When k.d. lang released her first major-label album in 1987, she caused considerable controversy within the traditional world of country music. With her vaguely campy approach, androgynous appearance, and edgy, rock-inflected music, very few observers knew what to make of her or her music, although no one questioned her considerable vocal talents. That confusion never quite dissipated over the course of her career, even when she abandoned country music for torchy adult contemporary pop in 1992 with her fourth album, Ingénue.
Born in Alberta, Canada, lang was first drawn toward music while she was in college. In particular, she was attracted to the music of Patsy Cline. She became acquainted with Cline's music while she was preparing to star in a collegiate theatrical production based on the vocalist's life. Soon, lang immersed herself within Cline's life and music and decided that she would pursue a career as a professional singer. With the help of guitarist/co-songwriter Ben Mink, she formed a band, named the Reclines in tribute to Patsy Cline, in 1983, and they recorded a debut album, Friday Dance Promenade, which received some positive notices in independent papers. A follow-up album, A Truly Western Experience, was released in 1984 and received even better reviews and led to national attention. In 1985, lang was named the Most Promising Female Vocalist by the Juno Awards.
All of the Canadian attention led to the interest of a number of American record labels. Sire signed lang in early 1986, and she recorded her first record for the label later that year. The result, Angel with a Lariat, was produced by Dave Edmunds and appeared in the fall of 1986. The mix of '50s-styled ballads, kitschy rockabilly, and honky tonk numbers on Angel with a Lariat received good reviews, especially from rock critics. The album had heavy support from college radio as well as cutting-edge country stations. Though it was a mainstream hit in Canada and an underground smash in the U.S., Nashville resisted lang, especially her tongue-in-cheek concert appearances. As she was recording her second Nashville album in 1987, lang performed a duet with Roy Orbison on his old hit "Crying," which was recorded for the film Hiding Out. The single was released at the end of the year and was a hit, marking her first appearance on the country charts.
Shadowland, her second Sire album, made her debt to Patsy Cline explicit. Recorded with Cline's producer, Owen Bradley, the album lacked the campy humor of Angel with a Lariat, which helped it succeed in traditional country circles -- "I'm Down to My Last Cigarette," the first single from the record, was her first to break the country Top 40. Shadowland became a sizable word-of-mouth hit, both in modern country and alternative music circles, which led to it going gold. The following year lang released the harder-edged Absolute Torch and Twang, which increased her mainstream American country audience, in addition to being a college radio and Canadian hit. Lang won a Grammy -- Best Country Vocal Performance, Female -- for the album in 1989, and "Full Moon of Love" became a Top 25 hit in the summer of 1989. The attention made lang a minor celebrity, which meant that when she launched a protest against meat eating in 1990, it became a media sensation.
Before the release of her fourth album, lang declared that she was a lesbian in an interview in The Advocate, which could have been a risky proposition, since Nashville's industry was notorious for not accepting people who fell outside of the margins of the mainstream. However, the new album was not a country album. Ingénue was a set of adult contemporary pop that owed very little to country. Its first single, "Constant Craving," became a Top 40 American hit and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, leading the album to platinum status in America, Britain, and Australia; it went double platinum in Canada.
Ingénue won lang a new audience, but she didn't immediately produce a follow-up to it. Instead, her next recorded work was the largely instrumental soundtrack for Gus Van Sant's film adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in 1993; the soundtrack was actually released several months before the film. It wasn't until 1995 that lang delivered All You Can Eat, her full-fledged follow-up to Ingénue. All You Can Eat continued the pop direction of its predecessor, showing no traces of country. The album didn't enjoy the mass commercial acceptance of Ingénue, but it was a moderate success, proving that she had a dedicated cult following. Lang continued to follow her pop-oriented instincts on 2000's Invincible Summer, while embracing traditional popular standards on 1997's Drag (a collection of songs about smoking) and in her duet with Tony Bennett on his 2001 set Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues. (Lang also went out on the road with Bennett for a successful co-headlining concert tour.)
In 2004, after lang's contract with Sire Records had run its course, she signed with the artist-friendly Nonesuch imprint and recorded Hymns of the 49th Parallel, a collection of tunes by Canadian songwriters. Reintarnation, a compilation of her Sire years, was released in 2006, and lang unveiled her first batch of original material in eight years with 2008's Watershed. Lang's third Nonesuch effort, 2011's Sing It Loud, found her subtly exploring her country influences again, as well as assembling a new band, the Siss Boom Bang. While lang and the Siss Boom Bang band toured in support of the album, the group proved to be short-lived. In 2016, lang revealed she had been working with new collaborators, alt-country chanteuse Neko Case and respected singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. The three joined forces to write and record the album case/lang/veirs, which was released in June 2016.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine