k.d. Lang (London Sunday Times Magazine, June 16, 2019)
It’s hard to believe that in the 90s k.d. Lang was the world’s most famous lesbian. Back then a butch woman popstar was such a contradiction and such a revelation. Of course, the world has moved on to a very trans and gender fluid place and lesbian storylines in movies and television passed from acceptability to old hat.
Back then Lang was a trailblazer for others who would come out later. Back then Ellen de Generes was closeted but unthreatening and Melissa Etheridge was just another country singer.
Lang was always a militant and a pioneer but then and now it’s about her voice. Erotic, soaring, soothing, the voice that Tony Bennett, her long-time collaborator said, “When she sings I can see angels.”
Madonna described her as Elvis born again as a woman. The 1993 album Ingenue with its hits Constant Craving, Miss Chatelaine and Save Me was a landmark album. It went multi-platinum, won a Grammy and made her a star. She catapulted into our consciousness by the Herb Ritts Vanity Fair cover image. Cindy Crawford in a camisole mock shaving Lang in shirt sleeves and pinstripe. It was provocative and brilliant and still remembered. It helped Ingenue become classic. Her writing partner Ben Mink said it was always supposed to be timeless in the vein of Gershwin or Weil.
Last year, a re-mastered version of the album was re-released and this year there will be an Ingenue Redux tour in the UK.
Lang now lives in Portland and when I arrive at the airport, I ask a woman selling vegan lipstick if she has heard of Lang’s street and how far away it is. She says rapturously “It’s a street where the buildings are beautiful because they are so strong and romantic.” Of course it is and it’s only half an hour away.
k.d. is abbreviated from Kathryn Dawn. I can never imagine that she could have been a Kathryn or a Dawn. She’s known she was gay since she was 5 years old.
She comes to let me into her building. She’s tall and wearing a mandarin collared navy shirt and trousers, sort of Buddhist pyjamas. Her loft space has wide oak shiny floors and smells of a particular incense that comes from Tibet, which she says is letting the deities know we’re here.
The space is high ceilinged and large. I sit in a 1960’s style wooden recliner while she does a photo shoot on the roof. She makes me strong, fluffy coffee. Behind me is a space reserved for her Buddhist practice, in front a large oak table with a 1960s typewriter. To the side a piano. In the centre, cosy couches and in the other corner her bedroom space with a neatly made bed and a compelling framed picture by Joel Peter Whitkins of a beautiful woman with a beautiful penis between her legs. But more of that later.
Her hair, now flecked with grey remains in a punkish crop. She still cuts it herself. She noticed that I am rapt by the picture.
“It was a gift from Joel Peter Whitkins to Herb Ritts. I would always talk about it with Herb and say I have to have it and then unfortunately I did end up with it because after Herb’s passing, I bought it from his foundation.” The picture was created long before there was photo shop and long before today’s current trans trend.
Lang was already friends with Ritts when the famous shaving picture was unleashed on the world. One picture that really changed everything.
“It did. It was a powerful image. It was just after Ingenue came out and it really helped it gain momentum. The common denominator for that was Herb. We were all kind of hanging out at the time. We all had a great deal of trust in Herb and his ability to capture in a provocative yet classy, elegant way. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
She doesn’t write many songs these days. She finds it difficult, although there was an album last year with singers Laura Veirs and Neko Case. It was a somewhat torturous experience because they were all used to driving their own music. None of them had ever “shared the steering wheel before.”
She is happier now reinterpreting the songs of Ingenue and looks forward to touring the UK. She’s already done the Ingenue tour in America and Canada.
“Touring has completely changed for me. I need to have a very legitimate and all-encompassing reason to go on stage these days (She’s gone full circle from flirting with fame, in the eye of the storm to introspection and quasi anonymity).
“Ingenue Redux anniversary tour IS a good reason. I love that record. I loved that moment in my life that really pivoted everything for me and the UK has always been important, sort of where I started.”
Certainly, it was where women for the first time threw their knickers at a woman onstage. “They’re good at throwing knickers, yes. The knicker throwing has waned considerably these days but maybe that’s a good thing.”
There’s a quietness to her and a thoughtfulness. She’s still flirting but flirting like an introvert.
