One would be hard-pressed to find a musical artist who’s caused as much controversy while achieving the heights of stardom that Kathryn Dawn Lang has enjoyed.
The pride of Consort, Alberta, she was born in Edmonton in 1961, but moved with her family to the small town near Red Deer before she was a year old. Her father left the family when she was only 12, and she took art and drama classes at Red Deer College after graduating from high school. It was while attending RDC in ’83 that she first began dabbling in music, forming a Patsy Cline tribute called the Reclines, with drummer Dave Bjarnason, Stewart MacDougall on piano, Gordie Matthews on guitars, and bassist Farley Scott. It was also at this early point in her career she first drew the ire of music fans, claiming she wasn’t doing a ‘tribute’ to Patsy Cline, but in fact she was her reincarnation.
They recorded an independent cassette in ’83 they sold at shows called FRIDAY DANCE PROMENADE, but after signing with Bumstead Records a year later, it was A TRULY WESTERN EXPERIENCE that set the music world on fire. Produced by Lang and Gaye Delorme (“Rodeo Song”), the album was an intriguing mix of traditional country and western in songs like the Webb Pierce/Mel Tillis cover of “Bopalena” and Patsy Cline’s “Stop Look & Listen,” and funky two-stepping tunes like their originals “Hanky Panky,” “Tickled Pink,” and “Up To Me” (written by MacDougall and featuring him on lead vocals) that no one was quite sure what to make of. “Hanky Panky” was released as a single, and although it failed to chart, its video brought the musical and visual quirkiness of the artist and the band to a nationwide audience.
In August of that year, Lang was one of three Canadian artists to be selected to perform at the World Science Fair in Tsukuba, Japan, which in turn led to several other engagements in the Orient. She received a Juno Award the next year for Most Promising Female Vocalist, which she accepted while wearing a wedding dress on to the stage.
Her star was rising and she continued to pay her dues in the North American honkytonks and bars for the next year, and was finally offered a major label deal with Sire Records in ’86. By this point, the lineup of The Reclines had been revised, with only Gordie Matthews remaining. Now the group featured Teddy Borowiecki on accordion and keyboard, Michel Pouliot on drums, bassist Dennis Marcenko, and Ben Mink on mandolin and violin. They travelled to London, England to record their follow-up album, her first American release. ANGEL WITH A LARIAT was in the stores that fall, and featured a definite rockabilly influence. With Mink and Lang doing the majority of the writing, it produced three singles on its way to the top 40 in Canada, and peaked at #53 in the US.
The cover of Lynn Anderson’s biggest hit “Rose Garden” was a cross-over smash, charting on both the Canadian Country list, as well as peaking at #7 on the Adult Contemporay chart. It was followed by “Tune into My Wave” and “Turn Me Around,” to slightly lesser success, but still pushed the album gold (50,000 units) at home. One of her last appearances with The Reclines when they became one of the few Canadian acts to appear on stage and be filmed for PBS’ acclaimed series, “Austin City Limits.”
But it was 1988’s SHADOWLAND that broke Lang on the world market, selling triple platinum in Canada, gold in the US, and silver in the UK. The Reclines were gone, making it her first truly solo album. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Owen Bradley (who produced Patsy Cline, among others), the album featured a bevy of outside writers, and in fact Lang didn’t write any of the material. Chris Isaak penned the lead-off “Western Stars,” while her former Reclines bandmember Stewart MacDougall wrote the first of four singles over the course of the year – “Busy Being Blue.” It was followed by “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette,” the cover of Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops,” and the collaboration with three of her idols – Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and Brenda Lee for “Honky Tonk Angels Medley.”
SHADOWLAND was named Album of the Year by the Canadian Country Music Association in ’88, the same year she also performed “Turn Me Round” at the closing ceremonies of the XV Winter Olympics in Calgary, and sang background vocals with Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt for Roy Orbison’s acclaimed television special, “Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night.” It was that meeting with Orbison that led him to invite her to do a duet with him in ’89, re-recording one of his biggest hits ever, “Crying.” It earned them a Grammy Award that year, and was used in the Jon Cryer film, “Hiding Out.” She also picked up Entertainer of the Year Award at that year’s CCMAs, her first of three straight doorstops in that category.
