k.d. lang - Biography
BY J Poet
Grammy and Juno winning, upper case challenged, out lesbian k. d. lang has made a career out of confounding expectations. Her trajectory from country/punk outcast to pop star has been full of unexpected twists and turns, all driven by her amazingly powerful and skewed sense of humor. The first out lesbian to be embraced by the Nashville mainstream, lang has been a groundbreaking artist and social activist. Her catalogue may be small, but every disc is an essential listen.
lang grew up in a musical family in the small town of Consort, Alberta, Canada. She studied art at Red Deer College in Edmonton and got interested in performance art, which served her well later when she fronted her first band. Early on she claimed to be the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, and if her potent vocal style is any evidence, she just might be. After singing with a swing band for a few years, she started k.d. lang and The Reclines, named in honor of Cline. The band’s mix of country, rock, honky tonk, and punk impressed Canadian music fans of all types. The band relocated to Toronto where lang’s short hair, long square dance skirts, chunky boots, and white knee socks made her a campy favorite. Their first album, A Truly Western Experience (1984 Bumstead) was a punky honky tonk rave up, with a few torch songs thrown in to let lang show off her considerable emotional range. The album won her a Juno (Canadian Grammy) for Most Promising Female Vocalist and she accepted the award in a wedding dress, which both outraged and delighted people.
Seymour Stein caught her act on an American tour and signed her and the band to Sire. Angel With a Lariat (1986 Sire), produced by Dave Edmunds, had a rockabilly feel, and made her queen of the short-lived cowpunk movement. Owen Bradley produced Shadowland (1988 Sire) in his trademark countrypolitian style, and it featured guest shots by Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, and Kitty Wells on the track “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.” Having three legends sing with her considerably amped up her country credentials. It eventually went gold. She got an even bigger boost when he duet with Roy Orbison on his hit “Cryin’” from Black and White Night (1988 Virgin) took home a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. She grabbed another Juno that year for Country Music Entertainer of the Year.
Absolute Torch and Twang (1989 Sire), was another strong country effort with tune written mostly by lang and ling time Reclines guitar player Ben Mink. It went gold and won a Grammy. Ingénue (1992 Sire) was a glistening pop album, full of torch songs and pop ballads. The first single, "Constant Craving,” was a pop hit and the album sold platinum. It won her a Best Pop Female Vocal Grammy for “Constant Craving,” and Junos for Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Producer of the Year. The video for “Constant Craving” won the 1993 MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video. To cap off the year she came out as a lesbian and vegetarian, further alienating her from Nashville’s mainstream, despite her growing stardom.
Gus Van Sant asked lang and Mink to write soundtrack music for his film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, their background work is part country, part torch and part movie music. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993 Sire) doesn’t include and vocals by lang. Other film credits include a version of “Skylark” for Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997 Warner), and “Surrender” for Tomorrow Never Dies (1997 A&M).
All You Can Eat (1995 Sire) was another strong pop effort, and Drag (1997 Warner) was her first concept album, a record of covers all dealing with smoking and cigarettes. On the cover lang appeared in drag wearing a tailored men’s suit and an ascot. Invincible Summer (2000 Warner) is another delirious pop album full of swooning ballads delivered with lang’s trademark passion. She appeared with Tony Bennett on Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues (2001 Columbia). Their duet on “A Wonderful World” took home a Grammy for Best pop Vocal. Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004 Nonesuch) is another cover album, with songs by Canadian songwriters including Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen and lang. Reintarnation (2006 Sire) collected some of her best sides for her former label and on Watershed (2008 Nonesuch) lang produced herself, created the drum programs and played guitar, piano, banjo, harp, and percussion. It’s another laid back collection of torch songs, and one of her strongest efforts to date. In 2011 she released Sing It Loud.