“I like to flirt with everybody, boys, men, moms. I think it’s an integral complex part of what human beings are. It’s a kind of acknowledgment, a baseline acknowledgment of desire and being human.
How did she convert from extrovert to introvert?
“A combination of things – age (she’s 57), my Buddhist practice and for someone who’s had the fame experience it’s easy not to love the limelight any more – but I do love to sing. I don’t think I have the same confidence as thinking of myself as an authority on anything to write. I don’t really feel like writing about relationships anymore or love. I feel like I’m interested in saying something on a much deeper level, but I don’t feel that I’m an authority on a much deeper level.”
Everyone wants to know about love. “Yeah…that’s why we’re alive.”
When she sings about love, people feel it whether they are gay, straight or trans. There’s knickers to be thrown at her yet.
As we talk her legs are curled under her on the couch. Her bare feet that are strangely elegant and strong. She has long, piano players fingers. She is tall and square shouldered but she has lost weight from the last time I saw her a few years ago, although still heavier than her girl Elvis days of her twenties.
“I definitely don’t see myself as a sex object, but I do know the allure of the singer.”
Maybe she never felt comfortable as a sex object. “I think I was very cocky about it but it’s not my desire to use that vehicle anymore. I’m interested in connecting emotionally and spiritually with people. My priorities have shifted.”
Is that because she’s in a stable relationship with Canadian Heather Edwards? (She doesn’t confirm her partners identity, but the Daily Mail and Page 6 did.) Edwards ex-husband is Canadian oil billionaire Murray Edwards.
Is that why she doesn’t want to flirt with the audience the same way? “There’s an aspect of that but I think it’s just not who I am now.”
She likes birds and there are several bird ornaments and pictures. She stops talking every so often and closes her eyes to hear the birds sing. She misses the birds in Los Angeles. She moved to Portland in 2012.
“And then I fell in love with a Canadian so I’m also in Calgary where I’m basically just 3 hours from my mom, so it’s like returning home.”
Her mother is 96 and in a wheelchair but she is “strong and funny and my relationship with her is so enriching. For years I was on the road thinking I should cook more, I should hang out with my mom more.”
And now she actually does both. She came out to her mother in her teens when her mother questioned why she was so miserable. It was because her girlfriend got a boyfriend. At the same time, she told her mom that three of her four children were gay.
“It was kind of cruel to also out my brother and sister but that’s where it was at that moment. I actually knew I was gay when I was five because I had a crush on the swimming instructor. I am over developed and under developed at the same time.”
Did she ever let the swimming instructor know? “No, I hope not! But she was hot and I was aware of who I was at a very early age for sure.”
She grew up in a very small town, Consort Alberta – population 600. Everybody knew everybody.
“I think my dad might have had some gay tendencies as well.”
They were close but he left and ran off with another woman when Lang was about 12. “In England they tend to over focus on my relationship with my father saying that his leaving is why I was gay.”
But Lang was already fully formed gay. She has always been in tune with her sexuality. Scorpio’s are like that. I wonder, though, how her relationship with femininity has changed. It’s certainly been a long time since anyone has seen her in a dress.
“I think my relationship with femininity has been exactly the same all the time. What I don’t think has been clear is my relationship with society’s view of what femininity is. To me it’s an approach, an emotional, spiritual approach to living. It’s not necessarily the exterior of what gender looks like. As you know, we are full on basking in gender fluidity and non-binary stuff right now. I feel very happy to be a woman, but I approach it differently from the norm.”
Does gender fluid mean that some days one feels masculine and some feminine? And non-binary one feels that you don’t want to be defined by either.
“I don’t know. It’s moving so quickly things change day to day.”
I talk her about 14-year old girls all wanting to look gender fluid. It’s almost a fashion thing.
“I understand it but I don’t understand it intellectually.”
Where Lang has always liked to flirt with the idea of looking mannish, that doesn’t mean she’s ever wanted to be a man. In the 90s she broke boundaries as the first lesbian pop star, now that in itself seems old fashioned. It’s all about the trans and the gender fluid and the androgynous. She corrects, “Androgynous is so antiquated at this point.”