Along with singing the duet “Sin City” with Dwight Yoakam” for one of his albums, she also returned to recording with The Reclines one last time in 1989, releasing ABSOLUTE TORCH & TWANG. It produced six singles, including the #1 Canadian country chart topper “Full Moon of Love” and the top 10 cover of Willie Nelson’s “Three Days” and “Luck In My Eyes,” on its way to being certified platinum in Canada, gold in Australia and the US, and silver in the UK. The album peaked at #8 on the Canadian country chart and #29 overall, and made it to #12 on the US Billboard country chart. With only a few exceptions, it also marked Lang’s return to writing with band member Ben Mink. Lang also gained considerable critical praise for the videos for “Trail of Broken Hearts,” which received good airplay on both MuchMusic and MTV.
In 1990, Lang contributed the song “So in Love” (from the Broadway musical, Kiss Me Kate) to the Cole Porter tribute album RED HOT + BLUE, produced by the Red Hot Organization. Recorded at Vancouver Studios for the first time, her next album wasn’t until 1992’s INGENUE, argued as her most mature and diverse. Her second solo album, it predominantly featured songs she’d written with Mink, and marked the first time she’d recorded a record that didn’t feature any covers or material written for her.
It was nominated for a pair of Grammys – Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-classical Album, on its way to being certified double platinum in Canada, and selling 300,000 units in the UK and 2 million in the US, making it her most commercially successful album ever. It made the top 10 in Canada, reached #1 in New Zealand, # 3 in Australia and the UK, and cracked the top 20 in Japan, Germany and the US.
The album was another cross-over hit, and the first of three singles were released, “Constant Craving,” which made it to #2 on both Canadian and American charts. The song also inadvertently influenced Mick Jagger’s writing of the Stones’ nominal hit “Anybody Seen My Baby?” a few years later, as Lang and Ben Mink were given songwriting co-credit to avoid any potential lawsuit. The samba-flavoured “Miss Chatelaine” (a tongue-in cheek poke at herself for being named Chatelaine Magazine’s Woman of the Year), and “The Mind of Love” followed within a few months later. Two other tracks – “Save Me” and “Still Thrives This Love” were also used in the 2003 Showtime film, “Soldier’s Girl.”
By this point, Lang had already been involved in several activist groups for several years. Along with practising the old school of Tibetan Buddhism, she’s an outspoken vegan, and had actively campaigned for various gay and animal rights groups for several years, and publicly came out of the closet in ’92. 1993 began with certain members of the Alberta Legislature refusing to officially congratulate her on her recent Grammy Award wins, including Ernie Isley, then the MLA for Bonnyville-Cold Lake, citing her anti-beef stance and open lesbianism as reasons.
But no amount of trivial controversy could de-rail KD Lang’s train. After appearing on the Elton John album, DUETS, doing “Teardrops,” she then provided the music for the 1994 Gus Van Sant film, “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” starring Uma Thurman and Tom Robbins, it featured the singles “Hush Sweet Lover,” “Just Keep Me Moving,” and “Cowgirl Pride.” She continued to perform for movie soundtracks over the next few years, recording a cover of “Skylark” for the 1997 film adaptation of “Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil,” then recorded the title track to the Susan Sarandon/Natalie Portman film, “Anywhere But Here,” and then “Surrender” for the closing credits of the James Bon flick, “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
She returned with a new project in ’95 with ALL YOU CAN EAT. Now with Warner Brothers Records proper, it again featured Lang collaborating with Mink on all the music. Of the three singles released, “If I Were You” was the most commercially successful, topping Canada’s AC chart and reaching #4 in the US. But its follow-ups, “You’re OK” and “Sexuality” also did well, earning her another Canadian gold record, while it reached gold (500,000 units) in the US, the UK, and Australia.
She received the Order of Canada in 1996, and her first live video, LIVE IN SYDNEY, followed in ’97. Along with her catalogue of hits, it also featured a few new gems – including Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” and the monster duet with Roy Orbison “Crying,” featuring a video on the big screen for Roy’s part.
Issues of addiction and dependence were the prevalent theme later of the concept album later that year, DRAG. Recorded over a six month period in several studios in the US and England, the album featured only covers of some of Lang’s personal favourite artists over a vast genre. Although it fared less successful at home, it peaked at # 4 in Australia, and in the top 20 in the US, New Zealand, and the UK. Along with the Canadian top 40 cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and Dionne Warwick’s 1967 hit “Theme from the Valley of the Dolls,” which reached # 14 in the US, it also featured covers of a couple of 1940s standards – “Don’t Smoke In Bed” and “Smoke Dreams,” Roy Orbison’s “Til The Heart Caves In,” and Jane Siberry‘s “Hain’t It Funny.” Along the way and in between selected live dates over the next year or so, the album reached gold in Canada and the US, and platinum in Australia.
