K. D. Lang (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: A songwriter and Grammy-winning singer, Lang has achieved success in the genres of country-western and alternative pop music while challenging stereotypes of female popular entertainers.
Kathryn Dawn “K. D.” Lang was born on November 2, 1961, in Edmonton, and was reared with her three older siblings in Consort, a town of almost seven hundred people in the eastern central plains of Alberta, Canada. Her father, Fred, purchased and operated the town pharmacy, and her mother, Audrey, taught elementary school.
Supported by her parents, especially her mother, Lang began to sing at local music festivals when she was five years old, and she continued to perform at school shows and weddings until she finished high school. At the age of seven, she started weekly piano lessons in the town of Castor (about an hour’s drive from Consort), but after three years she switched to playing the guitar. Throughout her childhood, she listened to a wide variety of musical genres, ranging from classical music to Broadway tunes to rock and roll.
Lang’s parents also taught her to challenge gender stereotypes. She actively participated in sports as a javelin thrower and volleyball player. Although her father left the family when Lang was twelve, she had a close relationship with him prior to his departure, and from her father she learned how to ride motorcycles and target shoot. She also...
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Lang, K.D. (Contemporary Musicians)
Her music has been called cow-punk or new wave country. With her spiked short hair and cut-off cowboy boots, she looks like a cross between Dale Evans and Johnny Rotten. Canadian singer K.D. Lang transcends easy labelling but one thing is certainer expressive voice and wild stage shows are bringing a whole new generation of listeners back to country music. With the release of her third album, Shadowland, Lang joined young singers like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis as new stars in the country music firmament. But unlike Yoakam, a country purist who rejects Nashville "schmaltz," Lang embraces both the old and the new. While some have called her unusual renderings of classic tunes campy or even sarcastic, Lang insists her music is sincere.
Kathy Dawn Lang, who likes to go by K.D., seems to have a broad appeal. She has garnered standing ovations everywhere from Vancouver punk clubs to the Grand Ole Opry. The Nashville Banner called her "one of the most exciting new artists to come around in a while." At the same time, Rolling Stone applauded her already "legendary" live performances. Among her many influences, Lang lists Patsy Cline and Boy George. This eclecticism has its drawbacks. She has yet to have a major hit record because radio programmers have a difficult time slotting her in their playlists. Edmonton, Alberta, music director Larry Donohue summed up the problem in Western Report, "A lot of her stuff isn't country enough to go country, and it isn't pop enough to go pop." And Robert K. Oermann, music critic for the Tennessean, explained, "She is in some kind of weird place between artsy new wave and country."
Lang's focus, however, seems to be narrowing as her music matures. She has discarded some of her props, like the Elvis Costello horn-rimmed glasses and the rhinestone-studded cowboy skirts. She says she doesn't want to become known simply as an "act" like Bette Midler's Divine Miss M. Her concern may be warranted. The Nashville Banner once referred to her as a singer with "Patsy Cline's sublime power . . . inside Pee Wee Herman's mind."
K.D. Lang has country roots. She was born Katherine Dawn Lang in 1961 in the tiny town of Consort (pop. 672), Alberta, Canada. Her father ran the local drug-store and her mother was the second grade school-teacher. As a teenager, K.D. earned summer money driving a three-ton grain truck for local farmers. But despite her rural surroundings, Lang's early musical influences were not country. She trained on classical piano and listened to her older sister's rock music collection. "I grew up not liking country music," she told Jay Scott in Chatelaine. "I was brought up in a family that studied classical music, at the piano. We also listened to Broadway shows. And I listened to Janis Joplin and the Allman Brothers." Besides music, young Kathy Dawn was interested in athletics. She was able on the volleyball court, and she claims her first professional ambition was to be a roller derby queen. Later, in college, she dabbled in performance art. She played in productions that ranged from a seven hour re-enactment of Barney Clark's plastic heart transplant to filling up an art gallery with garbage.
But music remained her first love. As a teenager, she was a would-be professional, doing numbers like "Midnight Blue" and the "Circle Game" on her acoustic guitar at weddings and other functions. At college, she discovered the music of Patsy Cline, whose emotional approach drew Lang back to the golden age of country, when singers like Johnny Horton and Hank Williams sang simple tributes to the everyday life of ordinary people.
In 1982 she answered an ad in an Edmonton newspaper for a singer for a Texas swing fiddle band. Her future manager, Larry Wanagas, was at the audition. He knew immediately that a unique talent was ready to be developed. "The first show she did," he told Perry Stem in Canadian Musician magazine, "surprised herself as well as me. I knew she could sing, but what she brought to the stage was this undeniable presence."
For the next two years, Lang and her band, the Reclines, toured throughout Canada. They played country, college, and rock bars. K.D. would stomp out wearing ugly, rhinestone-studded glasses (without lenses) and cowboy boots with the tops sawn off. She would fling herself to the stage in the middle of her version of the 1960s girl-pop classic "Johnny Get Angry." But no matter how contorted her hijinks, her voice rang deep and melodious. She was clearly capable of vocal gymnastics, tumbling from a full-throated alto line one moment to a yelping yodel the next. It didn't take long for the word to spreadhis weird-looking woman from the plains of Alberta was singing country tunes like they had never been sung before.
Her first album, A Truly Western Experience, was recorded during this period on an independent Edmonton label. It showed that her voice could be transposed successfully to vinyl, but it didn't sell well. Then, in the spring of 1985, after playing a gig at New York's Bottom Line club, the head of Sire Records signed her to his label. Seymour Stein was already recording the Talking Heads, Madonna, the Pretenders, and the Ramones. After witnessing her Bottom Line show, he decided she was ready for big-time exposure. "You are what should have happened to country music 30 years ago, " he told her at the time.
Her star was on the rise. In November, she was named Canada's "most promising female vocalist." But in 1986, Lang disappeared from the concert circuit. When she reappeared, she had abandoned the persona that had won her headlines. A restrained, new Kathy Dawn Lang emerged, without the cat glasses and the studied attempts to make herself ugly. "The reason I've tempered my style is because I'm taking my music more seriously," Lang told Western Report. "I'm tired of being written about as some zany, crazy kid. I think the gap between K.D. and Kathy has lessened to the point where I'm almost completely Kathy on stage now." Lang clearly sought to defy the critics who doubted her artistic commitment.
Lang's second album, but first major release, Angel With a Lariat, was the product of K.D.'s new devotion to her music. It was a complex collection of Lang's own pieces and country classics, like Patsy Cline's heartbreaker "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray." Produced in England by rocker Dave Edmunds, it featured the spontaneity of a live performance. And at the same time, it strove to recapture the honesty and purity that Lang found lacking in contemporary country music. The reviews were generous. The Toronto Globe and Mail, for example, called the production "a breathlessly paced, musically adventurous album that's unlike anything in contemporary or rock music."
With the release of her first major commercial effort, K.D. began to look south of the Canadian border. In May, 1987, she made her television debut on "The Tonight Show." Johnny Carson was so impressed that he invited her back three times. She quickly became a television regular, appearing on the Smothers Brothers' program, "Late Night with David Letterman," "Hee Haw," and on pay-TV alongside Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. She also teamed up with music legend Roy Orbison to record a stirring version of the rock veteran's classic ballad "Crying." Their co-production sold more than 50,000 copies in the United States. Nonetheless, major radio airplay still seemed to elude Lang.
In the summer of 1988, Lang released the album that was to feature her vocal talents in a way that Angel With a Lariat never did. Shadowland was produced by country legend Owen Bradley, the man who developed Patsy Cline's talent. Indeed, Shadowland seemed to be a coming-to-terms of Lang's long-time obsession with her mentor and role model. None of the songs on the album are her own. Instead, they are nostalgic, sincere interpretations of emotional ballads known in the country music business as "weepers." There is no wacky sarcasm in these songs; one track, "Honky Tonk Angels' Medley," features country stars who are former Bradley protegees and contemporaries of Cline.
