PUBLISHED IN CANADIAN MUSICIAN IN OCTOBER ’97
k.d. lang: waiting to exhale
By Nick Krewen
On her latest album, k.d. lang is smoking.
Drag, the eighth album to be exhaled from the talented larynx of the Ninth Wonder Of The World, is a collection of songs that share the common theme of smoking, a topic sure to raise the hackles of the politically virtuous and ecologically conscientious before they hear a note of the album’s soft and serene torch music.
The 36-year-old lang remains unruffled by such a prospect.
“I don’t really care, if that’s what people need to do for themselves,” she audibly shrugs down the line from Boston, as she prepares for an appearance with The Boston Pops Orchestra.
“That’s not why I did it. I did it as a conceptual piece.”
It is at this point that Consort, Alberta’s most accomplished emissary reminds us despite the accolades — a fistful of Grammies and Junos and more recently, an appointment to the Order Of Canada — and notwithstanding the millions of copies sold of Ingénue, All You Can Eat, and the five remaining albums in her impressive repertoire, the woman who has charmed the globe with a voice unparalleled in pop music has never envisioned her role as conventional nor convenient.
“I’ve basically been a performance artist, a conceptual artist, since Day One,” she insists. “So I really feel much better when I have a framework.”
For kathryn dawn lang, the thematic thread that runs through Drag is a lifelong obsession with smoking songs… at least, superficially. The album’s dozen songs mix classic redefinitions of old-time standards like “Don’t Smoke In Bed” and “Smoke Dreams” and ’70s nuggets “The Air That I Breathe” and “The Joker” with newer material from exceptional songwriters Boo Hewerdine (“My Last Cigarette”) and Jane Siberry (“Hain’t It Funny”).
But as anyone who has followed lang’s career from her halcyon days as country punk’s version of Olive Oyl to her current unlikely status as spokesperson for Toronto-based MAC Cosmetics should know, never judge a book by its cover.
“I started thinking about how there’s correlation between Drag and cigarette smoking, and how cigarette smoking is, to me, more of a metaphor,” lang explains. “A cigarette is symbolic of life. It’s very short-lived, like a love affair. You smoke it and it feels good temporarily, but it’s killing you, or can kill you. Even though you know that, you go for it anyway. I just find it very fascinating as a metaphorical springboard.
“I started to do some nosing around for cigarette songs. In my search, I found a very interesting road that led from in the ’40s and the ’50s from being kind of a light denial of cigarette smoking — from ‘Puff Puff Puff, Puff Your Cares Away’ to the 1997 version, which would be like ‘My Old Addiction’ — songs that deal heavily with addiction , which to me is what the record is more about: human need, and how we like to bury our emotional selves with other little distractions such as addiction.”
Although lang seems to be placing herself on the firing line through the hostile attention the cancer stick has been receiving in these health-conscious ’90s, she makes it clear the act is not a personal or musical issue on Drag.
“It really isn’t judgmental one way or the other, ” says lang. “I don’t care if people smoke or not. I think tobacco smoking is something that’s been an age-old spiritual practice.
“I am, however against manipulation in advertising and adding addictive chemicals to the tobacco, but smoking itself is a very private and spiritual choice. So, to me it’s not about cigarette smoking at all. But being aware of popular consciousness, cigarette smoking is very much in the news, and in some ways I like to be — as certain painters — be very aware of what’s happening in contemporary consciousness.”
As a patriotic, headstrong, outspoken, woman-loving, anti-carnivorous entertainer that divides her time between Vancouver and Los Angeles, lang has often had to bare the brunt of criticism for her choices. Sometimes, the air of calculation accompanying the controversy has been amusing.
Who can forget lang accepting her Juno for Most Promising Female Vocalist by galloping onstage in a wedding dress? Or the famous cover of Vanity Fair that featured a swimsuited Cindy Crawford offering Miss Chatelaine a close shave?
On other occasions, the attention has backfired. Remember the ruckus surrounding the vegan lang for appearing in an advertisement slamming the consumption of Alberta beef? Not a popular move.
Yet lang has always managed to turn adversity into triumph, largely on the strength of The Voice. It’s a remarkable instrument, an awe-inspiring cascade of rainbow-colored hues that’s simultaneously powerful, emotive and as sturdy as a rock.
A sublime stylist, and one of the few to successfully bridge the chasm between country and pop, k.d. has impressed everyone from the late Nashville pillar Minnie Pearl, who praised her as “an enormous talent” through revitalized crooner Tony Bennett.
