Friday, March 17, 2006
SXSW: A Conversation with k.d. lang
Yesterday, I spoke with k.d. lang. Yup. Just another day here at SXSW.
She’s wonderful, adorable, hilarious, smart and all the other things you would imagine of a major talent. She spoke of her musical collaborations, including Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett, her coming out and the danger of hype. She was raised in a classical music family, studied piano and had absolutely zero knowledge or interest in country music. On her 21st birthday, she was given two Patsy Cline records, heard ‘Stop the World’ and was blown away.
She joined the punk/performance art scene in Edmonton, which resulted in a 12-hour rendition of open-heart surgery. “There were pickled beets, carrots and lots of marijuana involved,” she said. In the early days, she had no money to start her music career so she turned to another form of art to pay the bills, painting. Ultimately, she was able to trade several of her paintings for studio time.
lang created a punk/country persona. In fact, though she was playing country music, she was booked in all the same venues as the punk bands. For some strange reason, she was selected by the Canadian government to represent their country at the World’s Fair in Obuku, Japan. The locals didn’t know what to make of her. “There was some gender confusion there. ‘Is it a girl that looks like a boy? Or is it a feminine-looking boy?’ I was like a car accident, they wanted to look away but couldn’t,” lang said. “It was so much fun.”
Oddly enough, she managed to appear on David Letterman before getting signed but things took off fast. Under her breath, she half-jokingly said, “Well, ‘Ingénue’ was only a hit record because I came out . . ..” and the interview chided her: “Oh yeah, going for that lesbian dollar!”
When the inevitable fame and hype descended, lang assumed she was ready. “I thought I had my defenses up,” she said. It was after performing at some Fabulous People benefit that it hit her. “The place was packed with the beautiful people – the Cindy Crawfords, the Naomi Campbells – and I thought I was fabulous too. Then, I realized, they weren’t even listening to me! I went home and thought, ‘I can’t believe it, I got sucked in!’”
It was an epiphany that made her step back and take stock. “The realization came quick but the remedy took a long time – like any addiction.”
Regarding her ‘coming out’: “Surprisingly, I thought I was out the whole time. I came out to my family at age 13.” In fact, she comes from “a very gay family.” She has four sisters, only one of whom is straight. “And I think my dad is gay too. I’m telling you, I am Brokeback Mountain.”
This led me to stand up and confront her. It went something like this:
HC: You’re incredible – sorry just had to get that out of the way.
KD: I appreciate that.
HC: Okay, here’s the deal: My father is in love with you and-
KD: He’s gay.
HC: It’s very confusing to him. I actually had to sit him down and explain that you only like girls . . .
KD: Hey, I’m open to new experiences, new possibilities.
HC: I’m sure he’d be happy to hear that. Anyway, he’s from South Dakota and-
KD: Hmm, that’s means we’re probably related so that deal’s off.
HC: Basically, we ended up having a dialogue about homosexuality that probably would not have opened up if not for you and your music. I know that maybe it wasn’t your intention when you started your career but-
KD: Actually, that was exactly my intention and let me tell you why.
She then got very quiet and put her hands together in prayer-mode to collect herself. The room was silent and I stood there, wondering what I had triggered. She looked me straight in the eye and proceeded to give a beautiful speech about how she specifically targeted ‘middle-of-the-road’ culture. “A butch lesbian doing duets with Tony Bennett? What’s this all about?” She purposely went after the mainstream to create a stir and get people talking. It was an example of how art can change truly help the world by changing people’s minds. "Art can often do more good than protesting," she said.
It was such an inspiring speech that when she finished, you could hear a pin drop and she got a standing ovation. She suddenly felt very dorky, blushed deeply and started clapping too. Then, she looked at me again and said, “Thanks for asking that question. I’m sorry it didn’t work out between your dad and I.”
I think my SXSW experienced peaked right there. In fact, I felt so satisfied, I slept in this morning, right through ‘The Pretenders’ panel I was supposed to go to.
Some additional k.d. quotes:
“Everyone’s a closet something.”
“Minnie Pearl was mindblowing. A truly incredible human being – people just don’t know.”
“Roy (Orbison) was like a tree – so solid and rooted in who he was.”
“A lot of the work is done in listening.”
“Hanging out with Tony Bennett is like getting an intravenous education.”
“I had unbridled tenacity.”
“Alberta is the Texas of Canada.”
“’Calling All Angels’ (with Jane Siberry) is the best song I ever recorded.”
As for tonight, I had to make a painful decision between three of my heroes – all playing at once: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott vs. Harry Shearer vs. Roseanne Cash. Ladies first - Ms. Cash wins.