The album has done well, garnering respectable sales and laudatory reviews. Rolling Stone called it a celebration of country music, and Maclean's suggested the collection of Nashville classics was "richly nostalgic" and "a major turning point." A single from the album, Patsy Cline's "I'm Down to My Last Cigarette," climbed both the country and pop charts. And it has been credited with sparking a revival of interest in Cline's work. Her label, MCA Records, has re-released Cline's greatest-hits collection and has issued two previously unreleased recordings.
Her 1989 release, Absolute Torch and Twang, "splits the difference between the unbridled high spirits... of Angel With a Lariat and the more studied, Patsy Cline-influenced studioscapes crafted by legendary country producer Owen Bradley on Shadowland," noted Holly Gleason in a Rolling Stone review. "There are more obvious records Lang could have made," Gleason continued, "ones designed to make her a country queen. Instead, she opted for songs that challenge her abilities and make a case for artistic vision. . . . This album isn't gonna win her any points with the Nashville Network or country-radio programmers, but it shows what country music, when intelligently done, can be."
Lang continues to defy the easy labels. Even without her spiked hair, K.D. Lang stands in stark contrast to the pronounced femininity of Nashville's female country artists. She may mimic country music's golden years, but her mannish looks do not fit in with the bouffant hairstyles of earlier times. When Chatelaine magazine chose Lang as it's 1988 Woman of the Year, she defiantly posed for the magazine cover without makeup. "I am a woman of the 1980s and have been influenced by punk and Boy George," she explained to Maclean's magazine.
A Truly Western Experience, independently produced in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, c.1984.
Angel With a Lariat, Sire, 1987.
Shadowland (includes "I'm Down to My Last Cigarette," "Honky Tonk Angels' Medley," and "Busy Being Blue"), Sire Records, 1988.
Absolute Torch and Twang (includes "Full Moon Full of Love," "Three Days," "Trail of Broken Hearts," "Big Boned Gal," "Luck in My Eyes," "Nowhere to Stand," "Didn't I," and "Big Love"), Sire, 1989.
Calgary Herald, February 14, 1987.
Canadian Composer, December 1985; November 1987.
Canadian Musician, April 1987.
Chatelaine, January 1988.
Maclean's, July 6, 1987; August 3, 1987; May 30, 1988.
People, July 4, 1988.
Rolling Stone, June 16, 1988; July 13, 1989.
Vancouver Sun, March 15, 1986.
Western Report, March 2, 1987; September 28, 1987.
Winnipeg Free Press, April 12, 1986.
Lang, kd (Contemporary Musicians)
Trying to maintain a creative existence on the edge of what was considered socially acceptable was never easy. Excelling and successfully thriving on the periphery of the popular music frontier was almost unheard of at all. For the critically acclaimed and award winning Canadian chanteuse kd Lang, the aforementioned scenario was just her modus operandi.
She was born Katherine Dawn Lang on November 2, 1961, in the tiny prairie town of Consort, Alberta, Canada. Lang was the youngest of the four children born to Audrey and Fred Lang. She grew up in a musical family, where her mother would drive the children to music lessons which were located in a town over an hour away, regardless of the weather. Desiring to study music and art, Lang left Consort in order to attend school at Red Deer College, which was located some 90 miles south of the province's capital of Edmonton. While there, Lang dabbled in performance art while increasingly growing disenchanted with her studies. She eventually dropped out of school in order to concentrate more fully on her musical performances.
Musically, Lang was drawn to country, she even claimed to be the modern day embodiment of Patsy Cline, the famous country crooner who had died in the early 1960s, at the height of her popularity. Stylistically, however, Lang defied categorization and conventions. Her costumes and stage appearances were an eclectic mix of punk and country with her short closely cropped hair, long square dance skirts, chunky boots, and bulky socks.