“I love her,” said Bennett recently. “She reminds me of Hank Williams or Edith Piaf, or Billie Holiday. There are certain singers that just aren’t going for hit records. They’re just born to sing. Even Bing Crosby had that quality. When you heard him sing, you could just sense that he got into another mode that had nothing to do with ambition or power. He just sang because he liked to sing. And he was blessed with that gift of enjoying it so much. He just knew how to do it. To me, k.d. lang is like that. She’s just a natural singer. She’s a joy to listen to as far as I’m concerned. When you hear her sing, you know that she’s feeling it.”
She brought them to their feet at her premiere Grand Ole Opry performance, almost stole the stage from underneath Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel during the memorable Amnesty International Tour in 1988, and riveted the late Roy Orbison with a showstopping performance of “Crying” that carries on his legacy today.
Whether the wacky Patsy Cline reincarnate of yesteryear or the dapper, confident chanteuse of today, lang’s integrity is the beacon that shines consistently through albums such as stylistically diverse as Absolute Torch And Twang and All You Can Eat.
Drag is no exception; a unique record for a number of reasons. It’s the first album since 1988’s Shadowland where lang has felt comfortable shedding the role of composer.
“I wasn’t in the mood at all to write for this record,” she insists. “I just didn’t feel any inspiration. I really just wanted to go in and sing and interpret, another form of art that I’m very fascinated with.”
There is one other character trait Drag shares with Shadowland: both are a collection of torch songs.
“My voice dominates that direction more than anything,” asserts lang. “It’s certainly easy for my voice. It’s a style of music that I love very much mainly because it’s very song-oriented. The lyrics are very strong in them, and that’s very inspiring, because I love having the lyrics dominate your thoughts when you’re performing or interpreting them.”
Some familiar faces of the k.d. lang posse helped out on Drag — notably steel guitarist Greg Leisz, keyboardist Teddy Borowiecki and bassist David Piltch — as well as new creative input from Toronto guitarist Kevin Breit, extraordinary drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and guitar effects specialist David Torn — to round out the core band. Guest spots from former Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman on guitar and keyboard respectively, veteran saxaphonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Jon Hassell add a special timbre to the album’s lush sound.
Notable by his absence however is Ben Mink, lang’s creative companion and musical cohort since 1988’s Angel With A Lariat.
“It was strange,” k.d. admits. “Ben’s just had his second baby girl. He’s pretty busy with family life in Vancouver, and I’m pretty busy roaming around and meeting new people. So it was a natural progression, but it was weird.”
lang harbors no doubt that her partnership with Mink will eventually resume, with absence making the heart grow fonder and the creativity grow stronger.
“Ben and I have a very, very strong creative relationship. I think the experience of living your life freely is ultimately best for the relationship.”
lang says the fruition of Drag began with spontaneous inspiration, and once she formulated the theme, she had a specific guideline concerning song selection.
“It had to coincide with what my vision and concept of the album was, either in a humorous or very literal or in a more ambiguous sense,” confirms lang.
“Lyrically it was very important for me to say something. We recorded 14 songs and I was going to stop at 11, but then I heard ‘Love Is Like A Cigarette,’ which kind of epitomizes the whole album thematically, and it just felt right.
“‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’ is a song that I’ve loved forever and ever and ever, and then I heard the Les Paul/Mary Ford song ‘Smoke Dreams’,” says lang. “I realize I’ve been fascinated with cigarette songs for a while cause I’ve done ‘Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray’ and ‘Down To My Last Cigarette’ on previous albums. Even though I’m an avid non-smoker, I find myself fascinated with cigarette imagery.”
Jane Siberry’s contribution, “Hain’t It Funny,” was an eleventh-hour addition.
“I’m a huge fan of Jane Siberry ballads,” she enthuses. “In fact, probably one of my favorite songs on Earth is ‘The Valley,’ on Bound By The Beauty. I think Jane is extremely talented and a little misunderstood. I had an instinct that Jane could write a song for this record, so I called her. She hemmed and hawwed, and said, ‘I’ll call you back,’ and two months later I heard from her. By that time, we were almost finished the record. In fact, some of the musicians had gone home. I said, ‘Jane, we’re finished recording.’ She said, ‘Well, I do have this one song.’ She sent it to me the next day. It was ‘Hain’t It Funny,’ and I just loved it. I just chopped off the last verse and ended it at the “smokes” part, recorded it with a couple of other people, and that’s the story.”
There’s even an affectionate tribute to the partner of her Grammy-winning duet, the immortal Roy Orbison.
“‘Til The Heart Caves In’ is one of the last Roy Orbison songs ever written,” k.d. says. “He wrote it with T-Bone Burnett, and Bob Neuwirth for the Sam Shepard play that was off-Broadway. That’s kind of an emotional tip of the hat to Roy. I had to change a bit of the lyrics because it was more about morphine, so I kind of made it more broadly about addiction.”
