Torching The Twang
If you've been in line at the grocery store lately, scanning the magazine covers while you wait, you may have noticed a trend. Down below the tabloids screaming, "World's Fattest Cat Saves Babies From Burning Building" or "Aliens Meet With Ross Perot" are the serious mags. Almost all of them have recently featured articles on singer k.d. lang.
In the past six months, lang's been prodded, padded, painted, and portrayed by Elle, People, US, Details, Newsweek, Vogue, Pulse, Musician, and Mirabella. And that's to say nothing of the daily-newspaper coverage.
Given the present Garth-and-Reba-fueled ascendancy of country music, profiles of country singers are as common these days as stories about Princess Di's bulimia. What's surprising about this sudden flood of mass-market profiles on k.d. lang is that they're of a singer who's openly gay and militantly vegetarian, and who would say the world was flat if Nashville said it wasn't.
lang laughs over the telephone at the suggestion that the House of k.d. has been overrun by a full-court media press. But it seems that every time she turns around, there's another journalist at her door, hoping to describe the decor of her Hollywood Hills bungalow ("a rustic mess"), her dog, Stinky ("a puff dog that hurls itself at visitors"), her piles of CDs ("Instead of lang's spiritual godmother, Patsy Cline, you'll find Peggy Lee, Mahalia Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Karen Carpenter"), even her outfit ("baggy jeans, sweatshirt, and thick socks").
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Although she once considered the press an irritant, lang has become a skilled and dogged manipulator of her media reflection. She's obviously having a field day with her former adversaries -- feeding them outrageous and irresistible crumbs like, "I love having a cryptic sexuality."
lang's new interest in schmoozing just happens to coincide with the release of her new album, Ingenue. With it, lang serves notice that she's through with country music. After years of trying to explain both her music and her haircut -- for a while she shaved her head -- lang has forsaken a stillborn country career for the more dangerous waters of a Threepenny Opera-style cabaret direction. The cowgirl image she tried so hard to cultivate, and which was always more of a marketing ploy, is now just a memory.
The change has won her a wider audience. Out only four months, Ingenue is already her biggest-selling recording to date.
lang's nouveau, Brecht-Weill ballad sound allows her to be true to herself. Like a lot of artistic makeovers, lang's new musical direction was brought on by pain -- in her case, the end of a love affair. The torchy, lush Ingenue takes lang's failed relationship as its subject.
The new honesty in her music is inspiring her in other ways. lang has also found the time to appear in a very personal film, Salmonberries. The work of director Percy Adlon, whose best-known projects include Bagdad Cafe and lang's segment in the Red, Hot + Blue AIDS benefit project, Salmonberries is the story of two women in a remote Alaska town. Charged with sexual overtones, the film has yet to find a U.S. distributor.
Despite her newfound confidence in dealing with interviewers, does lang read the resulting articles about her home, her pet, and her sexual preference?
"Frankly, I don't," lang says in a tightlipped voice from a stop on her current tour. "I don't mind doing the press these days, but I don't want to read about it."
Raised in the cattle country around the small town of Consort, Alberta, reared musically in Nashville, and now ensconced in the Hollywood Hills, Kathy Dawn Lang is an undeniably bizarre subject. She is the most unconventional member of an unconventional generation of country-influenced singer-songwriters that includes Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, and Nanci Griffith. After years of beating their heads against Nashville's static walls, all have found a way out: Lovett and Griffith have been moved from the Nashville division of MCA Records to the label's Los Angeles-based pop division. Earle has dropped out to work on his bad-boy image.
The main reason lang could make the sweeping change from twang to torch is her mighty voice. lang undoubtedly possesses the most expressive, deep-throated pipes popular music has seen since Patsy Cline's. Like all great singers, lang's phrasing is idiosyncratic and inimitable. A smoky alto in its natural register, lang's voice has an unusual range -- able to both growl loud and low or whisper soft and breathy. It's the whispery side she uses to great effect on Ingenue.
