Constantly craving...

Following the success of Ingenue, k.d. lang fell dramatically out of favour. Will a collection of songs about smoking save her?
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For non country music fans, Kathy Dawn Lang was a well-kept secret until the release of the platinum-selling album Ingenue made her famous in 1992. The best selling single spin-off, a romantic ballad, "Constant Craving", won her legions of fans the world over and her decision to "come out" at the same time splashed her all over the front pages. Overnight, she was turned into one of America's super-icons, a lesbian with star appeal; she was as photogenic as Sarah Bernhard and as socially acceptable as the sitcom star Ellen.

It is impossible to say whether she would have enjoyed quite the same degree of fame, and whether the record sales of Ingenue would have been quite so high, without her much-publicised revelations that she was gay. It was undeniably a huge gamble, given the conservative nature of most of her country fans at that time. "The switch from country to the music on Ingenue and `coming out' happened simultaneously," she says now. "Honestly, in my heart of hearts, I didn't know what the hell would happen. I thought Ingenue was either the biggest mistake of my life or the best thing I ever did. I just knew I had to do it.

"It was the same with coming out. I really felt that I had nothing to lose at that point. In many ways, it wasn't a gamble, because I had no choice. I had to come out for myself, and also for the gay and lesbian community. I thought that it would be in my best interests to remove the mystery in the media, and just say `Yes I am.'"

In the five years since the success of Ingenue, k.d. lang bears the scars of someone who has been through the rocky end of the fame firmament. The critical and commercial failure of the follow-up album, All You Can Eat, crushed her confidence, causing her withdrawal from the celebrity spotlight and inspiring a rush of rumours that outside the closeted world of country music, she was no more than a one-hit wonder.

"I think the inspiration did leave me," she sighs. "I think All You Can Eat didn't do as well as we all kind of hoped, and I think I got criticised for my writing. It kind of took the wind out of my sails because it's so hard to write and record and perform. After All You Can Eat, I decided I needed to just sing for a change."

Hence the reason why her new album, Drag, is a collection of cover versions, a kind of theme album based on songs about smoking or, rather, songs that use cigarettes as metaphors for love, addiction and sexual fixation. These are the same themes that worked so successfully on Ingenue - the same themes that originally brought her superstardom. Is it a formula that will work again - will her star shine as brightly as in the heady summer of 1992?

"I always knew I would be a star," she says, affronted at the suggestion that there is a possibility of her being anything else. "It wasn't like a big dream or anything. It was just a reality. It was like someone saying they want to have kids when they grow up, and ending up having kids. I had a view of what I wanted to do when I was in the womb. It was never a question that I'd go into music - the only question was what kind."

Born in Consort, a tiny cattle town in the middle of the Canadian prairies, k.d. describes herself during her teenage years as "different, not difficult". Her father was a pharmacist who left her mother to bring up her, then 12 years old, and her two sisters and one brother alone. She left for music college at 18 and by the age of 22 had formed her first band, called The Reclines, in honour of Patsy Cline, who had become her inspiration for being the first to crossover from country music to pop chart success. Thus inspired, she moved to Nashville, made her mark in country music and changed her name because "Kathy's really mundane, k.d. is more generic and unlike Cherry Bomb, it's a name not a sexuality."

These days she lives in Los Angeles and, although she probably made a lot of money after selling nearly 3 million copies of Ingenue, she lives in a rented bungalow in an unfashionable part of town, drives a beaten- up truck and reserves any extravagances to a regular massage. "I live in a small house and wear ripped clothes because that's what makes me happy," she says. "Being a public figure does not make me happy. I yearn for fame and acceptance. Of course, that's why I'm a singer. I mean, everyone who is in the public eye yearns for acceptance - that's why we're here. But what makes me really happy is living quietly." She shares her domestic seclusion with the new woman in her life, Leisha Hailey, who k.d. describes as having "an incredibly pure soul". They are together, she insists, because Leisha is just into being with k.d. the real person rather than k.d. the one-time mega-star. They spend their days being drippy, walking Sailor the dog and two-stepping around the lounge. In short, they are living out a romantic fantasy away from the bright lights and the gay style press - and that's just how she likes it. "There was a time when my lesbian image over-shadowed my art," she says. "I was like: `Come on, I also sing.' I don't mind being a lesbian icon or a gay icon but I don't want to be used as a political vehicle."

Whether a collection of cover songs about smoking will convince her fans to return still remains to be seen. At last count, the album had entered the charts at No 40 and was holding. A stable placing, but hardly the stuff of platinum dreams. As one faltering k.d. follower put it, "I would buy it [Drag], but I'm trying to give up."

k.d. professes to wanting little more than a solid home life and to regain her inspiration. "I'd really like to just get a house and get a real family home life happening... not children. I don't like kids. And really to stay inspired" n

`Drag' is out on Sire Records