Maclean’s Interview: k.d. lang

The crooner talks about being in debt, pro football, walking away from fame, and why many of her songs ‘aren’t that good’

Kate Fillion

Crooner k.d. lang
Singer-songwriter k.d. lang’s new four-disc career retrospective, Recollection, includes hits and rare live recordings. The one-time poster girl for lesbian chic, whose voice her sometime duet partner Tony Bennett considers “immortal,” is now a Tibetan Buddhist. The four-time Grammy and eight-time Juno Award winner lives in Los Angeles with her partner of eight years.

Q: On Recollection, all the genres you’ve worked
in—country, pop, torch songs—are represented. Has your voice changed since you started recording 25 years ago?
A: It’s evolved toward being a little more subtle. Aesthetically, I’m a minimalist, and it’s of my own volition that I don’t use the power so much. But I don’t actually think it’s changed that much.

Q: For a few years, starting in 1992, you were a huge star, and then you more or less walked away from the limelight. Do you look back on that period with regret?
A: No. I wouldn’t trade it for the world because it was an amazing experience and I’m really glad I had it, and I’m really glad it’s in the past. It’s my life, what can I say? It’s one of those branches that falls off and leaves a very interesting shape in my trunk.

Q: One of the discs is a DVD with videos, mostly made at the height of your fame. What’s it like to watch them now?
A: The hair, the weight, the age—that stuff can make you cringe, but it doesn’t override the feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Q: Do you think videos amplify music or expand its meaning somehow?
A: I always felt the opposite, that videos are actually a nemesis to music, because to impose visuals and images on a song is actually unfair to the audience. I stopped doing them in 1995 or something. It was pleasant to stop because I never liked the whole video world but also because I was responsible for 50 per cent of the bill.

Q: In 2005, you sued your former manager for misappropriating $2 million of your money. Has that been settled?
A: Yes and no. All the legal things are finished, but it’s still ongoing.

Q: Because you don’t have the money back?
A: Uh, yeah.

Q: At least that process must have made you more aware of what was going on with your investments. Did that leave you better prepared for the recession?
A: In a way. I had no money, so I didn’t worry about losing anything! [Laughs] I was really prepared for the recession! I’ve been living broke, basically, my whole life.

Q: Do you spend all your money, or…?
A: I don’t really spend money. Okay, I’m not totally broke, but I’m really in debt.

Q: Are you happy with the way your career is being managed now?
A: Yeah, I think so, because I don’t want to have it on the front burner. I like it just simmering. I feel very at ease right now, because it’s at a manageable level. People aren’t chasing me around with cameras and making me feel uncomfortable anymore. I often say fame is kind of like a drug or like sugar: when it’s controlling you, it doesn’t feel good at all. It’s like, you get to the top of a hill and you start downhill and you’re sort of out of control, or you start to depend on it, or people depend on you to be a certain way—it’s beyond you as a person, and I don’t think that’s really healthy.

Q: But don’t you ever yearn for more recognition? For another smash hit like Constant Craving?
A: Definitely. When I’m writing, or about to put out a new record, I think, “Oh God, a hit would be so great!” But I try to not let it ever distract or contribute to my direction. I definitely fantasize about that but it would have to be on my muse’s terms.

Q: A lot of stars use Twitter and social networking sites to push their brands and connect with fans. Why don’t you?
A: It gives me the heebie-jeebies, to be quite honest. The tweeting thing, to me, is just really unnerving. I’m not interested in [hearing about] somebody having a McDonald’s burger and then “oh my God, there’s a dog crossing the street.” It’s a waste of energy on so many levels. I just don’t think I have that much insight into the world to be spreading it around randomly.

Q: But on a website run by your fans, some complain that you don’t care about them enough, that you don’t work hard enough to court them and provide information and merchandise. Is your attitude, “I give them music and that’s enough”?
A: Well, without wanting to sound completely apathetic, yeah. To me, merchandise is kind of crazy. Why would you want to spend $50 on a T-shirt after you spend $75 on a show? I’m a different kind of music fan, so I expect my fans to be like me. I don’t know anything about my favourite artists, and I don’t really want to. When their music comes on, I just faint.

Q: Is singing your day job now, and your practice of Buddhism your vocation?
A Yes, but they’re inseparable. I’m not trying to be nonchalant about music. Focusing on my spiritual practice did make me appreciate music in a way that made me full of gratitude and happiness, almost like it’s a luxury. I don’t work very hard—no, that’s not true, I work hard [on music], but I do a lot for my other life, my spiritual life, in terms of fundraising and cleaning toilets at the [Buddhist] retreat centre and so forth.