Androgynous was David Bowie. If anything, Lang looks more feminine now. She no longer wears the heavy workman boots on stage. She sings barefoot.
“I felt they were a little heavy and they portray an aggressive thing. I like to sing from the heart, so it helps me to feel grounded and natural to sing barefoot. And I have the most stability when I’m barefoot.”
Onstage she wears suits similar to those worn on the original tour but updated. A lot of her clothes including a cowgirl outfit with lots of fringe (featured on the cover of Absolute Torch and Twang in 1989) are at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada. They sit with the effects of other famous Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
She did a version of Cohen’s Hallelujah. Did he like it?
“I don’t know. We didn’t talk about that. We talked about Buddhism and finances as we both experienced a similar challenge with our business managers.”
Cohen’s money was embezzled by his business manager and then he let go of everything anyway and became a Buddhist monk. Lang had to sell her house in LA because of a similar situation and downsize.
“Both my dogs passed away, my Buddhist teacher passed away so there was not too much reason to stay there. I had run out of money because it had been stolen. I didn’t want to downsize in LA.”
Had she already broken up with her girlfriend Jamie Price? “No. I thought we were in a good place, but I wanted to move out of LA and she didn’t. that was all part of letting life in LA go. We are still good friends.”
Is she good at being friends with her exes? “It depends if it’s a good relationship. I don’t necessarily believe in monogamy and I don’t believe in staying with someone for a long time. I believe in relationships and the fluidity of that is not constrained by social norms. It couldn’t stay the way it was. It shifted. Everything shifted and I needed to move on and we just made that decision”
Was she seeing anyone else in Portland? “Nope.
Is touring hard on relationships? “I hardly tour anymore. I’m not retiring, but I don’t have any plans for more music at this point.”
Around the time of Ingenue, Madonna did not dismiss rumours that she and Lang were in a relationship and Lang didn’t dismiss it either. “We shared a publicist.” And she decided to put out those rumours so they could both sell records? “I don’t know the entire story. Maybe. Because I was kind of dating one of Madonna’s close friends, so we were in a circle. We hung out. The lesbian chic thing was something that both Madonna and I benefited from, but I didn’t know it was implied that we were actually doing it. But Madonna and I never did.”
It’s easy to feel sad for first generation girl rock stars. They became stars as much for their looks as their music. It has has taken truck loads of botox, filler and stress for these women to master a version of that look and still feel relevant in their fifties and sixties. Even those women who did have a great voice like Kate Bush and Annie Lennox don’t sing anymore. Lang never in any way traded on her allure to the opposite sex – she stayed in the game.
“I knew at an early age that the physical promise wasn’t permanent. I studied men and how men’s portraits and men’s physicality increased as they got older. There’s a type of respect that you feel to men who get older. I tried to study this and understand it. Why in society it’s like that. Why in biology it is. I don’t have the answers, but I was certainly aware of it and I wanted to take the interest in my physicality away from people and put it squarely on an internal impact that my music might have.”
Older men can stay good looking – they’re called silver foxes, whereas older women are dismissed for not being foxy anymore.
“That’s the way we’ve constructed our society and both genders are to blame for that.”
We wonder if men’s skin looks better because they never wear make-up. Lang’s skin is fine lined but soft and youthful with a natural pink blush. She’s never worn make up. Maybe that’s the key to it.
There is a sheet of paper in the typewriter. “I do write on it sometimes. I like the graphic, but it feels like manual labour.”
Is that how she sees writing now? Manual labour? “Yes.”
She typed the lyrics of Constant Craving on fax paper and she still has that paper. Only a few minutes rifling around in a draw and she shows it to me. She’s so organised that she knows where everything is.
“That’s just because I got rid of a lot of stuff when I downsized.”
The print on the paper has faded into shadows, yet the lines are still there. These days she’s writing “very very very small amounts”.
What will she do? “I will look after my mom, hang with my partner and my partners son and I will live my life. And I’ll cook things.”
Maybe she’ll open a restaurant or a coffee shop. She made extremely good coffee. “Nope, sorry. I make a coffee because we have a purpose. You wanted fluffy and strong and you got fluffy and strong.”
k.d. lang’s Ingénue Redux tour comes to the UK in July