IT WAS one of the least likely success stories of the nineties: the androgynous Canadian country crooner who tangled with Nirvana and Bobby Brown in the pop charts, hung out with Madonna and Cindy Crawford at upscale fashion shoots, and generally messed with a million prejudices and preconceptions.
A quarter of a century later, k.d. lang – she of the Elvis quiff, lower case letters and high octane voice – looks back on it all with a mixture of pride, regret and bafflement. “In the end I felt it was contrived, but it was enormous fun.” She laughs. “Are you kidding? It was glorious!”
The game changer was lang’s fifth album, Ingénue, released in March 1992. At the start of that year she was a respected 30-year-old country artist from the cattle plains of Alberta, best known for duetting with Roy Orbison on a reboot of his classic ballad, Crying. By the end of the year she was not just a pop star, but one of the most famous LGBT+ women in the world.
Featuring ten tracks of “post-nuclear cabaret”, Ingénue was a bold thing, on which lang shucked off her country clobber and threw on more cosmopolitan attire. A timeless blend of torch and twang, of cocktail gloss, racked introspection, orchestral sophistication and chanteuse chutzpah, it was a loosely conceptual affair, tracking the agony and ecstasy of an unrequited love affair.
“I poured my heart and soul into it,” she says. “Great records are about the ability to narrate the truth, and that record was definitely as close to the bone as I’ve gotten. It was raw! Musically, it was a huge shift not having the references that I did writing country, which had a very specific set of tools. Discarding those and having to come up with my own vernacular with this new type of melody and structure was difficult. I had to create my own type of romantic language – it was arduous, but it was rewarding.”
The album took time to stick. On its release, lang recalls, “there was a bit of a backlash. It was a slow push uphill.” Following much speculation about her sexuality, she came out in an interview published in June 1992, a decision which raised her profile considerably, although she emphasises that her openness “really wasn’t to promote my album; it was to clear the air and take responsibility for a cultural statement”.
The growing success of Ingénue was sealed by the lilting Constant Craving, which became a hit single in the UK and the US. Suddenly ubiquitous, lang found that her life “was moving in a lot of different directions. Shifting away from country was one aspect of it, then getting more involved with fashion and magazines. It diffuses your focus on the music. You get a little caught up in the more material and disposable aspects of pop culture.”
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She became, at least superficially, tight with Madonna – they shared a mutual friend in comedian Sandra Barnhart – and appeared in 1993 on the cover of Vanity Fair, dressed in a pinstripe suit and tie, her face lathered with foam, as supermodel Cindy Crawford subjected her to a close shave. Playful and provocative, it became one of the defining images of the decade. It was around this point that lang felt things running away from her.
“I felt in control up until Vanity Fair came out, and then things got really, really, really big. I got really into the fashion scene and then I just felt, I’m on the wrong path. It felt very cocky and sexually overt, which didn’t end up sitting well with me in the long run. It was more me being disappointed in myself, I think, reflecting on who I was at the time, what kind of energy I was putting out, and being uncomfortable with it.” She pauses. “Although I have to say, I feel now that my experiences were enriching, but I think I also knew that it had to be short lived or I wouldn’t gain from them.”
Around the time of Ingénue it felt like lang was fighting battles on several fronts, championing fluidity in everything from sexual identity and gender roles to musical genre. To a certain extent, she still feels defined by some of the conversations she started. “I don’t think I’ll ever truly be liberated from it, and wouldn’t want to be,” she says. “I am who I am, and I represent who I represent, as well as myself. My sexuality will always be a huge part of what it is and how it is that I’m expressing myself. We’re still talking about it so obviously there isn’t true emancipation from it, but I’ve come to a kind of peace with it, and knowing that I represent a moment in time. I have a great sense of pride about that.”
Pop culture has traditionally embraced androgyny, but generally it has been far more comfortable when faced with male flamboyancy. In lang’s case, it sometimes seemed the culture was less welcoming when encountering a woman travelling in the other direction.
“Absolutely, I agree with that. I still play with what the expectations are, I still love to push the boundaries, and I don’t really know what is natural, and what is a type of rebellion towards media and society. Coming to an understanding of who I really feel comfortable being, and portraying myself honestly, was the most challenging piece of the puzzle to decipher.”
It took at least a decade to sift through the churn that Ingénue created. Nowadays, away from making music, lang actively avoids the spotlight. “I love to sing, and I love people respecting my art, but in terms of pursuing more fame, that definitely does not hold interest for me,” she says. “I’ve experienced it, and I’ve reached certain pinnacles that for me are very satisfying, so I don’t feel in want, that’s for sure.” She lives quietly in Calgary with her partner, and also owns a place in Portland, Oregon. “I live a very low key life,” she says. “I’m not out in public a lot, maybe a trip to the farmer’s market to pick over the vegetables, but that’s about it.”
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She has gone on to make many more terrific records, among them Hymns of the 49th Parallel, her interpretations of the songs of fellow Canadians such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, and her 2016 collaboration with fellow songwriters Neko Case and Laura Veirs. She concedes, however, that Ingénue is “definitely the pinnacle of my singer-songwriting”. At times it has felt a little like an albatross, but since 2017, when she began touring the record to mark its 25th anniversary, she has gained fresh perspective.
“I appreciate the songs in a different way now,” she says. “I’m happy that they’ve stood the test of time, and that they can be applied to life, and love, 25 years later. That’s always a good sign.”
For her upcoming shows, she is playing the record in sequence, rounding out the set with songs from the rest of her catalogue. Were there any tracks she was dreading revisiting? “Definitely!” She begins listing them. “Tears of Love’s Recall, Season of Hollow Soul… There’s a stretch where it gets super introspective, but that now has transformed into my favourite part of the show. We take a bit of creative licence and open the songs up musically, and that’s very rewarding. When we come to the end of all the introspective struggle and pondering, and we get to Constant Craving, there’s quite a release.”
So much for re-engaging with the past. Those hoping for news of lang’s first solo album of new songs since Watershed in 2008 shouldn’t hold their breath. These turbulent times are not, it seems, conducive to the muse striking.
“I’m not writing,” she says. “I’m really struggling with what and how – and if – one needs to speak at this moment in time. It’s a convoluted time, and I’m not sure I’m the person to commentate. I’d feel like if I were to say something, it would have to be extremely precise and true, and that’s a really overwhelming task. Pure truth is what is needed, and I don’t feel like I have the capacity. I would be happy if that never happened, but I’d also be happy if I did stumble upon some truth.” Here’s hoping she will. It wouldn’t be the first time.
k.d. lang: Ingénue Redux is at Aberdeen Music Hall, July 21, and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, July 22