Music » Music Features

k.d. lang still burns the absolute torch


We call my Grandpa Big Frank. Big Frank loves k.d. lang. In fact, he loves music in general --- most of it. He digs Sinatra but thinks he was too much of a womanizer. Dean Martin was a drunk. Elvis had a nice voice, but Grandpa considers him part of the ongoing longhaired-pinko menace and subversion in this country. Naturally, rock 'n' roll is out.

            So when we hang, it's gotta be k.d. lang: the only singer we can both agree on. And I mentioned this to lang when we spoke on the phone last week.

            "Oh, that's so cool," she says. "I love when elderly people listen to my music. That's music to my ears because that has been my mission since day one. It thrills me more than the record company guy saying he likes my record."

            k.d. lang is a bit of a musical nomad. Whether jazz or country or pop or standards, she goes against the grain and sounds better than those who go with it. Her rebel stance is as beautiful as her voice.

            "I think my inherent nature is a bit alternative," she says. "I think I'm not fully embraced in any genre because I don't feel committed to any genre in my approach to it." Her only apparent obligation is to the songs.

            The criteria: "Songs that move me," she says. "I really don't know. It's just something that resonates with me; something that I feel some sort of personal connection. I like songs that hint at a spirituality --- but not a specific spirituality --- like a positivity. I like a great love song. I love a good melody. I like a twist in the lyric."

            Katherine Dawn Lang was born in the tiny Canadian town of Consort, Alberta, where she grew up listening to show tunes, classical music, and pop. It was country renegades like Gram Parsons who turned her on to country.

            She first hit the scene as a country artist with A Truly Western Experience in 1984 and Angel With A Lariat in 1987.

            Her sound was true country with a sense of irony and plenty of punk attitude. And though her band swung mightily and lang out-Patsied Patsy, out-Kittied Kitty, and out-Lorettaed Loretta, mainstream country didn't get it. They couldn't get past the whole lesbian-vegetarian thing.

            In 1987 lang released Shadowland, produced by countrypolitan legend Owen Bradley. To this day, this collection of '40s and '50s standards is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful albums I have ever heard.

            Her 1989 Absolute Torch And Twang won a Grammy for best country vocal performance.

            As lang's career has progressed, she has veered into more of a pop stream. But as with anything she touches, the tunes come off as nouveau classics --- even if they were already standards. If lang sings it, she owns it. It's that voice.

            My God, that voice: Her tone is rich and resonates deeply. Her range hints at those rare notes found between notes. It's as if you're hearing them for the very first time, because when she sings them they ring with more passion and soul than a crowded Pentecostal church on Easter Sunday.

            If you find yourself stuck in a car without a tape deck and are forced to listen to the radio, you'll see there're plenty of "singers" that don't really sing at all.

            "I think that's sort of the climate," lang says. "Singing is very intimate between the listener and the singer. I think that in order for people to pay attention to a singer and gravitate to a singer, it demands a bit of a vulnerability."

            "I think the pace of life is pretty fast," she continues. "And art and food and clothing and cars are all disposable and I think it manifests a type of fear... of beauty and of emotional intimacy."

            At times, lang finds herself exposed, too.

            "I certainly have my measurement of fear," she says. "But, you know, that is something I've been cultivating. My ability to be vulnerable and to be open is something I've been working and singularly fixed on for 20 years as a vocalist."

            And though she'll acknowledge her own work as a singer and apparently enjoys what she does, the creative process is another story.

            "I don't like songwriting," she says. "It's very difficult for me and I find it a difficult process. I guess it's a bit of a therapeutic or cathartic experience. First you have to cut yourself open and examine what's going on and then remove yourself and sort of become the third person in order to write about it, I guess."

            Then, after a pause, she takes that back.

            "You know what?" she says. "I don't really know how it works --- somehow it does. And sometimes it definitely doesn't."

            A singer's singer, lang has been recognized by the best. The legendary Tony Bennett is a huge fan, once calling her "the best of her generation, the best since Judy Garland." The two toured together and recorded an album of duets, A Wonderful World.

            "I don't think that there's a way to define or even to be aware of the impact and the amount of knowledge that I gained from working with Tony Bennett," she says. "It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where a student gets to be with an authentic teacher that's holding a lineage of a certain genre and you have that first-time experience. It's just something you can't buy. Not to mention that he is just a genuine, beautiful, generous person; a complete professional and totally positive and just a joy to hang with."

            Her current show stars lang and her quartet, along with strings they pick up in each town. The material is half retrospective and half from her new record due out this July.

            Hymns Of The 49th Parallel "is my adventure into the Canadian songbook," lang says. "You know, Joni, Leonard, Bruce Cockburn, Jane Siberry --- but me interpreting the songs that are my heritage and are my blood."

            And there'll still be a little twang amidst lang's torch. She promises to do Roy Orbison's "Crying" and the Kline-turned-lang classic "Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray."

            "I can't stop doing that song," she says. "I lovethat song."

            As lang has mastered every genre she has defiantly approached, she now has her sights set on unheard music.

            "I have always felt there is a type of contemporary classical music that I feel like I would like to explore," she says. "I can't even describe to you what it is because I'm not even clear about it myself. But there's something I hear and I feel that someday I'll probably get to."

            With an abundance of star-studded accolades and a plethora of tunes that are undoubtedly hers (whether or not she penned them), lang, at 42, has earned the right to reflect proudly.

            "Sometimes I get sentimental about my early days," she says. "And just the unbridled enthusiasm I had back then. And then, you know, sometimes I get real proud of coming out or working with Tony. And then sometimes I'm just kinda embarrassed about the whole damn thing."

k.d. lang plays with The RPO conducted by Michael Butterman on Thursday, May 13, at The Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $30 to $60. 454-2100. All ages.