k.d. lang (Profile)

In the interview, the cloud of ennui returns.

lang, k.d.
k.d. lang's powerful, expressive voice has made her an international star (photo by Rosamond Norbury).

lang, k.d. (Profile)

 She has agreed to meet in an empty hotel restaurant. The place is closed, so there is no danger of k.d. lang being bothered by fans. Lang arrives dressed in what could pass for a jogging outfit: a red windbreaker, satiny black pants, running shoes. Her schoolboy shock of brown hair is loosely combed. She wears no makeup. But her complexion is immaculate, still glowing, perhaps, from a morning run through the streets of Toronto. As the camera starts clicking away, lang props her feet up on the linen tablecloth and adopts an insouciant air. She wants it to be over quickly, and when the photographer promises to complete the shoot in under five minutes, her eyes light up. Flirting with the lens behind a mask of boredom, she stretches, yawns and slumps in her chair with a mischievous smirk, like a kid impatient for class to be over, but determined to have some fun in the meantime.

In the interview, the cloud of ennui returns. Lang, who turns 34 this week, knows that all the old issues will eventually come up - her 1990 "meat stinks" advertisement for animal rights, her role as a poster girl for Lesbian Chic, the gossip linking her to celebrities ranging from Madonna to Anne Murray. Somewhere, lost amid all the fuss about her tastes in sex and food, is the music, the place where it all started. And in promoting her new album, All You Can Eat, k.d. lang conveys the impression that she wants to clean her plate and start fresh.

Clipping the tape-recorder microphone to her lapel, she absently croons a lyric from David Bowie's Modern Love. Bowie and lang. An intriguing concept. Is she contemplating another duet perhaps? "I'm sick of duets if you want to know the truth," she sighs. "I get asked to do them all the time." The singer, who has recorded hits with Tony Bennett and the late Roy Orbison, recently turned down requests by Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Johnny Mathis and the rock band Soundgarden. "It's hard to say no," she adds, "but I don't want to be like Julio Iglesias or Willie Nelson. I don't want to be the duet queen."

Now, she is big enough that she can afford to say no. And for Katherine Dawn Lang, being big was always part of the plan. As a 10th-grade student in Consort, Alta., where the biggest thing in town was a grain elevator, she took to signing her name with a star. Now, 13 years after trimming that name to the coolly diminutive k.d. lang, fame has stopped being a goal. It has become the cost of doing business. "In all honesty, it was something that I wanted," she says. "But having been there, I realize it has nothing to do with what I'm doing."

Been there, seen it, done it. Having scaled the heights of celebrity, lang says it's a nice place to visit but she wouldn't want to live there. In fact, after spending much of her time in the show-business whirl of Los Angeles (retreating periodically to a farm in British Columbia), last year she bought a house in Vancouver and made it her base. "I think she got hurt in Los Angeles," says Ben Mink, lang's longtime collaborator, who co-wrote and co-produced the album with her in Vancouver, in their respective home studios. "She was a little bit wounded when we started," he recalls. "She had been under a lot of pressure."

Now, in the thick of a five-month international publicity tour to promote All You Can Eat, lang is in the paradoxical position of using the public spotlight to talk about how fame is overrated. "I find the whole celebrity concept really boring and superficial," she says. "But reaching a certain pinnacle of success has, in effect, liberated me from it. That's where the title comes from. All You Can Eat means being satiated - finally going, 'OK, that's enough. I don't need to do all the stuff I'm invited to because it's going to put me in the paper.' "

Lang has always taken an ironic view of her public image. After landing on the cover of Chatelaine magazine as its woman of the year in 1988, she turned the experience into the blithely sardonic song Miss Chatelaine. In If I Were You, the first single from the new album, she fantasizes with sarcastic whimsy about being "the queen of popularity ... Miss Congeniality." And, as she points out, there is another "miss" in the album's lyrics - "misconstrued."

The singer seems intent on clearing up misconceptions. "Just because I put out one dark, heavy record [the huge 1992 hit Ingenue], everyone thought I'm really serious," she says. "With 'meat stinks,' everyone thought I was a really militant vegetarian, then everyone thought I was a militant lesbian. It's like three years of my life became very pedestalled or isolated."

