kd lang sits in the London office of Warner Records, working her way slowly through a bottle of water. She is wearing a loose blue and white shirt, jeans and black plastic shoes, and she has to sweep her hair out of her eyes a lot with her left hand. She seems, in this setting, loose- limbed, sublimely relaxed and distinctly un-celebrity-like. She is 34 but looks perhaps 10 years younger. Were it not for that famous face, with its slow grin, you could be sitting opposite a work experience person, albeit an extremely laid-back one.
She is now a big league music star. She may not be as monstrously successful in terms of record sales as some of her label-mates - groups such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day, generating millions on the American market - but since the success in 1992 of her album Ingenue, she has what she calls "roster weight". Which is to say that the staff of Warner Brothers, her American record label, know what it says about them that they have an artist of lang's sophistication on their books. "I don't get to ride in the private jet," she says, "but at the same time they know that if they dropped me, I would be snatched up like that." And she snaps her fingers.
Since Ingenue, lang has released an album of songs from the soundtrack of the film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues which had, like the film, only limited success; she has recorded 10 songs for a new album, All You Can Eat, due for release at the beginning of October (a single from the album, "If I Were You", is released today); and she has tried to make herself comfortable with the kinds of opportunities made open to her by Ingenue. Chiefly, she has done so by carefully turning away from them because, as she admits, there was a period in the immediate wake of that record when she nearly lost sight of herself altogether.
"It's like a line," she says. "On the far left is the kind of artist that can't deal with success and doesn't want to be involved with anything commercial. And on the far right is pure celebrity. And the closer you get to the middle is the most difficult place to sustain. After Ingenue, I feel I drifted a little over to the right."
The title for All You Can Eat - a record which is tactful and impassioned, rather like a soul album in places and likely to launch lang as far out as she has ever been, commercially speaking - refers specifically to this period. "It was as if I was standing in front of all these plates of food and I got to decide: the bigger money, the endorsements, the fancy cars, the nice houses, the prettier girls who don't really give a shit about your personality ... Did I want to go for the sugary, deep-fried stuff? Or did I want to go for the more substantial stuff that you know is going to sustain you longer? And it's tough, because you really want to eat the candy."
lang is Canadian, but her first albums were in the vein of traditional American country and western music. One of them, Shadowland, was produced by Owen Bradlee who had worked with no less a country and western eminence than the late Patsy Cline. lang thus earns an entry in Richard Carlin's Biographical Encyclopaedia of Country Music, but other kinds of endorsement from the American country establishment tended to escape her. Widespread radio play, for instance. The establishment, though forced to admit the proximity of lang's aching voice to the sound of Cline, was rendered uneasy and, in some cases, downright hostile by the fact that a) lang is a lesbian and b) she is a vegetarian, which did not go down too well in traditional beef-farming communities.
Then came Ingenue, a pop album with something of the spirit of the torch song at its heart, many of the songs drawing on the emotional strain lang was going through following a bout of unrequited love. This produced an American radio hit ("Constant Craving") and, in Britain, all but suffered the fate of the first Sade album, in which a record dies a nasty and unfair death through sheer ubiquity - the likelihood of hearing it in every bar, shop and dinner party in the country. It survived, though, to mark lang out as something special. Above all an interpreter of songs, she demonstrated the kinds of virtues which mainstream pop music had, by and large, surrendered in favour of beat and sound and attitude. She talks about the record now in terms of finding another kind of middle ground - "the middle ground between being an alternative artist and a classic singer".
lang herself had, even before this point, seemed an arresting mix. As hinged and straightforward a person as it would be possible to imagine, at the same time she apparently reserved the right to indulge occasional bouts of deeply interesting kookiness. Her spell as a drama-college performance artist in Vancouver was routinely mentioned in this regard, in particular the show she did which re-enacted open-heart surgery and which lasted for 10 hours. People also brought up, in tones variously of consternation and amazement, her claim in subsequent years to be the reincarnation of Patsy Cline. (lang has since claimed she was interpreted a little literally in this: she had taken the part of Cline in a college drama based on the singer's life and had sunk herself so deep into the role that she felt, from that point on, somehow saturated by Cline's influence.)
