kd lang: Just hear my song

On the eve of her UK tour, kd lang tells Fiona Sturges why she has turned her back on the showbiz world of celebrity

In a capacious warehouse on the outskirts of Cologne, one of the most beautiful voices in pop rings out through the gloom. The 43-year-old Canadian singer kd lang is midway through a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". At the end she holds a note for so long that the rapt audience seem to stop breathing. But then something unexpected happens. Come the end, as the hysterical applause and the cries of "We love you" subside, a woman suddenly yells "Your hair's too short!".

In a capacious warehouse on the outskirts of Cologne, one of the most beautiful voices in pop rings out through the gloom. The 43-year-old Canadian singer kd lang is midway through a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". At the end she holds a note for so long that the rapt audience seem to stop breathing. But then something unexpected happens. Come the end, as the hysterical applause and the cries of "We love you" subside, a woman suddenly yells "Your hair's too short!".

It seems that even now, 20 years into her career, lang's reluctance to don stilettos, grow her hair long and play the pop diva has the capacity to rub people up the wrong way. Still very much an alternative artist despite the Grammy awards that jostle for space on her mantelpiece, she has refused to conform to music-industry notions of femininity. Put simply, she doesn't care. And why should she? It's her voice, after all, that sets her apart, a pure instrument that is in a whole different sphere from the histrionic yodelling of Mariah Carey or Celine Dion. As she tells me later: "I like long, straight notes and clarity. I want to service the song, rather than the other way around."

I meet lang back at her hotel after the show. I had been warned about her shyness, though if it exists she hides it well. Despite her visible weariness, she is warm, smiley and polite. She is also among the more articulate and - dare I say - normal musicians I've interviewed. While she's serious about her singing, there's no sign of the egotism or the neurosis that so often afflicts artists in her position. lang is perhaps best known for the hit "Constant Craving", from her Grammy-winning Ingénue album, as well as her duet with Roy Orbison on his own "Crying".

Since her career began, she has adopted a variety of musical guises, from Nashville cowgirl (on the albums Truly Western Experience, Shadowland and Absolute Torch and Twang) and torch singer ( Drag) to seasoned pop artist ( Ingénue, All You Can Eat, Invincible Summer). She flinches when I mention the word "reinvention" - we're not talking about a change of hairdo, after all - so I put it another way. Is she easily bored?

"On a basic surface level I guess I am, though I like to think of it as easily interested or easily seduced by a style of music," she replies. "I'm a musical nomad. I'll hear something and a light will come on somewhere in my soul, and I'll try to come up with a version of it. I don't think that it's about making a real artistic statement, but it's fun.

"I think of people like Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Cash and Ray Charles who made 80 or 90 records. They'd make a Spanish record or a blues record or whatever they felt like at the time. That's how I fashion my path. I think the whole point of this job is to explore music, to have fun and see where it takes you."

lang's latest album, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is a cover-version homage to her songwriting compatriots including Jane Siberry, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Her objective was to draw attention to what she calls "the Canadian songbook". Despite the fact that a number of the songs - Young's "After the Goldrush", Cohen's "Hallelujah" - have been covered by many singers before her, she says she was undaunted by the prospect of putting her own stamp on them.

"I don't think it's necessary to establish your own personality in a song all the time," she says. "But I also think that if you have a connection with it you can translate that to the listener in a way that no one's heard before. With this record it was a real statement for me, to develop an awareness of what are classic Canadian songs and amazing artists."

It was, in part, a tribute to another of her heroes, the American country artist Patsy Cline, that lang started singing country songs in the mid-Eighties and set up home in Nashville. I remark that this might seem a strange move given the city's notoriously right-wing politics. "But that's what attracted me," she insists. "I was quite rebellious in my early days and I loved the idea of screwing with people's mindsets. Doing the punk thing and singing about nuclear inevitability was all part of the fun for me. I didn't go into Nashville expecting to be accepted. I knew exactly what I was going to get. The beauty of my time there was that the people who inspired me musically accepted me, but the people who ran the record labels didn't like me at all. They were threatened by what I was."

