SWATHED IN BLACK like a samurai warrior, k.d. lang strides barefoot onto a stage in Clearwater, Fla. She’s filled out a bit in recent years, though she wears her hair in her signature cropped, spiky style. Tonight, her mere appearance has brought the audience-dominated by lesbian couples and elderly symphony subscribers—to its feet, professing mad devotion. “What a pleasant surprise,” she says flirtatiously. “I am . . . inspired.” With her long-time bandmates poised to her left and 40 members of the Florida Orchestra filling the stage behind her, lang launches into her opening number— a cool, sultry rendition of the Nina Simone hit Don’t Smoke in Bed, which lang originally recorded for her 1997 smoking-themed album, Drag. She dips the microphone and cocks her head; the audience swoons.
In her live performance, lang is a shapeshifter, a sort of musical medium. Before each song, she closes her eyes and takes a moment to invoke one of her various muses— be it Liza Minelli, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley or some amalgam. Then, as though overcome, she delivers her musical monologues in character, playing the campy coquette one moment, the country diva or swaggering crooner the next. Through it all, her voice remains a supple instrument—Tony Bennett’s description of lang as “the best singer since Judy Garland” still seems apt (though an allusion to his comment prompts her to mock-protest, “Oh, please, what does he know?”).
Currently, 43-year-old lang is in the early stages of her first-ever symphony orchestra tour, which hits Canada on June 7, when she will perform at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The tour, which will subsequently move eastward, was designed to promote her upcoming album, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, for which she’s interpreted songs by Canadian greats such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, as well as younger songwriters including Ron Sexsmith and Jane Siberry.
“I’ve had the idea for a long time, but I really started to consider it when I was working with Tony Bennett,” she said earlier in the day, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a posh hotel suite, looking cowboy-casual in dark blue jeans, a sparkling white T-shirt and a dark grey button-down worn untucked. The 2004 Grammy Award-winning collection of classics she recorded with Bennett, A Wonderful World, was conceived as an homage to one of Bennett’s greatest inspirations, Louis Armstrong. “It really got me thinking about my own musical heritage,” says lang. “Everyone talks about the American songbook and I kept thinking, there’s such a vast treasure of riches in the Canadian songbook.”
Perhaps lang is a little homesick, having recently settled in Los Angeles, where she lives with her partner of three years and their two dogs. (If you ask her about American politics, she’ll crack her knuckles and say, “Ooh, don’t get me started on George W. Bush.”) Mostly, she seems nostalgic for the physical landscapes of her youth. She credits her own unadorned singing style to growing up in Consort, Alta. “There weren’t a lot of trees,” she says. “There was a lot of vast, open prairie, and I think that my style— those long, single notes with not a lot of vibrato or ornamentation—really developed from the Canadian prairies.”
Hymns of the 49th Parallel, available on July 27, features the 11 songs lang feels best capture her “musical DNA”—among them Young’s After the Gold Rush, Cohen’s Bird on a Wire and Mitchell’s Case of You. She finished recording the album last May with her bandmates Ben Mink, David Piltch and Teddy Borowiecki. “These songs are hymns to me,” she says. “They’re these broad, graceful acknowledgements of human existence, desire and compassion and of being in awe of nature.”
‘I’M REALLY excited about being a wedding singer. I’m going to pull out all the lesbian favourites.’
The idea of a symphony tour seemed natural. “I particularly wanted to incorporate strings to express my reverence for the elegance and sophistication of the songwriting,” she says. To her surprise, Audi, the car company, approached her with an offer to sponsor the tour—another first for lang. “I’ve never been approached by advertisers—ever,” she says. “It was definitely a surprise. I’m a bit of an oddball. Advertisers tend to be scared of me.”
It’s not difficult to see why. Although she has taken home multiple Juno and Grammy Awards, lang is not your typical hit factory. (Actually, she’s had only a few in 20 years— most notably the radio-friendly Constant Craving from her 1992 album, Ingénue). Her image and musical style are virtually impossible to pin down—a little bit country, a little bit jazz, pop, rock and everything else. “From day one I was eclectic and I think I really truly am,” she says. “It’s meant that I haven’t had a solid career, but it’s also allowed me to fulfill my creative drive and needs, rather than concern myself with appealing to the masses.”
Lang’s personal politics have, from time to time, undoubtedly alienated would-be fans and supporters. She’s a defiant vegetarian-much to the chagrin of many of her fellow Albertans—and, of course, she’s openly gay, having come out publicly in 1992, at a time when very few celebrities had the nerve. A proud supporter of gay marriage (for other people, mind you, not for herself), lang will be taking a few days off from touring in early July to be a guest performer on a lesbian honeymoon cruise that sails from Boston to Montreal. “I’m really excited about being a wedding singer,” she says with an uncharacteristic giggle. “I’m going to pull out all the lesbian favourites: Big Boned Gal and What’s New, Pussycat? It’ll be great.”
Meanwhile, lang’s symphony tour, launched on April 30 in Houston, Tex., has so far been a great success, with tickets selling out or close to it. In Florida, members of the audience are downright fawning. Her energy is infectious. Early in the evening, she treats them to a powerful, sensual version of Crying—a song she says she “inherited” from her former collaborator, Roy Orbison. For this she earns her second of four standing ovations. She follows it up with a campy, theatrical version of Miss Chatelaine, complete with farcical pirouettes. She banters with the crowd, doling out one-liners and sexual innuendo. (“My wife loves you,” one man yells out. “Your wife loves me?” she says. “You should be very afraid.”)
The Canadian component of the show includes a soft, sweet take on Young’s Helpless, an impassioned rendition of Siberry’s Love is Everything and, just for fun, a run at the South Park ditty Blame Canada in an operatic falsetto. But it’s her version of Cohen’s Hallelujah that really showcases her vocal and dramatic talent. She sings it ardently, pacing the length of the stage as if she were delivering an angst-ridden Shakespearean soliloquy. By the end, there’s no air left in the room. “I always feel like I live an entire lifetime through that song,” she says finally, gasping for breath.
If you ask lang the secret to her versatility, she’ll brush it off and reduce it to something mundane. A singer is like a potato, she says. “You put it with curry, it’s Indian food. You deep fry it, and it’s a French fry. You put it in a pancake, it’s a latke. It’s still a potato.” She is laughing now at the absurdity of the metaphor. “I’m just a potato. Only I use different spices.” fifi
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