John Hiatt, Andre Previn and Ned Washington are some of the other remarkable songwriters that contribute to the billowing intimacy of Drag, an engaging and adoringly lush record whose understated approach was largely nurtured by co–producer Craig Street, noteworthy for his exemplary work on Temptation, the Holly Cole tribute to gruff-throated American songwriter Tom Waits.
lang says he was the ideal fit.
“I had a very, very strong vision for what I wanted the album to sound like, and part of that called for a small jazz ingredient with very minimal organic tracks. I was a big fan of New Moon Daughter by Cassandra Wilson ( also produced by Street). My A&R person, Joe McEwen in New York, had wanted Craig and I to work together for a while. So I guess the combination of both of those things led us together.”
Recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound so she could be near her lover, lang says Drag was stress-free fun.
“It was a very, very excellent experience — a very easy record,” says lang. “It was not emotionally draining at all. The whole process took us from pushing the red button to mastering, three months. So it was pretty quick.”
Danny Kopelson served as engineer, Patrick McCarthy mixed and Greg Calbi mastered, and k.d. says each role gave her a deeper appreciation of recording from start to finish.
“Greg Calbi mastered at MasterDisc, and now I know a lot more regarding the process,” she says. “I realized that everything makes a difference — each converter, right down to the types of cables you use. I even discovered that mastering makes a difference in how you manufacture it. Everyone’s job is more important.”
It also gave her a new perspective in the old argument of recording analog vs. digital.
“After this experience, I’m completely sold on analog, ” says lang. “We used an API board and mixed on a NEVE, and the strength analog gave me a much more warmer response with my band.”
Another unexpected inspiration was an experience she had shortly before she entered the studio to record Drag. She accepted an invitation from The Murmurs to produce six songs for their album Pristine Smut, released June 24.
“They’ve now expanded into an all-girl band, kind of a Veruca Salt meets The Go-Gos,” says lang. “I really loved being solely in the producer’s seat. I’ve been producing as long as I’ve been professionally recording, so I really felt like I could sit back and really help the girls get their best performances… not from a producer’s standpoint necessarily, but from a performer’s point of view.”
In turn, lang says working with The Murmurs helped develop her perception of Drag allowing her to slightly ease the creative reins.
“When you’re writing something, as the way Ben and I have written, we’ve always tried to develop these very cross-hybrided styles of music, taking different genres and mixing them all together,” lang explains. “Even though we did that in Drag, it wasn’t like my baby being dressed funny, so in a way you weren’t quite so protective. On Drag you’d go, okay, let’s throw a trumpet and steel together without questioning it.”
Although the sonic alchemy on Drag is gorgeous, it’s The Voice that’s the main attraction. lang says she developed its seasoned splendour through years of absorption while growing up in Consort.
“I tried to emulate everything I ever heard,” affirms the daughter of a pharmacist and a schoolteacher. ” My first big influence probably would have been Anne Murray, who has a beautifully rich voice. I listen to (Linda) Ronstadt, to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush. Those would be the earliest influences. When I got to college I really started to expand because I was around a lot of different musicians, so I started listening to a lot of different people.
“My big teachers in the last 15 years were Peggy Lee and Carmen McCrae and Patsy (Cline), of course — but that’d be more of the country style. Even if I don’t like a singer, I would pay particular attention to how they’re using their voice, and what they’re doing. I really try to stay open and understand the voice in a complete aspect: mental, physical, spiritual, sexual, and textbook.”
Although she’ll admit to a year or two of vocal training when she enrolled at Red Deer College for music, lang says her talent comes naturally.
“I’d say I’m 98% natural. I did take two years — actually, I’d say about a year– of vocal coaching in college.”
lang didn’t stick around Red Deer long enough to write final exams. She says it was a personal choice.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be a negative influence on youth, but I just didn’t feel that it had any application to my direction.”
She eventually wound up in Edmonton, bumping into future manager Larry Wanagas and recording her first album for Bumstead Productions, A Truly Western Experience, with her band the reclines.
As for practising, lang says it’s not habitual.
“I practice very, very, very, very, very, very little,”she confesses. “But I sing all the time. There’s a big difference. To me, singing is more free and more spiritual than practice. Practice is more of a cranial exercise. Singing freely is probably the best practice there is for me. I don’t like to think when I’m singing. It should be very natural and very emotional. Practice is opposite, but I think it’s very necessary.
“I warm up every day, even when I’m not performing for a month or two. “I’m always warming my voice with very smooth humming exercises that keep my vocal cords loose. I sing everyday in the car, when I’m walking around, staying in hotels, wherever.”
There are even times when silence is golden to k.d. lang.
“Not singing is really good, because I think that resting allows your unconscious self to be able to accept and regurgitate music in a more natural way,” she offers.
Even in terms of maintenance, lang says she doesn’t do anything extraordinary.
“Drink a lot of water,” she advises. “Sleep as much as possible. I get massages as often as possible. Stretch a lot. Personally, I try to have fun. I try to understand that when I walk on that stage, that’s why I do everything else I do: Why I sit on an airplane. Why I do interviews. Why I am a public figure. Why everything else around me is there, is because I get to go on stage and sing for a living.
“Loosen up. Stop trying so hard.”
Self-exploration is also a necessity, according to lang.
“You have to experiment,” she insists. “You have to go somewhere where you’re not going to feel judged, so you don’t care about making mistakes.
“Explore your voice in every way. Scream. Whisper. Play around with it. I think it’s very important. It’s been very important to me. I think one of the greatest things about growing up in the Prairies is that I had lots of room to make noise,” she laughs.
And if you’re lucky, lang says you’ll experience a few pinnacles along the way, those sublime moments where craft and muse meld as one. Although lang herself admits those moments are difficult to reach with any consistency, even by such an accomplished singer as herself.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. I try, and I’m getting better. There’s been zen moments, but those you don’t take for granted, and that certainly doesn’t happen freely.
“It’s a gift to be in the moment. I couldn’t say that I live there.”
When it comes to comparisons between studio singing and live performance, lang says there is none.
“They’re completely different animals. Completely different,” she stresses. “I would have to say that probably my greatest element is on stage. I think I’m a born performer. That’s where I feed off most heartily. Singing in the studio is more of an internal, cathartic process. In order for you to be good on stage, you have to grow and evolve and pay attention to what happens in the studio. In order for you to be good in the studio, you have to be aware of what happens on stage. But they’re almost total opposites.”
When she’s performing, k.d.’s preferred microphone is an AKG-35.
“I like the balance, and I like the way it feeds back in the monitors,” she says. “I like the crispness. It has a lot of top end that I like to hear. It’s got a nice, balanced feel in my hand. It’s small.”
Earphones and wireless remotes have been tried, but rejected.
“I don’t like wireless so much. They’re too big. I like playing with the cord, and I also don’t like the possibility of it fucking up. I just like to narrow the chances of sound things going wrong on stage.”
Ditto for headsets.
“I started off playing around with headsets on the last tour, but I depend so much on audience response because I quip back and forth with them. My pitch is really based on the feel of the resonation in my headmask – in my head and in my mask — and I really found that the earphone changed the resonation in my head.
“I really prefer to use monitors simply because most of what I hear actually comes out of my mouth, and my monitor’s really low. In fact, on TV shows I don’t use monitors at all. I just like to rely on the feel of my body and what I hear.
“The sound is always really horrendous on television. You’re up against the worst odds because you have a very short time to set up and be genius,” she laughs.
During the recording process, lang’s choice of equipment is determined by her own personal whim.
“It depends on the day. It depends on the song. It depends on the key of the song. It depends on the pre-amp. It depends on everything.
“I’m not consistent,” she admits.
There’s another unlikely path to performance enhancement k.d. hastens to recommend: solitude.
“I spend a lot of time alone, and as much time in nature as possible, where that environment particularly fuels me,” she says. “I find a lot of symbolic and metaphorical answers there. I study everything from the way ants carry twigs to the way water works itself down a curb, watch nature, and observe how it works in balance.For some reason, that’s how I find many solutions.”
Although she abstained from composing on Drag, lang says she has a cornucopia of instruments at her disposal whenever inclination strikes.
“I guess my primary instrument other than my voice would be my guitar, but I write on pretty much anything. I’ll write on a banjo. I’ll write on a keyboard. I’ll write on anything I can just kind of pluck out a melody with, but I’m not good enough at any instrument to really say that it influences me vocally.”
It seems ironic that for one who loves the stage, lang will not be touring Drag., excluding the occasional television spot or special appearance.
“I wanted to put a record out because I had the inspiration to do it.,” she says of Drag. “I’m not ready to tour. I just finished in September. I really needed to stop for awhile.”
Instead, she plans to address her budding career as a visual artist. As memories of Salmonberries linger in the background, lang recently enjoyed high profile television roles in the groundbreaking episode of Ellen and the mini-series The Last Don, — both ratings bonanzas — and says there’s more to come.
A new constant craving?
“Acting is becoming more and more of a temptation,” says lang. “It’s a very intriguing way to express yourself that I probably wouldn’t be able to do through my music, so yeah, I’m interested in exercising that part of me.
“But music will always come first.”