For her more People magazine-inclined fans, lang's huge voice is less important than her prickly, unpredictable personality and her androgynous look. The first item of controversy is her insistence that her name be written in lower case, because, she says, "It's a name, not a sexuality." Then there's her decidedly masculine wardrobe and spiky 'do. And last year, the long-time animal activist did an antimeat commercial for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with the hard-to-digest punch line, "If you knew how meat was made, you'd lose your lunch." The good, God-fearin', beef-buyin' followers of country music were outraged.
But for a country-music anomaly like lang, that was nothing new. From the start, her relationship with the Nashville establishment was a slugfest. lang "came out" last year when she began answering questions about being gay, a move that shook many in livin', lovin' Nashville to their homophobic roots. A business that saddles its female figures with a bouffant-and-starched-skirt image found lang just too sexually complicated to handle. Banned by the small minds at the Grand Ol' Opry, this "big-boned gal" (the title of one of her songs) has made an art of keeping people -- fans or not -- off balance.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't like shocking people," she says in a surprisingly quiet voice. Living in L.A. has nearly extinguished lang's once-noticeable Canadian accent. "But none of it is contrived. I do live an alternative lifestyle, and I'm vocal about my beliefs. I also live a lot of contradictions; for example, my whole country career -- I just didn't fit."
lang used to walk a thin line between revering and mocking country music. In a new compilation of her television appearances and music videos called Harvest of Seven Years (Cropped and Chronicled), lang often bounds across the stage, swinging her skirts and kicking her heels. In most of the videos, she's dressed in a variation of her then-standard costume of outlandish, rhinestone-encrusted shirts, loud print fringe skirts, multicolor stockings, and cut-off cowboy boots.
The compilation's best moment comes when a visibly nervous lang, dressed in a kitschy red, white, and blue variation on her usual costume and introduced as the "Rose of Alberta," performs before more than 60,000 people at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. In that clip, she encapsulates the look -- and the attitude -- that infuriated the Kitty Wells-Loretta Lynn school of country-music fans.
But if some of lang's fans objected to her fashions, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee weren't among them. In 1988 those three singers jumped at the chance to record with lang and former Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley.
A controversial figure, Bradley orchestrated Cline's career. He picked her songs, wrote the arrangements, selected musicians, and twisted the knobs in the studio. What you hear on Cline classics like "Crazy" is as much Owen Bradley as it is Patsy Cline. Because he had so much control, Bradley is both defined as the man who made Cline's career and vilified as the man who hemmed her in.
A devoted Cline fan, lang even claimed for a time that she was Cline reincarnated. The chance to work with Bradley, as well as Wells, Lynn, and Lee, was the high-water mark of lang's country aspirations. The resulting album, Shadowland, is a long, languid, baby-done-me-wrong document that brims with Owen Bradley's stylized string sound.
After Shadowland, though, lang began to work more with Canadian songwriter Ben Mink. Since 1989, when they collaborated on lang's Grammy-winning album Absolute Torch and Twang, Mink and lang have developed a distinct songwriting chemistry.
On her first two recordings, 1983's A Truly Western Experience and her rock-heavy 1987 major-label debut, Angel With a Lariat, lang's songs tended toward honky-tonkin' country stomps that in too many cases sounded alike. But since teaming with Mink, lang has mellowed, drawing on influences like Edith Piaf, Carmen McRae, and the obscure Yma Sumac. She and Mink now write with lang's voice in mind. Instead of country clunkers, she has created a difficult-to-classify style that she calls "postnuclear cabaret." lang may have finally found her musical niche. Just as it is true to herself musically, lang's new style has emboldened her to make her lyrics more autobiographical. Ingenue's willingness to get up close and personal can at times give the listener the sensation of being a voyeur. In one tune, "The Mind of Love," lang even sings to herself by name: "Surely help will arrive soon/And cure these self-induced wounds/Why hurt yourself Kathryn/Why hurt yourself/Why hurt yourself."
In "Outside Myself," lang sings wrenchingly over a swirling melody, "A thin ice/covers my soul/My body's frozen and my heart is cold/And still/So much about me is raw/I search for a place to unthaw."
If Ingenue is any indication, k.d. lang is just beginning to get warmed up.
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