She declared her lesbianism publicly in an interview with an American magazine in 1992. She had told her mother when she was 17 but remained anxious about the prospect of a wider declaration. "I kept fighting between questions. Do I need to come out? Do I have to? Do I want to? Aren't I out already? And doesn't making an announcement about coming out make it seem like something more alternative than it actually is? All these questions going round and round and round ..."
She says that the direct consequence of her announcement was a kind of relief. For one thing, people stopped having to ask her the question. But she says it freed her in other ways, too: "Not in the way that I felt I could now say `she' in a song. That's not the pay-off. The pay- off is in your daily life, in your honesty. Just living in truth is different."
In 1993, lang was considered hot enough to go on the bill with George Michael and Mick Hucknall at the Princess of Wales's Concert of Hope at Wembley Arena on World Aids Day. (She remembers being "revved up" for that show: "I had fantastic rehearsals. I was singing like God.") The publicity team employed by the fashion designers Dolce e Gabbana took it upon themselves to telephone each of the journalists who were reviewing the concert and point out that lang was wearing a Dolce e Gabbana frock. It looked at the time like an extraordinary and rapid career move: from alternative country punk star to covetable designer clothes-horse in one leap. This piece of business, lang insists, induces in her a wince of shame.
"You think these people want you to wear their stuff because they get great satisfaction out of it. But then you hear they're calling everybody up and saying you're wearing their clothes. And that's so unlike me to have a press release about what I'm wearing. Especially in Britain - I thought, `I'm going to get killed for this.' You take the free clothes, but actually nothing is free. That's what you have to learn. That's a really clear example of All You Can Eat."
The intervening years have seen a kind of hermit life. The relative failure of the Even Cowgirls Get the Blues soundtrack helped: "It shocked me back into some kind of reality." lang began to spend less time in Los Angeles, where she had moved after Ingenue, and spent more time back in Vancouver, which is the home of her musical collaborator, Ben Mink.
"I hardly ever listen to music," she says. She does not read books and claims she never has. "My attention span isn't up to it and it hurts my eyes. I'll attempt to read something, but I go off after a very short time. I do read the dictionary, though. I'm interested in words to that extent." On planes, she just sits. "Generally, I kind of pray or visualise or meditate on things I want to accomplish. If I have a TV show coming up, I think about the way I want to approach it. I rehearse a lot in my head. I do scales - not vocally, but in my head."
Her life seems sparse. "I am a lack-of-clutter person," she says. She owns a Toyota Landcruiser and a Harley Davidson motorbike, but these would be pretty much her only concessions to luxury. "I had some records once, but they got wasted in a move. They got wet. Now I just have a bunch of CDs. I don't like to feel responsible for stuff." The Harley is kept in Los Angeles and she uses it for long, ruminative rides through the hills, "going at 15mph, really slow, and maybe deciding to go through a ditch and hang out under a tree" - this spoken in a tone of bottomless pleasure.
She is presently single and her "home" in the Hollywood hills turns out to be just a rented cabin. "A little bigger than this," she says, gesturing round the small boardroom in which we are sitting. She also has a recording studio on the second floor of a building in Vancouver with a bed upstairs in the attic. She bought a farm near Vancouver but gave it to her sister, who "works out horses" on the land. "In that sense, it's a working farm - but we don't take a crop up, or anything like that." Her sister is, she says, "very bright, very funny, eccentric. She keeps seven dogs." Also: "She's my biggest critic. I truly trust her opinions."
lang finishes her water. She says she is nervous about her album. "It could flop, it could be huge. You just don't know." Actually, you do. It will be huge. And after that? She says she has "a hankering for living in Europe". She noticed when she was last on tour in Spain that people there seemed to have a different way of listening to music. They were less, as she puts it, "externally oriented. A lot of them had their heads down and their eyes closed." If the move to Europe ever happened, she says she would probably elect to live in Barcelona. And she would arrive without baggage.Reuse content