Ms. k.d. lang isn't just a woman with a fondness for lower-case letters. She's also a gifted vocalist and songwriter whose career has taken some intriguing twists and turns over the years -- and she guides readers through many of them in the following Q&A, conducted in advance of her Saturday, November 8 appearance at the Temple Buell Theatre.
The conversation begins with questions about Watershed, her new album -- and the first lang recording to feature original material since the dawn of the millennium. She talks about the slow accretion of tunes for the disc; the stylistic combinations to which she was drawn; her decision to produce the album herself, and why she might not use this approach on future long-players; the reasons her eclecticism still manages to sound personal; the influence of Buddhism on her latest lyrics; her preference for subtle singing in the studio, as opposed to the vocal blasts she often unleashes onstage; her recent induction into the Canadian Walk of Fame -- an honor that meant more to her than she'd anticipated; and her feelings about the U.S. election, shared just over a week before yesterday's vote took place.
Judging by her comments, she was pleased by the way things worked out last night.
Westword (Michael Roberts): It’s been eight years since you released an album of original material. During that time, were you writing songs pretty consistently? Or did months or even longer go by without you writing anything new?
k.d. lang: A lot of time would pass before each song. I started writing in about 2001, but then I got a call from Tony Bennett and made that record, Wonderful World, with him, and toured that record. And then I came back, started writing – and then I had the idea for Hymns to the 49th Parallel. And I made that, toured that. But over the course of several years, I was writing, and around 2006, I looked back and went, “Oh, I’ve almost got enough songs for a record.” So I started to really put my focus on finishing the record and finishing the production.
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WW: When you looked at the songs you’d written over those years, did they have a similar feel? Or was one of the appeals for you that they didn’t have a similar feel?
kdl: Kind of a little bit of both, I think, because I generally write with a conceptual theme in mind. Or I write with a time constraint. Like, I have one year to make the record (laughs). I’m not the kind of writer who writes consistently for the sake of writing. I write for making a record. This presented a slightly different scenario, and looking back at the songs, even though it was over seven years, I saw a consistency there in that they were quite autobiographical and quite self-examining. They became more like a journal than like I said before – like a more conceptual type of record.
WW: You’ve described this record as a mash-up of their various influences – and when most people think of a mash-up, they think of abrupt transitions and stylistic collisions. To me, though, your influences on Watershed are blended together very smoothly. So do you think the album might be more of a puree than a mash-up?
kdl: (Laughs.) I love when people use food metaphors to describe music. That’s what I feel most familiar with. Yes, I think it’s just that I pick my favorite sounds and put them together. And I’ve been working with sort of the same bag of sounds for twenty-five years, so it’s very familiar to me. I think one of the things about producing myself was the chance of losing the focus in translation wasn’t there. I think what happens when you translate to a producer or to a band when the money meter’s ticking and you have exorbitant bills to pay and time constraints… Without having that, I was able to be less derivative and the music was less derivative and more hybrid in a way.
WW: You’ve dovetailed into something I wanted to ask you about – your decision to produce the album yourself this time. Do you feel that at this point in your career, you don’t need an outside person to come in and give you some perspective about your work? That you know your music well enough at this point that you can do the job yourself?
kdl: I think there’s some truth in that, but I also think there’s a risk you take when you do that. I think you can become very insular and lose the collaborative, infusing energy that happens, and that I think is really productive and really exciting. Really, I produced this record because I wanted to save the early songwriting demos – the performances that I thought had a rawness and a vulnerability that I didn’t want to lose. So I just produced it myself. I think it would really depend on the songs and the album itself, whether or not I produce it or I call in somebody. Because sometimes it’s nice to have an objective opinion and somebody to say, “Why don’t you try this?” – something I wouldn’t have thought of, or who takes me out of my comfort zone and pushes me in a direction that is good and stretches me.
WW: So it’s not as if this decision to produce your own album this time is a permanent move? You’ll look at each future album and then decide if it feels right?
kdl: I look at it like songwriting or interpretive work. I think these things feed each other. I’ll always be involved with production on some level, but I don’t need to prove to the world or to myself that I can produce. It’s really about what I think is best for the music in a given situation.
WW: As we were discussing before, there are a lot of eclectic styles that you touch on throughout the album: the Brazilian sound on “Upstream,” for example. But when I listened to the tracks, I didn’t find myself thinking, “She’s drawing from this well or that well.” I thought, “This sounds like k.d. lang.” Do you feel you’ve been working toward that during your career? To almost become your own genre in a sense?
kdl: (Laughs.) I am my own genre! That’s great. I should make T-shirts like that. Honestly, I don’t think about it that much. I really just make music, and make the sounds the way I like. My listening taste is very eclectic and I think that translates into my own music. I honestly don’t think about it that much.
WW: I recently read a fascinating interview with you in which you talked about your practice of Buddhism and its influence on your work – and that definitely made me think of the lyrics on the new album in that context. One song that comes to mind is the one with the French title, whose title I’ll mangle – so I’ll let you pronounce it.
kdl: (Laughs.) “Je Fais La Planche.”
