Obsessed by country music but born in Canadaﬁaeeéss has come slowly for kd lang. Now, with her new LP Absolute Torch and Twang. she is poisedftﬁomak‘éit’v big on her own terms — no make-up. no jewellery. no compromise. She tells Tom Lappin why "you'don’t have to be a coalminer‘s daughter to sing country.‘
Born and raised in the farming community ofConsort (population 650), learning the guitar at the age of ten and idolising Patsy Cline seems as fine a start as any for a country singer‘s CV. The fact that Consort was in Alberta, Canada. rather than Tennessee, USA. might have been a problem, but for Kathy Dawn Lang, possessed of a voice occupying the interesting middle ground between Patsy Cline and Julie London, it was not insurmountable.
By the early Eighties. kd lang (‘When I write I always print in small letters, so that‘s how I spell my name.‘) and her band, the reclines. were everyone‘s darlings in downtown Edmonton, playing lang‘s own emotion-packed compositions. A large local following resulted in the release oftheir first LP, A Truly Western Experience, and interest from major record companies.
Signing to Sire Records, lang released Angel With A Lariat in 1987, a record that was still based in country but allowed the singer to roam a little further afield than the traditional sound normally allowed. That licence was taken to further extremes on lang‘s latest album, Absolute Torch and Twang.
The lang ‘sound‘ is difficult to pin down, as it drifts from straight down the line country laments to upbeat post-80$ declarations of intent, with unashamed rock arrangements. What you always end up focussing on, though, is the gloriously individual voice and its ability to elicit an edgy emotional response from a genre that normally struggles to escape from schmaltz.
If lang‘s music has up to now stretched beyond country restrictions, her image has never ﬁtted the normal genre stereotypes. She deliberately avoids the airbrushed glamour cover shots beloved of artists like the J udds or K.T. Oslin, preferring the images of herself to be truthful relections of her personality. Make-up and designer clothes are out. In a musical
field where tassels, spangles and loads ofjewellery are de rigueur (and that‘s just the men) lang‘s understated style stands out. There‘s obviously no room for the trivial or the superficial here. When she talks about her work, she is cagey. and very serious about her ambitions. and her degree of control over her work and image, which extended further than just an antipathy for capital letters.
‘lt‘s really important for me to be honest with my needs and desires in terms of my vision,‘ she says. ‘I have to stay really natural and honest about what I‘m doing, and not let anything present itself in the way of compromise. l was asked to pose for
Elle and Vogue magazines when they
were doing pieces on country music, and the thing I feel proud about is that I wore literally no make-up and my own clothes, so it was just a representation of me, totally. I felt I accomplished something by just presenting myselfthe way I am. Obviously there is a danger of being manipulated, but what I‘ve found so far is that if an artist has a really severe focus on what they want to accomplish. and ifthey are successful at it, I don‘t think that the record company is going to want to manipulate them.‘
Lang certainly has that ‘severe focus’, exemplified by her second major label LP Shadowlands, a
' tribute to the classic country records
of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn that were produced in Nashville by the legendary Owen Bradley. Bradley was so impressed by lang that he came out ofsemi-retirement to produce the album. The result. with the same musicians, arrangements and cover design as the Cline and Lynn albums, even including Lynn and Brenda Lee on backing vocals, served as a deeply-felt tribute, albeit slightly over-reverent. ‘Because of my obsession with Patsy Cline, it was kind of a big goal of mine to be as close to her as possible.‘ lang
explains. "That meant getting ()wen Bradley involved. and the musicians who played on a lot of the Cline sessions. It was something l had the need to do. I wasn‘t trying to emulate her. ortrying to prove anything. It was just a desire, a dream. And I managed to complete it.‘ She obviously cheered up ()wen Bradley in the process. as he was moved to describe her as ‘therapy after an illness of mine. After working with kd I didn‘t need my pills any more.‘ In addition to its healing powers. Shadow/ands won lang a niche in the notoriously conservative country music establishment. ‘It was pretty much well-received.‘ she says. ‘because it was made in Nashville with a Nashville producer and a lot of Nashville songs on it. In terms of pure country. it was the most accepted of any of my records. Absolute Torch and Twang was produced in Vancouver by us with mostly original songs, so it wasn‘t so welcome. Nashville has this thing where. ifthey don‘t monopolise the whole record and production and songs, even how you look. then they have a hard time accepting you.‘
The snobbery of the Nashville establishment is a source of annoyance to lang (although it‘s ‘not worth losing any sleep over‘) and seems particularly farcical when it comes to the awarding of the annual self-congratulatory awards. ‘lt‘s kind ofweird. I won a Grammy for the best female country vocalist, but that has absolutely no bearing on how the country establishment accepts me. because they‘re completely different things. Even though I won the highest honour for a country artist in the Grammies, I‘ve never even been nominated for the Country Music Awards. It‘s all quite contrary and paradoxical, but it gives me this alternative edge that I feel quite comfortable having.‘
Absolute Torch and Twang manages to incorporate plenty of the old-style country themes of lost lovers and found romance. yet still
leaves room for more idiosyncratic touches like the celebration of the life ofa ‘big-boned girl from Southern Alberta‘. a welcome touch of humour on the album. Lang certainly doesn‘t feel constrained by audience expectations. ‘When I‘m writing a song, I‘m more concerned with getting down what‘s emotionally inside of me,‘ she says. ‘I guess it‘s when you‘re actually producing the record that you start to think about your market, if that sort ofthinking ever enters the picture. I‘ve been aware ofwho my audience is, from the older people who liked Shadowlands to the alternative crowd. but I‘ve never tried to eliminate my quirks, or to compromise form. My audiences understand my approach. I‘ve never misled them.‘
Lang is speaking from Los Angeles, on the last legs ofthe tour to promote Absolute Torch and Twang. It might just be a touch of- touring ennui, but she gives the impression of being keen to change direction, and experiment with different musical styles. ‘In the past, I‘ve homed in on my style,‘ she says, ‘and my idea ofwhat my music should be. Ican‘t define it. I‘m inﬂuenced by hip-hop, by anything that‘s happening. My biggest country mentor was obviously Patsy Cline. but at the moment I listen mostly to jazz or ethnic music, so it‘s pretty much wide open. I haven‘t had a chance to do anything like that yet, but it‘s inside of me. I just haven‘t had the chance to let it out.‘
It‘s an intriguing prospect, but for now audiences will just have to marvel at lang‘s voice and reﬂect that to sing country you don‘t have to be a coalminer‘s daughter, battered by your husband, unlucky with aeroplanes, or even born in the USA.
kd lang plays at the King 's Theatre, Glasgow on Thurs 24. Support comes from The Liberties.
The List 18—31 May 19905