde folk and performance in Edmonton, and this vision arose almost spontaneously of k.d lang & The Reclines.”

“Like punk, but at the same time honouring the music,” lang continues when asked about her vision for her first band. “Having this palette of ingredients you can use not to deconstruct country completely, but to build something that wasn’t just traditional but contained all of what resonated with me: humour, truth and irony. That whole visual package of country music was a huge part of it too. I’d cut out plastic cows and sew them on my clothes. Very kitsch.”

This individuality continues with lang’s journey through different genres, from country to torch pop, “In retrospect it was really the moment where I went from being derivative and playing with a bunch of tools and imagery that country gave me, to finding my own vernacular and being dead honest about my feelings. Just playing and singing what we felt. I had already switched from country in my mind and I’d warned the powers-that-be in marketing that I wasn’t going to be country any more. I was pulling on all my different influences – country, but also Joni Mitchell to Lawrence Welk.”

Lang came out as a lesbian after Ingénue and recalling the feedback she received from the music business, she admits:

There was prejudice against my sexuality, for sure. And resistance. I never got played on the radio. I still don’t get played on the radio, but now it’s musical, and back then I’d say it was more about my sexuality. I was an anomaly that they used to modernise country but I wasn’t fully embraced. Though in fairness I didn’t want to be embraced by that world. I loved being the freak of nature in this really traditional world.

“For some reason I think lesbianism, or trans-gender from female to male is more threatening, because it’s a step towards a masculinity and I think that, in essence, is more threatening. Listen to the radio or look at Rolling Stone magazine and you can see and hear the confinement for a woman and the void. I think that it’s just a reflection of society in general when everything that we do, essentially, is against a male standard. Joni Mitchell is equal if not exceeds the talents of Bob Dylan, but because of her gender she really suffers.

My whole thing from the beginning, as to my look, has been the alternative to what is the norm for a female rock performer.”

I’ve always tried to embrace what feels to me like the masculine approach to media and image. Because men would always be photographed as just who they are or what they do, no make-up, and I always thought, Why can’t I be that? I always instinctively knew that banking on your looks was a very quick dead-end.

On the topic of Leonard Cohen’s death, lang reminisces, “The only time I got to spend with him was in the airport lounge in Los Angeles, on the way up to Toronto for his Hall Of Fame induction, where I performed Hallelujah at the ceremony.”

I have to tell you that that man was a prophet. A translator of God. He took the truth and took our questions and found a way to bring them to our own capacity of understanding. His music and lyrics were great, but his mind and his thoughts were beyond. That’s the funny thing about Leonard and Joni and Neil – and Jane Siberry, who to me is severely overlooked. Those Canadian songwriters are all prophets and they all deal with different aspects of existence. Leonard is the bridge, Joni is the magnifying glass on the ego, Neil is a wandering yogi who opens up to nature and hedonism and Jane is like a bodhicitta who understands empathy.

With the tour on the horizon and when asked what comes next, lang says, “I don’t care about money, I don’t care about success; what I care about is making music that’s very real to me and that I feel is making a contribution to the greater good. I believe that there is something big inside of me still, but I’m not in a hurry. Maybe it doesn’t come to fruition in this lifetime. But that’s OK. I have lots of time.”