Lang got a job as the singer of an Edmonton based country swing band, in 1982. The group disbanded shortly thereafter. Undaunted, Lang decided to form her own band and called them the Reclines, in honor of Patsy Cline. In 1984, Lang and the Reclines released their debut effort, A Truly Western Experience, on the Canadian independent label Bumstead. She toured across Canada and managed to find a spiritual home in Toronto where audiences there loved her eclectic and quirky style of mixing rockabilly and country. Her appearance did not bother them at all. Lang's avante garde nature even managed to impress Seymour Stein of Sire Records who signed her and the band to a recording contract. Her first major label album, Angel With a Lariat, was released in 1986. It netted her a Canadian Juno Award for the Best Country Vocalist the very next year. Her sophomore effort, Shadowland was released in 1988. Both of the albums featured Lang and the Reclines funky "cowpunk" melodies and vocals that highlighted Lang's impassioned croonings and torch song stylings.
Increasingly, Lang began to amass a large fan base and win over critics. She won her first Grammy in 1988 for the Best Country Vocal Collaboration for her duet with Roy Orbison on the song "Crying." She won her second Juno Award in 1989 for the Country Music Entertainer of the Year. Despite all of the critical accolades, Lang was ostracized by the country music establishment in Nashville. Commenting on this, she told the London Observer's Alan Jackson that, "I guess they don't think a girl should look or act they way I do. Nashville is very much a white male Christian society, and if you don't play by its rules, you don't really exist."
Her third album, Absolute Torch and Twang was released in the summer of 1989. The following year, Lang won a Grammy for Best Country Female Vocal Performance for Absolute Torch and Twang. Later that same year, 1990, Absolute Torch and Twang was a certified gold selling album in America.
Despite all of the additional critical success Lang garnered for her music, the Nashville country music establishment continued to ignore her. As a result, Lang started to focus her attention and musical skills in other areas, most notably pop jazz and torch song crooning. Commenting on her change in focus, Lang told the New York Times' Michael Specter that, "country music was a part of my life. Now it isn't. We had a good relationship, really, but we wanted each other at arm's length. The people in Nashville didn't want to be responsible for my looks or my actions. But they sure did like the listeners I brought."
1992 saw Shadowland certified gold in America. It also marked the release of the first non-country influenced album by Lang. Ingenue was the first album wholly credited to Lang, not Lang and the Reclines. It was a lounge-tinged collection of torch songs and sweeping ballads. The pop cabaret stylings of Ingenue won Lang new legions of fans, especially among the adult contemporary music aficionados. Critics as well were fond of the album and the new incarnation of Lang.
Her new approach to music was amply rewarded in 1993 as Lang won the Favorite New Adult Contemporary Artist prize at the American Music Awards. She also landed her third Grammy for the Best Pop Female Vocal for the top ten adult contemporary smash hit single, "Constant Craving." Ingenue was certified platinum in America, in March of 1993. Lang also won Juno Awards for Album of the Year for Ingenue, Songwriter of the Year, and Producer of the Year. The video for "Constant Craving" earned Lang the 1993 MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video. Toward the end of that award winning year, Lang released the soundtrack for the film "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."
Lang kept her profile relatively low key until early 1995 when she was named the Best International Artist at the BRIT Awards in London. In the autumn of that same year, she released her next album All You Can Eat. It was another two years before she released another album, the lounge and jazz inspired Drag. In 1997, Lang was bestowed with the honor of the Office of the Order of Canada.
Discussing her success with the Chicago Tribune's Jack Hurst, Lang said, "I'm a living example of success via the media. I've never had radio airplay. I'm a media thing."
(with The Reclines) A Truly Western Experience, Bumstead, 1984.
(with The Reclines) Angel With a Lariat, Sire, 1986.
(with The Reclines) Shadowland, Sire, 1988.
(with The Reclines) Absolute Torch and Twang, Sire, 1989.
Ingenue, Sire, 1992.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (soundtrack), Sire, 1993.
All You Can Eat, Sire, 1995.
Drag, Sire, 1997.
Magill, Frank, ed. Great Lives From History: American Women Series, volume 3, Salem Press, 1995.
Rees, Dayfdd, and Crampton, Luke, Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1988.
Interview, September, 1997.
London Observer, May 27, 1990.
New York Times, July 23, 1992.
Mary Alice Adams