By the early Nineties lang had grown tired of the country scene and adopted a more contemporary pop sound for her album Ingénue. At the same time she decided to put an end to the speculation surrounding her sexuality and came out as a lesbian in Rolling Stone magazine. While some fans took the news badly, sending letters screaming their disgust, she also gained a whole new following and was embraced by the mainstream. Having appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, feet up in a barber's chair and getting a shave from a scantily clad Cindy Crawford, lang found herself caught up in a social maelstrom of fashion shows, premieres and launch parties. She had become the poster-girl for gay women, and for a while she basked in the attention. In the long term, however, she knew it wasn't for her.

"I guess I didn't have the drive or the interest to stay in the game," she reflects. "It takes a lot of money and work to stay fabulous. I loved it when I was in it until I started to realise that it was disposable and fraudulent. I don't know what it is about the human psyche - and I'm guilty of it too - that makes us love something that's hot, that's right of the moment. It's like falling in love with someone on a very immediate level. It's like you're actually in love with the fantasy of who they are rather than the reality."

Even more disturbing was the realisation that her sexuality was starting to eclipse her music. "What I really wanted was for people to love me for my voice," says lang. "I don't want to be loved because I'm a lesbian or a vegetarian or because I appear in magazines. I just want people to dig my voice. Don't get me wrong, I'm really proud of what I did and I'm very grateful that I've had a great career. But I don't think Ingénue would have been a hit if I hadn't come out."

Certainly, for lang's record company, it had become more about marketing than music. "That picture I did with Cindy was fun," she says. "We were friends and to us that was art. It's the magazines that want to shoot you in your home, that whole approach to selling music felt so wrong to me. I still have a stylist because I hate going shopping - I tell them what to buy me and they bring it - but it's dealing with the hair, the make-up, the high heels. It removes you from the essence of who you are and what you have to offer. It's great for people who like playing around with their image and for movie stars, but for a singer, for me, it's almost like a violation for what I do."

The kd stands for Kathryn Dawn, names which lang discarded long before she became famous. She was raised in the town of Consort in Alberta, population 650. lang's father abandoned the family when she was 12. Though she has seen him a couple of times since, they still have no real relationship. Yet despite this, lang maintains she grew up in a "very secure and happy environment". She started playing the piano at four but switched to singing when she was five. Her musical education began via her brothers and sisters, all of whom studied classical music and practised every day after school.

The second phase came through her own discovery. "That was Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, gleaned from my sister's record collection and songs that I heard on the radio. Later, when I went to college, I started to open up to jazz and rock."

lang attributes the extraordinary purity of her voice in part to the wide, open spaces that surrounded her as a child. "It's just a theory I have, but I think that the voice is as much a product of your environment as what you listen to and cultivate personally," she says. "The landscape I grew up in was extremely minimal - flat prairies with no trees and lots of sky. My life is very minimal now in terms of material things, and I seem to have developed this minimal singing style. But it could also be a reaction to all the other singers that I've heard who have a tendency to - how shall I put this? - over-emote."

In the mid-Nineties, lang took a few years off to take stock and think about what she wanted to do. In the end, she decided she would carry on performing. "I've always fantasised about being a 70-year-old woman singing on stage. I saw Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald all perform in their seventies. There's something very elegant and beautiful about someone who does it strictly for the passion of it."

Nowadays lang keeps herself very much to herself - her time off is spent cooking and painting in her home in LA. A friend recently bought her an iPod which, she says, has made her fall in love with music all over again. "There's a few records that I listen to religiously when I paint - John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Gillian Welch's Hell Among The Yearlings. Listening to them reminds me why I do what I do. And why I should keep on doing it."

'Hymns of the 49th Parallel' is out now on Nonesuch. kd lang's UK tour begins at Manchester Apollo on 26 November ( www.kdlang.com)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album