Capturing Vulnerability: A Conversation with K.D. Lang

K.D. Lang has crafted a career filled with luminous vocals, songs that tease out the hidden realms of the heart, and reveal much of her artist’s soul.  Whether considering her tongue in cheek but honest celebration of country music, her exploration of the American song book, or her own carefully penned songs, it is clear that she deftly defies categorization, and embraces singing as an art form all its own. 

Six years in the making, her most recent release, Watershed, sees Lang as both writer and producer.  The result is an almost shockingly intimate glimpse into her inner life, and is a reflection upon her place in the world.

After traveling with these songs for a year, her world tour culminates in a final performance at the Long Beach Terrace Theater on Saturday, November 22nd.  She’s donating all her earnings from this show to Ari Bhöd.  She graciously took some time to speak with me about her work, and the upcoming performance.

“It is the end of our tour this year.  We’ve been touring since February, so it’s been quite an extensive one, and I wanted to end it with a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation, or Ari Bhöd.  My teacher, Lama Gyatso Rinpoche, is the presiding ‘Rinpoche.’  It is a Buddhist retreat property, but the Foundation really does a lot of cultural preservation in terms of preserving texts, and promoting the cultural ambitions of Tibet, their language, protecting relics.  Ari Bhöd is a daily thing for me.  It’s something I really believe in.”

I asked her if, after touring Australia, Europe, Canada, the US, if the songs had changed.

“They’ve gotten better, for sure. I’m kind of an opposite musician when it comes to the correlation between stage and studio.  To me, records are advertisements for what I do best, which is the live performance.  For me, live performance always elevates the music, and that’s certainly been the case with Watershed.  I wouldn’t say that we’ve changed [the songs], but they’ve certainly evolved and expanded.”

In another interview, Lang spoke of an on-going effort to distill singing down to its essence.  I asked her to elaborate on that.

“It’s kind of an ominous thing to tackle, but I look at is as a life-long project, and something that I don’t expect to ever really truly conquer, but it is the direction I’d like to take my vocal style.  To me, it is about doing all the work prior to the performance: Understanding the subtext of a song, the narrative of a lyric, the technical aspects of the vocal approach but then, when you hit the stage, you let go of all the intellectual attachment to it and get down into the emotional flow of the song through you, and get out of the way of it.”

I asked her if that process dovetailed with her spiritual practices.

“At this point, honestly, music and spirituality are completely inseparable.  They’re so immersed in each other for me that it’s very hard for me to make distinctions.”

I asked her if she had begun to plan her next project.

“As you can imagine, when you have months and months of shows ahead of you, you don’t really think about it.  I’m only now beginning to think about what I’m feeling, where I’m headed, but it takes a while to come down, let the jet lag catch up with me a little bit, and see where, musically, I’m headed.  I have to listen a bit, and see where my tastes are leading me.”

I asked if releasing a CD of songs she’d written felt more risky than her last few, which featured songs written by others.

“It’s always risky, because I don’t consider myself a songwriter foremostly.  I’m definitely a singer, foremostly. Songwriting is something that I’ve always balanced with interpretation as a vocalist.  It makes me a more rounded artist, a more rounded vocalist, to be able to experience songs from the core, from the inside out and from the outside in.  My interpretive work, with my songwriting, feed off each other as well.”

As I listened to Watershed, I couldn’t help but notice an intimacy that pervades the lyrics.

“That is another thing I’d like to hone in on as I get older:  To be more direct, more open, more vulnerable.  As the producer on the record I really tried to capture the vulnerability and the rawness, the creative aspect of being a songwriter.  In this case, a lot of the very very first [vocal] performances of the songs were captured on the record, and I built the songs out from those very initial performances.  The intimacy was definitely the focus of the entire production.  It doesn’t always work but, for some reason, because I was the producer and saw the production from the conception phase to the end, it allowed me to sidestep trying to translate or communicate to other people what I wanted. 

“[The process of translation] can render a derivative sound because the pressure, the time, the studio, and the money you’re spending, [makes] you want to get things done quickly, so you rely on derivative sounding approaches to things.  Doing it myself, on a laptop and with a single engineer in a room, and bringing people in and overdubbing one at a time to fit around the initial performances, allowed me to get it exactly the way I intended it as a songwriter, and really gave me a whole lot of time, over the course of a year and a half, or two years, to get it the way I wanted.  Really more like 7 years because I started writing in 2001. 

“It was an incredibly rewarding process, and it gave me enough time to gain the confidence to finish the production myself.  I’m really proud of it.  Producing is not something I felt the need to prove.  That wasn’t the motivation for producing Watershed.  It was really out of the most beneficial approach for the music.  In terms of producing in the future, I don’t really have any intention, but I think it worked pretty well on this record.”

I asked her if she was striving for the kind of cohesion some of her themed albums had.

“Oh yeah, definitely!  It’s funny because, like I said, I’d been writing it over seven years so I wasn’t sure if there was a cohesive thread, or sonic cohesion.  Again, taking the time to edit and craft the sound, when I started to really look at it as a whole, as an album’s worth of songs, I started to see that it was cohesive.”

Because the upcoming show will be the last for her this year, I asked if she had any surprises up her sleeve.

“Nope!  There’s no point in changing now.  It’s definitely going to be a celebration.  We’re going to play with our hearts on our sleeves because we’ve had a great year, a very successful year, a very rewarding and fun tour, the band’s been wonderful, and we just all fell in love with each other, and it went by very quickly.  That’s a sign of a good tour.  So we’re going to go out and I’m sure we’re going play with a little extra emotion and a little extra oomph on Saturday night.”

Los Angeles based composer and pianist Dustin O'Hallorahan has been on tour with Lang, and will open the show.  Tickets are still on sale through Ticketmaster

Note: You can hear a complete, unedited, audio recording of the phone interview, and watch an hilarious video of Lang on the Dame Edna show.

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