Perhaps the people just have trouble keeping up with her shifts in identity. While blessed with the one of the most astonishing voices in pop music, lang has conducted her career as a kind of performance art, changing personas with a bravado rivalled only by David Bowie and Annie Lennox. In the early 1980s, she burst onto the scene as a kitsch cartoon, a country punk in spiky hair, sawed-off boots and cat's-eye glasses with no glass in them. Laying claim to the reincarnated spirit of Patsy Cline, she went to Nashville, wowed everyone with her talent, wore all the right rhinestone jackets - but never felt at home in a country music establishment that worships big hair, big steaks and family values.

With the soul-baring torch songs of Ingenue, her fifth album, lang incinerated her cow-punk persona. The album spawned her first hit single, Constant Craving, for which she won her third Grammy. And as her career took off, she became the biggest pop star ever to declare herself a lesbian. Then, the August, 1993, cover of Vanity Fair showed her in pinstripes and work boots being shaved, and seduced, in a barber's chair by a swimsuited Cindy Crawford. It became the third-biggest-selling issue in the magazine's history.

"It wasn't my concept for the cover," says lang. "I wanted the cover by myself - let's be honest. But it was one of the shots I wanted to do, and when Vanity Fair saw it, what are they going to use? I might not have got the cover if it wasn't for that photo."

Meanwhile, with her sexual preference out in the open, lang became fair game for media gossip. And now she is trying to set the record straight. "I don't answer questions about my personal life because I don't have one," she laughs. "I mean, I have friends. But I'm single. I don't really date, and if I do, it's not that interesting."

While caught up in the swirl of her sudden celebrity, she concedes, "I dated a couple of high-profile people. That's one of the things that fame and stardom, that false power, brings to you. And that's one of the things I'm not interested in now. It's a drug." Then, ticking off the rumors one by one, she adds, "I don't sleep with Madonna, I don't sleep with Martina Navratilova, and I didn't write Ingenue for Anne Murray" - although she admits she has had a crush on Murray since the age of 9.

Ever since explaining that Ingenue was inspired by a doomed affair with a married woman, lang has had to fend off public speculation about the woman's identity. "There's no textbook on how to deal with celebrity," she says, "and I'm kind of embarrassed that Ingenue became so focused on the married woman, the unrequited love, the pain. It's just a moment that you dive into because it's inspiring. What's really dangerous is there's this myth out there that artists have to suffer or be f--d up on drugs or torture themselves to be prolific. You can be just as creative being happy, being clean. I'm completely clean. I'm happy. And I made a great record."

Stylistically, All You Can Eat, is not a great departure from Ingenue. Once again, the songs are ballads of love and yearning, music with lots of wide-open spaces for the blue-sky expanse of lang's exceptional voice. But this is Ingenue-lite. There is more of a pop edge to the sound, which sits on a firm mattress of bass and drums. And the music takes some playful diversions, with swirls of harp on If I Were You, inflections of funk on I Want it All, and an Indian mirage of Sergeant Pepper strings on World Of Love.

The mood of the songs, meanwhile, is much more upbeat than the dreamy melancholy of Ingenue. All You Can Eat celebrates sex, sensuality and self-satisfaction. In the mantra-like Sexuality, lang sings with a sultry catch in her throat: "Kiss away the ones who say/the lust you feel is wrong/Unleash yourself on me/and free the bonds of chastity." This is lying-around-in-bed music, lang at her most languorous. The singer indulges her voice as never before, luxuriating in its curves, and opening it up on the straightaways. In places, the layered overdubs of her vocals can get to be too much of a good thing, the sound of someone lost in the luxury of her own reflection. But there is always that risk in art inspired by pleasure instead of pain.

The album, says lang, evolved through constant experimenting with Mink. "You just throw out every idea. One day you pick up an electric guitar and put it on everything. Or you go through a tuba phase. You just keep moving through this huge jungle of possibilities and collect all the bananas and coconuts you can find, and in the end you try to make something out of it."

