In more than 25 years as a major-label artist, k.d. lang has matured from plucky punk to elegant siren. The Western Canada native launched her career in the early ’80s with a blend of country-rock and a playfully rebellious attitude, by turns whimsical and subversive.
From the beginning, her bravura singing belied her kitschy cowgirl outfits and spiky hair; anyone lucky enough to attend her very first appearance in the United States, on a triple bill of unsigned artists at New York City’s Bottom Line, could hear that she was marked for greatness.
After releasing A Truly Western Experience on an indie Edmonton label and generating serious major-label interest in the U.S., lang joined Sire/Warner Bros. at the behest of VP Seymour Stein for her 1987 American debut, Angel with a Lariat, produced by Dave Edmunds and cut with her then-band the Reclines.
Her follow-up album in 1988, Shadowland. brought lang right to the heart of Nashville for a collaboration with legendary producer Owen Bradley, mentor to lang’s idol, Patsy Cline, and Brenda Lee. In fact, Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells make guest vocal appearances on the album’s “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.”
But lang wasn’t looking to be pigeonholed. Her 1989 Grammy Award-winning Absolute Torch and Twang combined her love of country with increasingly sophisticated, emotive torch singing. With the 1992 platinum-selling Ingenue, she had fashioned a sound – if not a genre – all her own: an elegant and impassioned adult contemporary approach. That yielded her biggest hit, “Constant Craving,” and yet another Grammy. On subsequent releases, lang continued to both fine-tune and expand the parameters of her songwriting and her repertoire.
With Hymns of the 49th Parallel, her 2005 Nonesuch Records debut, lang presented her most compelling set of material by other songwriters — all of them, in this case, fellow Canadians. Her interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” is understated yet stunning. It has understandably become, along with her breathtaking cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” an in-concert showstopper.
Her 2008 release, the beautiful and self-assured Watershed, was, as the title suggests, a pivotal moment for lang — her first effort as producer in addition to singer and songwriter. The Times of London declared: “It’s a quirk of the music industry that one of the sexiest, most sensual voices in all of pop music comes not from some raven-tressed siren in a glitter-dress but a middle-aged woman with a utility haircut and a penchant for male tailoring.”
In 2011, she returned to her band roots, forming the Siss Boom Bang and releasing the playful alt-country LP Sing it Loud.
lang’s work has been regularly featured in movies: “Crying” was originally recorded for a teen comedy called Hiding Out, but her original work for film has been the most powerful. She collaborated with composer Bob Telson on “Barefoot,” the haunting theme of German filmmaker Percy Adlon’s cult classic drama Salmonberries, in which lang also starred. With Jane Siberry, she wrote and performed the incantatory “Calling All Angels” from 1991’s Until the End of the World, and the song has had a deservedly long life on its own.
Along with Siberry, lang has collaborated, in the studio and on stage, with many other pop and country performers, including Bonnie Raitt and Elton John. One of her best-known collaborations has been with veteran crooner Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded the 2002 duets album A Wonderful World, supporting it with a symphonic tour. Bennett may, in fact, be her biggest fan, and he declared to the press what so many others have come to believe over the last three decades: “She’s the best singer of her generation.”
And lang is far from done. Her latest project, with singer Neko Case and folk-country artist Laura Veirs, sees the release of case/lang/viers, an album of fourteen original songs written by the artists over a span of nearly three years, and which includes extensive touring.
Forms her first band, the Reclines
Accepts her first JUNO Award in 1985 for Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Records “Crying” with Roy Orbison
“Constant Craving” wins Best Female Pop Vocal Performance award at the 1993 Grammys.
Releases collaborative album with Tony Bennett, A Wonderful World
Receives a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame
Makes Broadway debut in the musical After Midnight