Auld Lang syne

By Paula Yeoman

Kathryn Dawn Lang remembers the moment her alter ego k.d. lang was delivered to the world.

It was the mid-1980s and the young Canadian had just finished touring as a back-up singer with Roy Orbison, when the Big O handpicked her to record a duet of his 1961 classic Crying.

"It was ..." She pauses, momentarily lost for words. "It was unbelievable and I think it was beyond me at that time. I don't think I fully had a grasp on what was happening."

This year marks a quarter century in the business for the Canadian singer-songwriter who grew up on the prairies of Alberta fixated on country legend Patsy Cline.

A four-time Grammy winner, lang has since accumulated a wealth of memorable moments but it is Crying, that one heartbreaking duet with Orbison, which remains a firm favourite.

"Just having Roy beside me at the mic and hearing that voice in a natural setting was amazing. And to be taught the kind of grace and elegance that he exuded; that kind of education is immeasurable. It was like a magical gift to be immersed in that world."

The song rejuvenated Orbison's career and launched a new one upon the world.

If lang wasn't fully aware then of just how significant the moment was, she is now.

"It was being given a song on a golden platter," she explains.

"I don't know if I consciously thought 'I'm going to run with this', but when you're on your journey through life the things that resonate with you, resonate in such a deep manner. It's something that goes inside you and shifts you." When I last spoke to lang two years ago, she was sick with a cold, and tired, having just arrived in Los Angeles on the red-eye from Europe. Her answers to my questions were brief and perfunctory. Although she was promoting her album Watershed, it was obvious she felt she had better things to do.

But it's a very different k.d. lang I meet this time. She is just about to release her first career retrospective, Recollection, celebrating 25 years with her label Warners, and she's full of life. She confesses she's not much of a fan of greatest hits collections but then laughs heartily, admitting she owns quite a few.

Lang is an artist who has never really conformed to one sound. There's her early country period; her 90s pop adult contemporary Ingenue phase; the concept crooning of Drag; the moving homage to her Canadian luminaries on Hymns of the 49th Parallel. And so lang's extensive resume goes on.

"It was an ominous task for all those reasons," lang says of Recollection.

"But when we came up with the idea for structuring it, which was focusing on my actual proper Warner releases, then it became easier. We just went album to album and picked what we thought was the best representation of that record."

The second disc is dedicated to the more extraneous parts of her career - the films, the duets, the tribute records. And for diehard fans, there's a box set of rare gems and videos. Although narrowing down her lengthy and diverse career to just a few plastic discs may have at first been a daunting process, you get the feeling it's also been cathartic for the openly gay singer who lives a modest life in LA with her long-time partner Jamie and their dogs.

She no longer involves herself in Hollywood goings-on as she did earlier in her career - cast your mind back to the "Madonna gets it on with k.d." headlines of the early 90s. Or the eyebrow-raising 1993 Vanity Fair cover where a shaving cream-lathered lang proudly perched in a barber's chair straddled by scantily clad supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Rather, she takes pleasure in pottering around the local farmers' market on a Sunday or riding her 1967 Triumph along the Californian coast. The big 5-0 is looming next year and, as her contemporaries scramble to stave off middle age with double shots of collagen and boob jobs, lang is embracing it.

"Actually 50 doesn't mean that much to me; 45, for some reason, meant a lot. I think it's because it's well documented that at approximately the age of 45 a woman's voice is in her prime. So it was a big year for me. But, yeah, I'll definitely celebrate my birthday." lang "came out" in 1992, later telling media it wasn't her Sapphic lifestyle that sent shockwaves throughout Nashville but the fact she was a vegetarian. Nevertheless, as an openly gay artist in an industry where your star can fall far faster that it rises, she's well qualified to comment on America's progress - or lack thereof - when it comes to accepting gay artists.

And she's not afraid to throw her two cents' worth into the mix when it comes to last year's American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert, who claimed in Rolling Stone magazine he may have won the TV talent show had he not been gay.

"I think it's kind of a glass ceiling thing," says lang. "Being gay certainly gives you a publicity pitch; you can get some attention with it. But I think Adam may have won it if he wasn't out. But I also don't think he would have gotten as much press if he wasn't gay, so it's a catch-22."

As for the furore that followed Lambert's performance at last year's American Music Awards when he kissed a male band member, or even the now-legendary Britney-Madonna faux lesbian kiss at the 2005 MTV Awards, lang has strong words.

"To me, the whole overtly sexual thing is really boring and really misguided. When I see public displays of affection like that, whether it's Madonna or Adam Lambert - and certainly in the 80s I was definitely guilty of it - I find it really boring.

"I think Adam realised it was a tool to get publicity, whether it was negative or positive. And I don't know if he consciously knew that ... Maybe it was genuine and he was moved to kiss his keyboard player. But I think when it's contrived, no matter what sex, or what gender, or what orientation, it's boring."

It's just a topic of digression, though. lang's not really the sort to sit at home and worry herself silly about who's kissing whom in Hollywood. She has a new greatest hits album to promote and is excited about getting back in the studio in March to make a new record, undeterred by the doom-and-gloom reports of a flailing record industry.

But this is lang we're talking about, a vegetarian lesbian, who started in the industry when you pressed wax rather than applied it to your bikini line; who has successfully traversed country, lounge and pop in the same heartbeat, and lived to tell her tales.

The words "true professional" should only be applied to a handful of people in the music business. And k.d. lang is one of them.

* Recollection is in stores tomorrow.

- Herald on Sunday

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