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)

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