WW: Yes, that one. You talk about “the buoyancy of belief” in that song. Does that how Buddhism feel to you? Does it actually feel physically uplifting to have this foundation for your life.
kdl: For the most part. But as with anything, I think faith can also take you down into the very dirges of existence. I think the balance is very important, and to understand the variations in life. But yeah, “Je Fais La Planche” is definitely a sort of esoteric overview of the fine line between life and death.
WW: That especially comes through in the lines, “What lies beneath the surface/That lures us profoundly deep/An uninterrupted sleep…” In Western culture, we fear death to a great degree. But that’s not so much the case in Buddhist thinking, is it?
kdl: No, Buddhism is actually a practice that uses death as one of the major teachers, or one of the major sources of wisdom. We actually practice our death in our meditation daily, and it’s something we feel is cyclical, obviously, with the belief in reincarnation.
WW: On the album, we don’t hear many times when you really belt out your vocals, as you’ve done on most of your earlier recordings. Was that a conscious decision? Or did it just sort of happen through the songwriting and recording process?
kdl: I think it’s all of the above. I think it’s sort of the basic foundation of my evolution as a vocalist, or at least my aspiration, I think. To be an understated but more emotionally charged singer is sort of my approach. Also, I think when I songwrite, generally, and when I’m recording, things come off in a slower tempo and take a more subtle, more introverted approach. Already these songs sound different by performing them live. They become a little bit more expressive and more effusive as times go by. But even on Hymns to the 49th Parallel or earlier records, I find that recording in the studio, I don’t feel the same need or desire to sing with the pedal to the metal that much. I think the constraints of the room and the microphone and the headphones and everything, that doesn’t seem as natural to use the volume as much as I would onstage, where everything is just a little bit more exaggerated and hyper.
WW: So when you’re performing these songs, there may be moments when you’ll press down on that pedal in ways you didn’t while recording them?
kdl: Yeah, definitely.
WW: Having your vocal instrument at your command, do you sometimes think it’s almost cheating to unleash it, since you know you can blow people away at any moment – and it may be more satisfying to take a more subtle approach?
kdl: That’s a very, very good question. It’s something I have definitely pondered and meditated about for my whole career: What is the fine line between art and show business? I think it’s important that whatever I do, it has to come from a place of sincerity and honestly. And sometimes it is like being a showboat. But I can’t rely on it because I’m tired and I don’t want to just pull something out of my hat, and the audience isn’t giving me anything back. It’s a constant reflection on my own ego and my own integrity, and I think it’s really just about being honest and being in the moment. Sometimes it’s about being a little bit playful and show-bizzy, and sometimes it’s not.
WW: Of course, during your early career, those show-bizzy aspects are a large part of what drew people to you in the first place. So you feel there’s nothing wrong with going in that direction as long as it feels right to you in that moment?
kdl: Right. Back then, I was young and ready to take on the world, so it was all very honest back then. And then I went through a period where I started not even to believe myself – so I had to shift. So yeah, it’s a daily process.
WW: I understand that this past month, you were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. What was that event like for you?
kdl: Being me, I started out being sort of cynical about it. But then, when I got there and saw the other people get their awards and saw the films of them and the previous people who’d gotten the awards… Well, being a very proud Canadian, even though I’m not very nationalistic – I’m more global than I am nationalistic – I realized that it was a great honor. And I realized that I’m a part of Canadian history, and it’s really humbling to be honored like that.
WW: The 49th Parallel album is, in essence, a tribute to other Canadian artists. Do you feel at this point that you’re part of that continuum.
kdl: Boy, I would love to put myself in that category. But I think that’s a little bit self-congratulatory…
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WW: You’ve lived here in the States for quite some time. Do you still feel more Canadian than American? Or do you feel more like, as you suggest, a citizen of the world?
kdl: I do feel like a citizen of the world. I will always be Canadian. I hold a Canadian passport, and it informed who I am as a person growing up there. But I’ve lived in the States for eighteen years now, and I’m very involved in the election even though I can’t vote. I feel like an American. But also when I travel the world, I feel like a part of the world. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s all big one ball of wax…
WW: This piece will appear after the election is over, so readers will know who won at that point. But right now, as we speak, is the election very much in the forefront of your thoughts? Or do you think of it more as what will happen will happen?
kdl: That’s not an easy question to answer as a Buddhist (laughs). You know, elections are results of our collective consciousnesses. And it was a collective consciousness that voted George Bush in. And all the things that preceded. I’m really hoping that we’ll have a person who really takes everyone’s diversity and everyone’s religious backgrounds and everyone’s concerns into their focus – not just Joe the Plumber, and not just Christians. Because it’s a very, very diverse country. And not only that. America is a world leader, and the rest of the world depends on the peace and prosperity of America. So I’m pulling for Obama and I pray that the best thing that happens for the world will happen on November 4.