After recording “Fado Hilario” (singing in Portuguese) to the AIDS benefit compilation album ONDA SONORA: RED HOT + LISBON, Lang worked with new producers David Kahne and Damian LeGassick for 2000’s INVINCIBLE SUMMER. The lead single “Summerfling” reached #2 on the Canadian AC chart, but “The Consequences of Falling” failed to follow-up at home or abroad. Still, the album made it to # 12 in Australia and # 19 in the UK, though not even scraping the top 40 at home or in the US.
In 2001 she was asked to do a special for A&E TV as part of their “Live By Request” series. Performing some of her favourites from her career, including “Three Cigarettes And An Ashtray,” “Big Boned Gal,” and “Black Coffee,” she mixed up the sets while interacting with the crowd. A live album and DVD of the same name was released later that year, and she followed it up in ’03 by picking up her fourth Grammy, this time for her collaboration album with Tony Bennett a year earlier.
A WONDERFUL WORLD featured ballroom classics and big band standards like “”Exactly Like You,” “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” Louis Armstrong’s “If We Never Meet Again,” and Oscar Hammerstein’s “A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” the album eventually was certified gold in the US and platinum in the UK.
In ’04, the same year she sang “Little Patch of Heaven” for the Walt Disney animated feature film, “Home on the Range,” Lang was looking for new challenges, and signed with Warner’s subsidiary Nonesuch Records. She chose to produce her next album herself, along with Mink. HYMNS OF THE 49TH PARALLEL was an ode to some of Lang’s influences, along with a few helping hands along the way, covering some of Canadian music’s most endearing artists and songs. Neil Young‘s “After the Gold Rush” and “Helpless,” Jane Siberry‘s “The Valley” and “Love Is Everything,” Ron Sexsmith’s “Fallen,” and Joni Mitchell‘s “A Case of You” were some of the tracks alongside a re-make of her own song, “Simple,” which appeared just a few years earlier on the INVINCIBLE SUMMER album.
Along with “Helpless,” it was one of two singles that although didn’t set any worlds on fire, helped make up the critically-acclaimed album, which eventually was certified platinum in Canada. It also featured “Hallelujah,” one of two Leonard Cohen covers, which she also performed live in Vancouver during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
2006 was a busy year for outside projects for Lang. Along with the release of her compilation album, REINTARNATION, she did a duet of Joni Mitchell‘s “River” with Madeleine Peyroux, and also did a duet with Nellie McKay of “We Had It Right” for her album. Lang also sang with Ann Wilson on her solo album, covering Lucinda Williams’ song, “Jackson.” She also covered The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” for the “Happy Feet” film soundtrack, and appeared at the opening ceremonies of The OutGames in Montreal.
A year after appearing on Anne Murray’s ANNE MURRAY DUETS: FRIENDS AND LEGENDS album, she returned to the charts on her own with WATERSHED. Featuring all original tracks, the album topped the charts in Australia, made the top 10 in Canada and the US, and the top 40 in the UK. “I Dream of Spring” became the only single, which also had a live version included in a limited edition bonus disc that also featured three other live tracks and an interview. 2008 also saw Lang receive a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
After she performed “Hallelujah” at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, two different compilation albums were released – RECOLLECTION and BEAUTIFULLY COMBINED: THE BEST OF KD LANG. The new album SING IT LOUD followed a year later. She assembled a new backing band called The Siss Boom Bang, and teaming with guitarist/producer Joe Pisapia for the first time, the two wrote most of the material, including the critically acclaimed “A Perfect World” and “Sugar Buzz,” as well as a cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven.”
Along with her musical career and philanthropic work, KD Lang has also tried her hand at acting a few times. She played the lead role in the 1991 made-for-TV drama, “Salmonberries,” and also co-starred with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd in “Eye of the Beholder” in ’99. She had an uncredited role as a lounge singer in 2006’s “The Black Dahlia,” and has made guest appearances on several sitcoms, including “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Dharma & Greg,” and the famous coming out episode of “Ellen.” In 2010 she sang “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with Matthew Morrison in a Christmas episode of “Glee,” and is featured on the holiday album, GLEE: THE MUSIC, THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM.