Four years ago, k.d. lang made her Broadway debut, replacing Fantasia Barrino for a month as the Special Guest Star in After Midnight.
“It was intimidating, firstly, because we were doing original Duke Ellington arrangements and singing classic songs,” lang says. “It was intimidating to be a very white Canadian going into a superior all-black cast…. It was daunting, but it was a wonderful experience musically — working the Lincoln Center Jazz Band and singing the Duke Ellington songbook.”
As daunting as it may be, lang is no stranger to the format, having spent several decades working jazz and pop bands both big and small — and her forte has long been in covering classic songs. The pioneering lesbian singer-songwriter got her start 35 years ago leading a Patsy Cline tribute band in Edmonton, Alberta, and won two of her four Grammys for her work with covers, including her international breakthrough duet with Roy Orbison on his song “Crying.”
And yet, after all that, lang still gets nervous performing the standards, “especially if they’ve been sung by people like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”
“I really believe, the minute I heard this person sing,” Tony Bennett said, before introducing lang on a recorded version of the duet “Moonglow,” “that this is one of the artists that will go up on the shelf with them,” meaning Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Hank Williams. On lang’s shelf, of course, sits another Grammy, one she earned with Bennett: Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for A Wonderful World, their 2002 duets album in tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Any way you look at it, lang’s career has not been predictable or followed any obvious course. Nor was her lasting success in the industry a foregone conclusion — especially considering that she came to fame as a country artist. “I think I was hard to swallow, pardon the pun, in a lot of ways,” she says. “I didn’t try to fit in, and I didn’t feel like it was necessary for me to change my ways to become better friends with the establishment of country music.”
In fact, lang has previously characterized her shift away from the genre as a logical progression. “I was never interested in a lifetime career in country music,” she told Metro Weekly in 2016. “I love country music, and I loved being a part of it, but I never thought of myself as a country singer.”
Not helping matters was a very public falling out with the genre — one that predates her public coming out by two years. In 1990, lang stirred up controversy by signing on to PETA’s “Meat Stinks” campaign. “If you knew how meat was made, you’d probably lose your lunch,” lang said in her ad. “I know, I’m from cattle country — that’s why I became a vegetarian. Meat stinks, and not just for animals but for human health and the environment.”
In addition to being banned by a number of country stations in the U.S. and Canada, lang also became persona non grata in her Alberta hometown, where a billboard that read “Home of k.d. lang” was burned to the ground. Fortunately, over time many have come around, aided by the fact that, as she puts it, “veganism and vegetarianism is far more common and practiced today.”
“You know, it was questioning somebody’s lifestyle [and livelihood],” she says. “That’s always a slippery slope. When you’re talking about the complexity of survival and food and eating, that’s something I’ve struggled with every single day because vegetarianism is not free of causing suffering — many beings die in the harvesting of the rice fields, for example. So life itself comes with a complex relationship to death and suffering.” To find the right balance, lang tries not to overthink, or at least not to overdo, her diet. “It’s just a matter of being conscious and mindful of what you’re eating. I’m not strict organic because…everything has its own set of issues. I just try not to consume too much and to be thankful for what I have.”
On thing lang is thankful for is being able to split her time between Calgary and Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her partner. “I’ve always just really loved Portland,” she says. “It’s my favorite place in North America. I just really feel at home there.” And three years ago, lang got the ultimate unofficial nod of recognition as a Portlander when Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein asked her to appear on their hit TV parody Portlandia. In the finale of Season 4, lang plays an exaggerated version of herself: a folkie on a feminist retreat who briefly gets lost in the forest flirting and “looking at wood” with a character played by Jason Sudeikis. “It was crazy, fun, exhilarating,” she says. “A lot of it is improvised, and it was thrilling to watch Carrie and Fred do their thing. They’re masters.”
The liberal bastion of Portland is certainly far removed from the seemingly endless parade of controversies and hostile practices emanating from Washington in today’s conservative Trump Era. And yet, there can be no escaping or avoiding it.
“When there is confusion and oppression, it affects all human beings regardless of nationality,” lang says. “It’s a human issue, it’s a global problem. It really extends past borders.” In addition to speaking out, “I think probably the best thing to do is make changes personally and catch yourself on your own prejudices and your own shortcomings and really try to change your relationship to yourself and to others first — and that’s a lifelong process.”
She has similar thoughts on the state of gender relations. “I’m very happy that the #MeToo movement is in process,” she says. “It affects a lot of women and a lot of men. Again it’s about respecting others and respecting yourself. Whenever that happens, whenever that’s in the forefront, it’s a positive thing. It’s about respecting yourself and respecting others, and trying to make changes to [make relationships] healthier.”
Reflecting on the changes since she came out 26 years ago, lang marvels that “people have grown up with me being out.” “Certainly,” she says, “I feel a deep sense of pride that I was able to impact the evolution of the LGBTQ community and the straight community in relationship to the liberties of our society.”
But for all that, she’s not sure what advice she’d give to the next singing ingenue coming of age today. “I think probably it’s easier to be an out musician,” she says, “and there’s more music and a lot of great music out there. But at the same time the music business is more competitive and more confusing than ever — it’s getting better and worse simultaneously. I’m so glad that I’m not a youngster trying to navigate the system of the music business these days…. It’s just a wide open race, and the chances of being a huge star are less.”
As far as supporting today’s music and musicians, lang puts another chink in Spotify’s armor. “I personally do not use the streaming options. I don’t feel like they support musicians as much as they should, and there are a lot of other options. Internet radio is something that I use a lot of…. I think radio is more monitored in terms of royalties.”
At the moment, lang doesn’t know what her next career move will be — or when, even if, she might record new music. “Eventually, hopefully, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a vision of what I want to do in the future. Rather than force it, I’m just going to wait for it to happen.”
If nothing else, it’s encouraging to consider it was only two years ago that she recruited fellow singer-songwriters Neko Case and Laura Veirs to team up as case/lang/veirs. From that came an acclaimed album and a tour. She demurs when asked if there are other artists she hopes to collaborate with in similar ways in the future. “I don’t know, there’s a lot. I love the element of surprise and how life throws curves, so I wouldn’t even put it out there, probably.”
She does squelch the idea of a longer or future run on the Great White Way, however. “Broadway is not my cup of tea,” she says. “I love to, I guess, habitually move from venue to venue. It makes me antsy when I’m stuck in the same theater for more than two nights…. It was definitely out of my comfort zone and I walked into the fire. I did it — I don’t think I have to do it again, ever, but it was a great experience.” By contrast, while she doesn’t love the constant interactions with the TSA and the back-and-forth of travel as a touring recording artist, the hassle seems worth the effort. “It comes to fruition when you’re on stage and doing what you’re meant to do,” she says. “It ends up being rewarding and enriching. Just being at the vortex between musician and audience and being a part of what I consider an offering is worth it.”
Last year, lang decided to try something she hadn’t done before: revisit a past album. And not just any album — Ingenue, the 1992 set that propelled her into the mainstream as an out pop star, and featured two Grammy-nominated singles, her biggest hit “Constant Craving,” and “Miss Chatelaine.” After a 25th Anniversary Tour through Canada and Australia, lang and a seven-piece band are now reprising the feat on a tour of the U.S. “We took a little bit of liberty with a few songs,” she says, but most sound as they do on record. “Sometimes it transports me right back to being on stage 25 years ago. Obviously having toured that record and the success of that record and having lived 25 years, there’s a definite convoluted emotional relationship to the songs — all good.”
And she’s looking forward to bringing the set to Strathmore. “I have very fond memories of my last show there. I always love to play in the great houses. It definitely makes a vocalist very happy to feel free to let go in such a great-sounding room.”
Among the non-Ingenue songs she’s likely to perform, at the top of the list is her splendid, powerful cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, the towering Canadian musical figure who died last year. Many — maybe too many — have tried their hand at what has become a pop standard, but few have earned the kind of praise or play that lang has. First giving her interpretation on Hymns of the 49th Parallel, her stellar Canadian covers album from 2004, lang has since performed the song everywhere from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, the year Cohen was inducted.
“His passing is sad for us, of course,” she says, “but I think if anyone was prepared for the afterlife, it was Leonard.”
As a singer and a musician,” lang continues, “just to look at his body of work and the profundity both as a human being and as a poet, it’s pretty astonishing what he was able to accomplish in his lifetime and the wisdom that he left us. I really feel like…he transcribed the wisdom of the gods and the deities and translated it into a language that human beings understand, and that’s a rare thing.”
k.d. lang performs Sunday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m., at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $48 to $98. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org.
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