k d lang: ‘I think Ingénue is a bit of a signpost culturally for the gay community’
k d lang is on an anniversary tour for her seminal 1992 album Ingénue. She talks to Duncan Seaman ahead of her Hull gig.
Released in March 1992, the album Ingénue transformed Canadian singer k d lang from a well-regarded but modest-selling country artist into a genuine mainstream star whose music – and image as a gay icon – reached far beyond North America.
Twenty-five years later she began a our to commemorate its silver anniversary tour. It finally reaches British shores this month – on July 13 she plays at Hull’s Bonus Arena.
Although lang has made eight studio albums since Ingénue, the 57-year-old feels it “definitely” still holds a special place in her catalogue, partly because of its commercial success, but also, she says, “I think for me it really marked a shift in the music I was doing”.
“Prior to that I was doing country music and using imagery and the chordal structure of country music but Ingénue was a shift to what was really instilled in me and what I truly grew up with, which was Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and Rickie Lee Jones.” There were also Eastern flavours from her co-writer and guitarist Ben Mink. “So it really marked a truer reflection of my influences,” she says.
As significantly, lang appreciates it was “a social marker”. “The record I think was quite vulnerable and honest and at the time there was a big shift in the gay culture evolution and Constant Craving and that record marked that.”
As Ingénue proceeded to sell by the million, lang was famously photographed by Herb Ritts for the cover of Vanity Fair, being shaved in a barber’s chair by swimsuit-clad supermodel Cindy Crawford. Small wonder, then, that she says: “I think it’s a bit of a signpost culturally for the gay community.”
The album was actually Kathryn Dawn Lang’s fifth. She and Mink had begun working together on her 1987 record Angel With a Lariat, while producer Greg Penny had been at the helm of her 1989 album Absolute Torch and Twang, for which lang won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
“Ben and I definitely had a strong communication,” she says. “We spoke a similar language when we were talking music and approach and developed a sound together. Greg Penny was somebody that we trusted musically, so we felt we had a strong team that had a similar vision.”
Between them they created a timeless blend of country, pop, MOR, torch songs and singer-songwriter confessionals. Musicians such as Gary Burton and David Piltch also added a subtle jazz influence. Lang says: “I think I was keen to move beyond country my whole life. I never considered myself a country artist and I certainly don’t now. Jazz? Not like the strict parameters of jazz, but jazz influences, for sure.”
Years after its release, lang said she had initially had reservations about the album’s signature song, Constant Craving, fretting at the time that its obvious hit potential made it something of a “sellout”. Having performed it hundreds of times since 1992, she feels her relationship with it has changed. “It’s really interesting,” she considers. “Of course it’s changed with the years. You know it’s a beautiful thing to play a song that people respond so positively to and sing along, so that obviously changes my relationship to it, but what really changed my relationship to Constant Craving was we play Ingénue in its entirety on the Redux tour and Constant Craving is the last song of 40 minutes of music that is intensely insular, and then Constant Craving comes and it’s like this acquiescence into the fact that we all suffer the same desires and needs as human beings when it comes to relationships and so forth and that never became so apparent as it does on this tour for me.”
Such was lang’s profile in the wake of Ingénue’s success that Madonna declared: “Elvis is alive and she’s beautiful.” The pair were photographed partying together, but Lang recently denied they’d had a romance.
Fame, she says, had its upside, but its appeal was short-lived. “It was fun at the time for a couple of years then the sparkle wore off pretty quickly for me because it’s a high maintenance lifestyle, it really takes a lot of energy to have a different outfit every night, it’s high intensity and I felt like it was detrimental to the energy towards music that I should have tried to maintain. So I stepped back pretty quickly and All You Can Eat, which was the follow-up record to Ingenue, was kind of a statement on excess.”
Lang’s openness about her sexuality had a significant cultural impact. Was she aware of its resonance in the wider world at the time? “Yes and no,” she says after pausing to reflect. “It’s hard when you’re in the middle of something to have the perspective, and certainly you don’t know historically what the perspective is going to be, but I knew that it was important, I knew that it was a social responsibility, and I knew that it would have an impact. But I certainly didn’t know years later that it would have an impact.
“I’m certainly proud of any movement I have contributed to in terms of openness and moving forward in gay culture.”
The forthcoming British dates will be lang’s first shows in this country for more than a decade. She says she needs an all-encompassing reason to go on stage these days, admitting the allure of touring has worn off over time. “I love to sing for people, that hasn’t dwindled,” she says. “I think my need for audiences has dissipated, my need for the accolades has kind of dissipated, but I also feel like it’s what I have to offer so it’s probably a good thing to do once in a while.
“The older I get and the more climate change becomes an issue with travelling and touring, touring the UK is very expensive for us as well, so that places limitations, but I’m very excited to be coming back and to be travelling in the UK again.”
Does she find herself transported back to the heady days of 1992-93 when she’s singing the songs from Ingénue? “I thought I would,” she says. “Maybe at the very opening of the show there’s a moment where it feels very familiar because I tired to emulate that with this show, but I have to say that the band I’m travelling with they’re so good and they’re so interesting in how they play it, we’ve made a conscious decision to play some of the songs very similar to how they were recorded but in the middle of the record we kind of take some liberties. It’s musically very exciting because we’re taking it to places that are different every night because of the prowess of the musicians. It’s refreshing for me every night to be on stage with this band.”
After living in Los Angeles and then Portland, Oregon, lang has returned to Canada, settling in Calgary with her partner. Being nearer to her elderly mother “wasn’t the impetus” for the move, the singer says, but “that’s certainly the benefit”. She sounds relieved that her relocation happened before political climate in the US changed dramatically. “It was a little bit before Donald Trump became president, so I feel very protected and blessed by my circumstances,” she says.
Today she writes less about relationships and love in her songs. Lang says her Buddhist faith has led her to be interested in bigger matters. “I think grander issues – spirituality, human struggle, that sort of thing,” she says.
k d Lang plays at the Bonus Arena, Hull on July 13. kdlang.com