KD Lang: 'In the end, I knew it would all come back to the music. And it did'

She has been a lesbian icon, party animal, and paparazzi favourite. But now, she tells Fiona Sturges, she's happy just to be singing
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The Independent Culture

No one seems to notice kd lang as she walks across the lobby of her London hotel. Plainly dressed, without make-up, and with a hairstyle that fully embraces the "just out of bed" look, she is a long way from current notions of how a pop star should appear. A low profile is, she tells me, exactly what she had hoped for at this stage in her career. "It's the culmination of what feels like a long journey. And besides, I'm nearly 50. I'm past being photographed falling out of bars."

It wasn't always thus. Nearly twenty years ago, when she had just turned 30 and had reached her commercial peak with the multi-million-selling, Grammy-winning album Ingénue, her life was a whirlwind of Hollywood parties, premieres, awards ceremonies and fashion shows. After announcing her homosexuality to Rolling Stone magazine, she became the de facto ambassador for the gay community and the coolest lesbian in town. Among her most vocal champions were the comedian and actress Sandra Bernhard, who was frequently photographed on her arm, and Madonna, who announced: "Elvis is alive, and she's beautiful."

Then there was the famous photo shoot for Vanity Fair that had her sprawled in a barber's chair, with supermodel Cindy Crawford sitting astride her in a swimsuit and giving her a wet shave. Asked by a male journalist what was going through her mind at the time, lang replied: "Pretty much what would have been going through yours in the same circumstance, I imagine."

Still based in Los Angeles, lang has now left the celebrity circus behind, though she has no regrets about her place in it. "Oh, I had a ball," she says. "But ultimately I realised, in terms of real estate, that the top of the mountain wasn't where I wanted to live. I actually prefer the plains and the valleys. I love what I do and where I am right now. I mean, I'm still here, making records and talking to you and travelling and playing concerts. It's a good life."

lang is now in a long-term relationship – she met her girlfriend, Jamie, at a Buddhist centre 10 years ago – and lives in a sparsely furnished cabin-style house in the Hollywood Hills that once belonged to Rock Hudson. When she's not recording or touring or on her annual Buddhist pilgrimage to India, lang is likely to be found immersing herself in domestic duties ("I love cleaning. I'm a very good housewife"), painting landscapes and looking after her elderly dog.

Today she is in London on a promotional tour for her new album, Sing It Loud, recorded with her newly assembled band, the Siss Boom Bang. It's an elegant, understated LP that contains nods to the singer's country-pop roots and brims with warmth and contentment. lang has long refuted the idea that her songs are autobiographical, but when I remark on the album's upbeat mood, she concedes: "Well, yes, I'm in a very good space at the moment. But also [the co-producer] Joe Pisapia and I sat down before we started writing it and made a very clear manifesto that this record would be unpretentious, soulful, and very positive and uplifting. With this record I really visualised where I was going to be playing it. I wanted it to be the perfect folk-festival record where we could stand on stage on a nice summer evening and just play beautiful songs."

The album was recorded in Nashville, where lang, once touted as the new Patsy Cline, began her career in the mid-Eighties. She remarks that what was always a conservative city seems finally to be evolving.

"Bible publishing, real estate and insurance are the top earners there, along with music, so it's never been the most progressive town. But now in east Nashville there's this pocket of alternative musicians – Jack White lives there, Ben Folds and Gillian Welch. There's an interesting music scene now. It's a bit like LA, where I live. It's got this reputation as one thing, but when you get down on to street level there's a lot of very creative people doing a lot of great stuff."

Mining her own seam of creativity hasn't always been easy for lang. Though she has enjoyed steady sales for 15 years, she has never come close to repeating the extraordinary success of Ingénue. Between 2002 and 2008 she suffered from writer's block, a situation she has previously blamed on the atmosphere in America after 9/11. Today, however, she offers a different explanation.

"If I'm being honest, it was because I had become a student of Buddhism. When you experience the true philosophy of Buddhism for the first time, it kind of changes your perspective. You do a lot of reconstructing of your ideals, and it's an exhausting, consuming process. So for that period I found it a lot easier to do interpretive records. [Buddhism] has clarified and given me some legitimate tools to deal with daily issues and moral issues. The thing about it is there's no external factor, so you are responsible for everything. So it kind of puts everything back to you. It tears your ego down, which I think is good."

She has, she says, been chastened by this new lifestyle where, on her trips to India, she'll find herself "in the back of a coach in the middle seat for like an 18-hour stretch, and in monasteries where you sleep on the floor on a sack, in a place with no running water and no toilets. Seeing the depth of poverty, and seeing people's limitless capacity for spirituality in that situation, and the void of spirituality back home, it takes some adjustment. It's certainly made me appreciate the luxury that the music business provides, and the privileged lifestyle."

The youngest of four children, lang was born in Consort, Alberta, a prairie town with a population of 650. The kd stands for Kathryn Dawn, names which she discarded long before she became famous. At the age of five, lang was certain about two things: one was that she had a singing voice that made everyone around her sit up and listen; the other was that she was sexually attracted to women.

"Being gay felt very natural – out of four kids, three of us were gay – so I never felt weird about it. I think my father [who died in 2007] was a bit gay, though he never knew it. And my mother was very liberal, despite being a devout Christian. So having that realisation wasn't painful for me in the way that it can be. At the time I really celebrated it."

Her early musical education came via her siblings, who each studied classical music and practised every day after school. Later she discovered Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush. lang puts the purity of her singing voice down to the wide, open skies and huge prairie that featured in her childhood.

"It's just a theory really, but I have always thought that your physical surroundings can shape your voice and personality. Minimal is the word I'd use to describe how I live and dress, and it's also how I sing. I'm not a big fan of overemoting."

In a strange way, she says, living in a small town prepared her for fame and its after-effects.

"It's just people and animals and trees everywhere. Wherever you go, it's all the same. Being in LA, and being known by strangers, was really just the same as living in my home-town. It's no big deal."

No longer the poster girl for lesbianism, she is pleased to note that, "people now see me as a singer first, and a gay woman second. I knew that if I stayed the course, and patiently answered all the questions, then sooner or later it would come back to the music. And it did."

Now, of course, lang has another cause to espouse, this time in the form of Buddhism. It is, she says, "a full-time job" during the months when she's not playing music on the road. "I help out at the Buddhist centre and we run a shelter, but my role is mostly as an ambassador."

Does this mean music will soon take a back seat? "Well, I wouldn't go that far," she smiles. "I'm a singer and as long as I can sing – which, thank God, is something that I still seem to be able to do – I'd like to carry on making records. I know I'd be happy doing other things – whether working in a restaurant or just staying home and cooking and looking after the house.

"But I'm good at making music, so I think I'll do that for now."

'Sing It Loud' is out now on Nonesuch. Single "The Water's Edge" is released on 20 June.