WHEN K.D. LANG LAST PUT OUT AN ALBUM of original songs, she hadn't yet turned 40 years old. September 11th, iTunes, and A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila hadn't happened. Ellen DeGeneres was still dating Anne Heche, and nobody had even heard of a "hanging chad."
While she never stopped making music--she has done a live set, duets with Tony Bennett, and a tribute album to fellow Canadian singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell--it does seem like lang, the formerly ubiquitous dashing crooner who gave queerness so much of its voice in the '90s, has been conspicuously quiet this decade.
Tucking herself into the far corner of a brown couch in the midtown Manhattan office of her record company on a December afternoon, lang isn't evasive about what she's been up to since releasing the sunny, enthusiastic Invincible Summer in 2000.
"Buddhism, number one, has had a huge, huge, huge impact on my life and my direction," she says, unconsciously toying with a string of brown prayer beads on her left wrist. Lang became a serious practitioner in 2001, and everything from her lingo and demeanor to the music on her new genre-spanning album, Watershed, demonstrates her devotion. It's no passing Hollywood fancy. "It took a longtime to get to a point where I knew what I wanted to express as a lyricist," lang says.
The outside world may be rumbling with turmoil, but the 46-year-old lang radiates peace. Her unlined face is still sweetly boyish, and her cropped hair points effortlessly skyward. She wears a baggy dark sweater over a plain T-shirt and speaks with an appealing melodic lilt about her nearly quarter-century-long career. Watershed, an album of beautifully orchestrated, slow-burning adult-contemporary pop songs, marks her first self-produced project and her second album on Nonesuch, the less commercially oriented Warner Bros. label devoted to jazz and world musicians as well as category-defying artists like Wilco and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
"I'm extraordinarily grateful and proud that after 25 years I am sitting in a room with you and talking about my music and my life, and next door I have a record company that's there to support my art and doesn't have sales expectations of me," says lang. While the music industry seems continually fixated on moving units, she jokes, "fortunately, that's never been my karma, to sell a lot of records." That's not to say she doesn't have real aspirations. "I completely plan on becoming Tony Bennett," she says. "I have always designed my career and my lifestyle around the fact that I want to be making records when I'm 70."
WHEN SHE RELEASED HER FIRST ALBUM in 1984, lang was a Patsy Cline--adoring art-school cowgirl from small-town Canada who was hell-bent on punking the uptight country establishment. When that community turned on lang over her public service announcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemning the meat industry, she was already well on her way to her next creative stage: opening up her velvety voice to mature pop and torch songs. By the time she came out in these pages while promoting her 1992 platinum album Ingdnue, lang was an object of musical and sexual curiosity. It was a role she embraced with gusto--notably evidenced by her iconic gender-bending Vanity Fair cover, her penchant for rolling with the L.A. in-crowd, and her reputation as a debonair lady-killer.
There were, however, repercussions. "There was probably 15 years of focus on my sexual orientation over my music," she muses. "I think that's changed now. My fan base has grown up with me, and the attention on my sexuality and me as a sexual being or a sex symbol or whatever--the superficial sexual front of being a celebrity--has dissipated as well. Which is kind of a relief."
Really? Could the k.d. lang who built her career in part by playing with the politics of desire be retreating from her famous libido? …