Versatile singer and songwriter k.d. lang is known for such country hits as “Crying” and “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette,” and for the successful pop single “Constant Craving.”
Born Kathryn Dawn Lang on November 2, 1961, in Alberta, Canada, country singer k.d. Lang grew up the youngest of four children in the small town of Consort, Alberta. As she once told The New York Times, the place was so small that “you knew everyone from the day you were born till the day you could get yourself out there.”
Music was an important part of Lang’s youth, and she began demonstrating her significant vocal talents as a child. Her mother was a teacher and her father ran the local drugstore.Mrs. Lang, drove more than an hour to take Lang and her siblings to their piano lessons each week. Her piano instruction would prove to be the inspiration for her future career. Her mother was a teacher and her father ran the local drugstore. When she was 12, her father left for another woman and, apart from a chance encounter when she was an adult, lang never saw him again.
While a student at Red Deer College, lang appeared in a production about Patsy Cline. During rehearsals, she became entranced with the life and music of the country music legend. Subsequently, after graduating from college, Lang began to pursue her own music career. With musician and songwriting partner Ben Mink, Lang formed a group called the Reclines in Patsy’s honor.
With the Reclines, lang enjoyed some success in her native Canada. She made her debut with the well-received Friday Dance Promenade and established her reputation with A Truly Western Promenade in 1984. The following year, the Juno Awards selected Lang as the “most promising female vocalist.” After landing a contract with Sire records, in 1986, the androgynous-looking country star launched her career in the United States.
When k.d. lang released her first major-label album, Angel with a Lariat, in 1986, she caused considerable controversy within the traditional world of country music. With her vaguely campy approach, androgynous appearance, and edgy, rock-inflected music, very few observers knew what to make of her or her music, although no one questioned her considerable vocal talents.
While individual country stars such as Minnie Pearl and Loretta Lynn sang her praises, k.d. Lang was never fully accepted by the country music establishment. As she once explained to People magazine, “I was there in Nashville, a lesbian, a vegetarian, a Canadian, and trying to get in with this white, male, Christian society. They were like, ‘What the hell are you doing here, girl?’
In 1987, Lang released a duet with Roy Orbison, a new recording of his 1961 hit “Crying.” In addition to putting Lang on the country charts for the first time, this song brought garnered the country singer a Grammy Award win for best country vocal collaboration.
Lang fared even better with 1989’s Shadowland. The album featured two country hits: “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” and “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops.” For the record, Lang had a chance to work with Owen Bradley, a producer of Patsy Cline’s music. She was also accompanied by some of her idols on one of the tracks. Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells sang with her on “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.”
With 1992’s Ingenue, Lang seemed to shed much of her country style in favor of a more adult contemporary sound. The popular album featured her biggest pop hit to date: “Constant Craving.” She followed up this successful recording with an unusual venture: composing the soundtrack to 1993’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Continuing her musical journey, Lang experimented with different styles on All You Can Eat in 1995. Two years later, she released the smoking-themed effort Drag.
In a 1998 interview, lang said that every day, she gets mistaken for a man. “I like that.” I didn’t always, it bugged me sometimes, but I like going through the world kind of ambiguous. I definitely get less harassment, less attention.” She means sexual harassment, not the attention that comes with being famous, which, as far as I can tell, she doesn’t get much of anymore, to her relief. “I remember one time I wore a really tight T-shirt that showed cleavage and some guy looked at my boobs and I was like, ‘what?!’ It was, to me, really crazy. It felt so alien. Being androgynous changes the sexual playing field too, because a lot of gay guys flirt with me, a lot of straight women flirt with me.” She pauses. “Or they have – not anymore, nobody flirts with me anymore.”
lang was five when she realized she was gay (“I remember taking swimming lessons and being completely enamored with Christy, the swimming instructor”), 13 when she came out to herself, 17 when she came out to her mother and 30 when she came out to the world. It’s easy to forget now what an impact announcing you were gay had back then. There was some pressure from her record company not to, but looking back, she says, coming out both helped and hindered her. “I don’t think [my album] Ingenue would have been a hit without me coming out, I wouldn’t have got on the cover of Vanity Fair [in a barber’s chair being shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford]. But at the same time, I’m different.”
lang made a guest appearance on Tony Bennett’s Playin’ with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues (2001), which led the pair to team up for a collaborative album. In 2002, Lang and Bennett honored the late Louis Armstrong with the Grammy Award-winning A Wonderful World, an album of their own takes on Satchmo’s trademark songs. Bennett, a veteran crooner, had nothing but high praise for Lang, calling her “the best singer since Judy Garland” in an NPR interview.
Returning to her roots, Lang recorded Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2005), a collection of songs written by other Canadian artists. She even sang her widely praised rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Her next major work was 2008’s Watershed, noted for its country-rock flavor.
Lang allowed herself the time to let Watershed, develop alongside the changes that were happening in her that came with Buddhism. Where once her songs of regret and longing might have been tortured and melancholic, they are now pared-down and introspective. “I think I have a better sense of my weaknesses – being self-important, selfish and having a big ego probably triggers all the other stuff. I can see myself more clearly.” Several of the songs are straightforward love songs (“I have slept there in the snow with others/Yet loved no others before”) and lang’s intense, youthful infatuation has given way to comfortable contentment. Is it important for her to be in a relationship? “No, but it’s definitely a nice bonus. Life is so impermanent that it’s not about somebody else or things around me, it’s about knowing you are completely alone in this world and being content inside”
More recently, lang released Sing It Loud(2011).
In 2013, lang was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “A gift to music, k.d. lang’s voice is an instrument unto itself—uniquely beautiful and haunting,” said Melanie Berry, president and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the JUNO Awards, in a statement on the organization’s website. Berry also called lang “one of our most accomplished singer-songwriters of all time.”