Mink and lang composed the music first, then lang wrote the lyrics. "It's like doing a landscape painting," says Mink, "then waiting for something to put in the foreground." Most of the final recording was done in a studio that lang has built into her three-storey house in Vancouver overlooking the Granville Street bridge. And the sessions were more relaxed than usual. "This record was easy," says lang, who then corrects herself. "It wasn't easy. Writing music is always difficult. It's courting the muses, doing some sort of mating dance with wherever it comes from. It's an elusive process, something I'll never really understand."

Although people think of her as a singer, lang plays a variety of instruments on the album, including guitar, keyboards and harp. "She has such magnificent intuition," says Mink. "She can grab an instrument and coax something out of it just through her own musicality." When they are composing together, she is the one who usually wants to keep experimenting, adds the 44-year-old musician. "I tend to rein her in when the kite string gets cut."

In her music, lang has defied conventional categories. And she says that comes from her struggle to blend three creative personas. "As a vocalist, I most suit the torch style of singing," she explains, "but as a conceptual artist, I'm extremely alternative, and as a writer, I'm trying to be more alternative."

Onstage, meanwhile, lang's personas merge into a charismatic, larger-than-life presence as a performer. And on screen, cast in German director Percy Adlon's Salmonberries (1991), she revealed another persona - as a love-struck Inuit tomboy who strips off her clothes to prove that she is a woman. But lang does not plan to do more acting. "I don't think I'm an actor," she says. "I don't think fame is a visa to go off and fulfil any little inkling you might have. It can be. But it can dissolve the power that I have as a singer." Adds lang: "The only person I can think of who I respect both as a musician and an actor is Tom Waits."

What about Madonna? "She's an actress more than a singer. But her persona is so strong it's impossible for her to act. Madonna is an act. So once she sheds that skin, she has the potential to be a good actress." Describing her relationship with Madonna as a "professional" friendship, lang says she would like to know her better. "I find her extremely interesting." And she once tried to organize a project with Madonna and Annie Lennox.

Lang does not see herself singing rock ("I don't like to hurt my voice") but admires rock's new female performers, even the acetylene-voiced Courtney Love. "She's neat onstage; she's cool," says lang. "There's an honest and substantial shift in women's music. There is anger there, a bucking of the stereotypical ideals of what a woman rock and roller should look like and act like."

For someone so artistically astute, lang surprisingly says the only thing she ever reads is the dictionary. And, as outspoken as she is, the singer insists that she is not a political person - "I'm a spiritual person who has become politically correct." Despite her "meat stinks" declaration, she says, "I don't care if people eat meat. I do care on a grand scale, but there's no point trying to convince someone to do something. It's an individual course."

Lang was clearly stung by the backlash against her anti-meat stance. It struck especially close to home in Consort, where she grew up as the youngest of four children (to Adam Lang, who ran a drugstore, and his wife, Audrey, a teacher). Lang's mother still lives there, and she was unnerved by both the "meat stinks" furor and the provocative pose for Vanity Fair. Still, lang says she remains close to her mother, her brother and two sisters. But she continues to be estranged from her father, who deserted the family when she was 12.

That family rift no longer bothers her, says lang, although she concedes that the trauma is still an unconscious source of pain. She does have a therapist - "It's just nice to talk to someone in a no-risk situation." She also enjoys the anonymity of chatting in the Internet's k.d. lang news groups under pseudonyms. "There's this one name I use and many people know it's me, just because of how precisely I answer questions," she smiles. "But there's definitely people who are still skeptical. It's fun. It's a way of interacting with a safety net."

Now that her childhood dream of stardom has come true, lang often misses her anonymity. "I'm very much an observer. I used to spend eight hours a day walking. But now I can't engage someone's eyes, for example, because the minute I do, it's an invitation. I don't generally walk around thinking I'm a star. It's the last thing on earth I'm thinking about, and the last thing I want - to be noticed, when I don't want to be noticed."

Last week, lang was back in Los Angeles, appearing on The Tonight Show. When Jay Leno asked why she had moved, she said, "L.A. is the university of celebrity and I had to take a sabbatical." Leno looked puzzled. Earlier in the week, lang taped an episode of the satirical Larry Sanders Show - improvising with gay Canadian cast member Scott Thompson. Lang is one celebrity who has learned the art of keeping up appearances without giving up her soul. Anonymity, meanwhile, will just have to wait.

Maclean's November 6, 1995