Q: Does that feel good, to be off a pedestal and expected to clean toilets like everyone else?
A: It’s definitely a really good daily check.

Q: You’ve said your weaknesses are egotism, selfishness and carelessness. Isn’t it difficult to work on that when at every concert, the audience is clapping and cheering?
A: That’s the precise place to work on it. One way is to put myself in the shoes of the listener. Like, focus on how I react and how it feels when I go to see somebody I like perform, and then put myself in that position: know and respect the audience’s reaction but at the same time not own it, not absorb it to the point where I’m attached to it. See it more as a sort of synergy, a happening that’s including me but not about me.

Q: Do you sing every day, in the shower or just walking around?
A: I don’t sing in the shower but hiking, yes. Every day I sing a little something, to the radio, or to the dogs, or a song will come into my head and I’ll sing a line of it, randomly.

Q: Judging from your live recordings, your voice probably sounds just as good. So how is that experience of singing, when it’s just for you and your dogs, different from singing for an audience?
A: There’s no sense of restraint or editing when I’m singing in front of the dogs, and I have the liberty to explore my voice in ways that I wouldn’t do on stage. I have to go into some crazy operatic voice, or some really low weird voice, to explore my voice—the corners of it, the expansions and contractions of it—so that when I get on stage I know how to do that but in a more refined manner. I like to refine to the point where I’m not going to make a mistake performing.

Q: How do you feel about turning 50 next year?
A: If I were turning 50 next year, I’d be fine with it, but I’m turning 50 in a couple of years. Oh wait, you’re right! Next year I am turning 50.

Q: Maybe that’s the answer: you haven’t even thought about it.
A: Fifty is not such a big deal, though 45 was a big one for me, in a good way. I don’t know where I got the idea that, at 45, a woman’s voice is in its prime, but 45 always seemed very romantic and kind of sexy to me.

Q: How do you take care of your voice as you get older?
A: The same way since I was maybe 17. I eat lots of vegetables, lots of raw food. The hydration of vegetables and fruits, especially in their raw state, is extremely positive. I also drink lots of water and I like to sleep a lot.

Q: You’ve said before that you don’t like to read. So how do you actually fall asleep?
A: I am completely, utterly, obsessively addicted to my Scrabble app and my Boggle app on my iPhone.

Q: Doesn’t that keep you awake?
A: I realized last night that it does. I’m exhausted when I put it down, but my head’s still zooming, so maybe it’s not the best.

Q: What’s your top Scrabble score?
A: See, it’s not fair, because on the Scrabble app you can use the best word option, where the computer takes over for you. But I’m going to look it up for you here—it’s 472.

Q: I’ve heard you also love football, which somehow doesn’t seem like something a gay vegan Buddhist would like.
A: But I do. I like the tenacity of the players. I like that somebody gets smashed in a play, then they get up and do it again—though I saw on 60 Minutes that it causes incalculable damage to their brains, which put a slight damper for me on the Super Bowl.

Q: You’re a songwriter as well as a vocalist. Do you feel the music as deeply if you didn’t write it?
A: Sometimes even more, because as a songwriter you have an emotional umbilical cord to the song and it’s hard to expand on your understanding of the lyrics, whereas when you cover a song you can create your own reason why you’re attached to it, plus you have the luxury of listening to other artists’ interpretations.

Q: Your version of Hallelujah is very restrained. What do you think about Leonard Cohen requesting a moratorium on new recordings of that song?
A: I agree with him. It’s a classic, but right now it’s at a total saturation point. I think I’m going to have to retire Hallelujah soon.

Q: Does anyone cover your songs?
A: [Laughs] No.

Q: Why not?
A: Because they suck!

Q: Seriously, is it because other singers don’t want their voices compared to yours?
A: No, I really think it’s because my songs aren’t that good. One of the downsides of covering other people’s material is that I pick the best out of a 30- or 40-year career, then I put my own diddly songs up against them and it’s not really fair.

Q: Come on. There must be a couple you don’t think are diddly.
A: A few. I think Wash Me Clean is a really great song. I Dream of Spring is beautiful. And Constant Craving is okay, too.

Q: You grew up in Consort, a very small town in Alberta. I read an article in the Consort Enterprise that said that there, you can be “just Kathy.” Is that even how you think of yourself, or how you feel?
A: First of all, the name “Kathy” gives me the creeps. I don’t mind Kathryn, but Kathy just doesn’t suit me. I like Consort, it was a town where eccentricities [were viewed as just aspects of] the person, the individual. I never felt ostracized there. I just felt like me. So my experience of Alberta and my hometown was a good one, a supportive one. But my mum moved from there last year, to Edmonton. An era has ended.