For the lesbian community, k.d. lang was the first. The first out lesbian to grace mainstream fashion magazine covers. The first out lesbian in pop music. The first out lesbian icon. She is a visionary, an innovator, a leader. But don't ask her to talk about it.
After more than a decade of being 'out,' the subject of being gay and out is of no interest to her. What she wants to talk about is the music. That's how her life started—with an obsession for music—and that devotion continues with a new CD and new tour this summer.
Amy Matheny: When do you remember finding your voice as a little girl?
k.d.: Probably when I failed my piano lessons [laughing] and my teacher suggested I try singing. That was at the age of five. Pretty early.
AM: Were you the type to boisterously sing around the house?
k.d.: I remember singing constantly. Always. Always.
AM: Your voice led you to a career in country music. What was good and what was bad about that time in your life?
k.d.: It was all good. There was no bad. I went in there understanding I was going in as kind of an oddball and that I was challenging the traditional expectations of a female singer at that time. I didn't really want to be included in the mainstream of country music, so I think I got what I wanted. I think it turned out perfectly … . I am a musical nomad and I didn't feel that I wanted to stay there forever. That was never my intention, so I moved on after a while. For seven years in country music … certainly, I enjoyed myself while I was doing it but I knew that there were other types of music that I wanted to sing as well.
AM: In 1992 you released your first Crossover album, Ingénue, and you came out in that year. Was that a tough decision?
k.d.: It was something I mulled over for sure and considered whether or not it was a necessity, but I think during the time the AIDS crisis was at its peak and I really felt it was the most responsible thing to do.
AM: Did you feel you were going to be outed or (there was) too much pressure from questions about your personal life?
k.d.: Yeah, well, that definitely was a part of it. Absolutely.
AM: How did it affect your career?
k.d.: I think I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I don't think Ingénue would have sold as many records if I hadn't have been on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford. So I think that it … ya know, I think I am kind of tired of answering questions about it.
AM: So we'll move on. In the '90s you were bit by the acting bug. Is there more acting in your future?
k.d.: No. Not really. I guess that is kind of just one of the benefits or drawbacks of living in Hollywood that it comes around … [laughing] …to you. But I don't consider myself an actor. I'm a singer and it's very different and I'll leave the acting to the actors.
AM: But did it evoke some thoughts for you about (live) performance … after having been in front of the camera? And I guess video work would also affect you in that way.
k.d.: I don't think that it did. I think that I am very self-conscious in front of the camera and I think onstage I am very free. So I think if anything, it reinvigorated my love for live performance.
AM: You talk about being free in a live setting, you often sing barefoot (in concert). Why is that?
k.d.: Cause it feels good.
AM: Are you barefoot most of the time?
AM: Does it make you feel more grounded while singing?
k.d.: Yeah. I feel more stable, more natural. It just really feels better and more comfortable.
AM: You have a new album coming out this summer that connects you to your Canadian roots. Tell us about the album.
k.d.: It's a Canadian Songbook, essentially, with all Canadian songwriters and it's songs that have been a part of my musical DNA and my musical heritage. These are songs that are really emotionally connected to me.
AM: Who are some of the artists you are covering?
k.d.: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith ... . It's called Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
AM: Do you know when it will come out?
k.d.: July 27.
AM: Your last two albums were the Grammy Award-winning album with Tony Bennett and a recording of your A&E Live By Request concert which Tony helped produce. How did you first connect with Tony Bennett?
k.d.: In 1993 Tony did MTV Unplugged and asked me to come on that show and sing a duet with him. That was when we first met. We immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits. I opened for Tony three years ago on a summer tour and that's when he asked me to do 'Wonderful World' with him. So it has been long friendship.
AM: When he asked you to come on MTV, had he just heard your music?
k.d.: I guess so. Yeah. He had a handful of people that he asked to sing duets and I was lucky enough to be one of them.
AM: He is a great interpreter of song. What is it like to be onstage with him and has he influenced you?
k.d.: Absolutely he's influenced me. It's an unbelievable blessing to be onstage with him. It's kind of indefinable to find out how he influenced me directly, but I catch myself doing things and I stop myself and go, 'Oh my god, that is totally Tony's influence.' It is such a precious gift to be influenced and [taught] by one of the last bearers of that era and to have firsthand instruction and teaching. It's amazing!
AM: What moves you so effortlessly from these very different genres from CD to CD, from country to the sultry sounds of Ingénue to the American Songbook?
k.d.: Inspiration. I really try to follow my instincts and my creative flow and pay attention to that and not disallow myself to try something. I think that having a genuine open mind and love for music allows me to appreciate music, all music, and maybe that's why I move around so much.
AM: So what was influencing you when you were moving from country music to Ingénue?
k.d.: The Ingénue influences were there prior to country. The Ingénue influences went back to my earlier influences of Joni Mitchell and Peggy Lee and European music and those were my basic foundation.
AM: With your new CD coming out in July, you seem now to be back full circle, back to the roots of where you started musically and back to the voice of yourself as a little girl (in Canada.)
k.d.: Yes. Definitely.
AM: You have collaborated with huge talent like Tony Bennett to Ben Mink to Roy Orbison. Tell me the essentials you must have for a great collaboration.
k.d.: I think you must have a common understanding, a common appreciation of music, humor of life, a spiritual connection. I've just been really lucky with collaborators I've come across and really liked the people I've worked with … . Some really great things came from my relationship with Roy (Orbison), which was just an amazing moment in life, and Owen Bradley who produced Patsy Cline and Shadowlands. Those are the kind of collaborations you dream about.
AM: Who do you dream of working with next?
k.d.: Well the whole thing is that I never would have dreamed of working with Roy Orbison and I never would have dreamed of working with Tony Bennett. Life just throws these curves at you. If you are awake you take up the challenge and then the fruits of your labor blossom. I think it's the unpredictable that's the most interesting to me.
AM: At Ravinia you will perform with the Chicago Symphony. What can people expect at the concert?
k.d.: I will be doing more than half from my catalog and about five or six songs from the new record, so a combination. Pretty focused on singing. My choreography has kind of settled down and I am only changing six times instead of 12 so [laughing] no, I'm going to focus on the singing.
AM: You were chosen by Audi as one of eight cultural innovators. Their campaign is 'Never Follow.' Has it always been tough for you to follow?
k.d.: To tell you the truth I am such a geek, I am so far behind that it looks like I am not following.
AM: Everybody has lapped you. Is that what you are saying?
k.d.: [laughing] Exactly.
AM: But seriously, there are some pretty dynamic artists honored in this group.
k.d.: It was quite an honor. An incredible honor! I don't know what I was doing there. But I have to say, I was so appreciative for Audi and they are sponsoring my tour this year and I really couldn't have done it without them.
AM: A question I always like to ask musicians and singers is what is in your CD player right now?
k.d.: Nothing. I listen to the radio mostly.
AM: So what turns you on that you hear on the radio?
k.d.: Right now, Rachael Yamagata, Phillip Glass, stuff like that … I listen to NPR … and Windy City Radio when I am in Chicago … [laughs].
AM: What would people be surprised to know about you?
k.d.: I am sure that there would be an answer for every individual.
AM: There has to be something we don't know?
k.d.: Probably. [Laughing] Ummmm ... I'm straight?
AM: We won't believe that! You have said that you are more focused when in love. So how focused are you right now?
k.d.: I am probably more focused than I have ever been. That's not because I am in love but because I am getting older and I am more focused. I'm really REALLY happy to be on the road and to be with the symphony. I am just really proud with this record coming out. I am VERY focused right now.
k.d. lang performs at Ravinia July 6 with the Chicago Symphony. And if you can get to LA, a concert not to be missed is k.d. lang at the Hollywood Bowl with opening act Rufus Wainwright in late July. More details at ravinia.org or k.d.lang.com