k.d. lang on Buddhism and Coming Out

The Canadian singer is the true embodiment of No One Thing-ness.

k.d. lang is embarking on a full-scale Canadian tour for the first time in more than a decade. It’s part of her duties as a Canada 150 Ambassador, which is an odd title since she’s representing Canada to Canadians in order to celebrate Canada. Not that we’re complaining. If anyone embodies this country in all its gracious complexity, it’s lang: She’s a small-town Alberta girl who first made a name for herself by infusing country music with a kind of performance art/punk rock spirit, and she’s a performer whose vegetarianism offended more people back home than her eventual coming out ever did. Like Canada, she has always been progressive yet courteous, pushing against categorization—both musically and personally. She is a living embodiment of No One Thing-ness.

Simply by being herself, lang has also become an unintentional marker to measure how much the world has changed in the 25-plus years since she rose to global prominence. Back in the bold-faced early ’90s, lang—vegetarian, out-of-the-closet lesbian, woman with an androgynous hairstyle—was the epitome of hip, if harmless, edginess. She represents the difference between a provocateur and a pioneer. She’s not exactly edgy these days, but that’s not because she has changed—the world has simply caught up.

Then there’s her music. On her tour, which runs until September 19, lang will be performing songs from Ingénue, her genre-bending master-piece that, coincidentally, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. If time has changed how we see lang and her persona, it hasn’t touched the album that gave that persona life. Its timelessness would almost be eerie if it weren’t so powerful, beautiful and true; it’s just one more way lang perfectly represents this country

I once pledged that I would never listen to musicians under 25 because I figured they wouldn’t know anything about life. As if to prove my point, you released Ingénue when you were 30. It’s timely now, but where were you in your life when you wrote it?

I had decided to move on from the country thing that I was doing and focus on my early, deep influences from singers like Joni Mitchell, Peggy Lee and Kate Bush. I wanted to get into the music that I felt was more representative of who I was musically.

Can you appreciate the album for what it is, or is it still tied to the experiences that inspired it?

I don’t pine for or think about the relationship that inspired it, but I do recall the feelings of unrequited love, or I think it was more of an obsession. I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years, but when I started to prepare for this tour, I had to. And that first listen was a little strange. It flooded me with all sorts of memories. It’s difficult to listen to it, not necessarily because of the impetus of the music itself but the experiences that unfolded around and after that time. My life sort of changed. But now I’ve hopefully transcended the stickiness of the memories. Hopefully I can deliver the music in a way that encompasses those memories and experiences as well as the audiences’ experiences.

When I read old articles of mine, I flip between thinking “Oh, that was pretty clever” and “Oh, I wish I could go back in time and change that.

[Laughs] Exactly. Absolutely. And every day it changes. It depends on my mood as a listener.

I’ve read that in the past you didn’t like to read or listen to music on tour because you got too distracted. Now that you’re a Buddhist, has this changed?

Yes and no. Buddhism gives one tools to deal with that monkey mind, but I don’t listen to music on tour because I’m pretty tired from singing and more music exhausts me. In terms of reading, yeah, my mind does move around. I’m slightly dyslexic, and I also have some issues with words getting bigger and smaller, so it’s kind of a chore.

A lot of Ingénue is about longing and unrequited feelings whereas Buddhism is about letting go. Could you have written this album if you were a Buddhist back then?

That’s a good point. I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think I could have written it. I think my exploration of longing and desire was written as a preface to where I ended up going. I do feel like my practice has kind of alleviated that incessant need to fill up space, which I probably had when I was in my 30s.

My favourite author is a Buddhist, and I’ve noticed that the tone of his writing has changed. He has become a bit more compassionate.

Who is this? George Saunders?

That’s exactly right!

[Laughs]

But going back, I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to Buddhism, but it does seem to change the art that people create.

I think it does. I think the practice, or the path, gives you more tools and a deeper, wider perspective on your handicaps while being in the human realm. [Laughs] And with that, as you said, it gives you more compassion. I find that, for me, interpreting music has gotten easier than writing—because I feel like I can’t completely express all my perspectives in a song, for example. It seems out of my capacity.

How has your relationship with your voice changed over the years?

I have more of an appreciation for it. I’m getting older, so my voice is changing a little bit. It’s not quite as smooth as it used to be. I’m also realizing that the intention and narrative approach is really what makes a great voice. It’s that ability to transfer the song into someone else’s emotional state. To me, that’s the important thing. So I’m re-evaluating what it is to be a singer.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to think of equal rights for LGBTQ people as inevitable. But in old articles about you, everything was about you being gay. It’s mainstream now, but did it feel inevitable at the time or was it still difficult coming out so early?

It felt inevitable to me. I come from a family where three out of the four kids were gay. My own personal culture was comfortable and immersed. I always approached the issue knowing that, number one, I never represented the whole gay culture (it’s a diverse culture) and, number two, that it was about to burst out of the closet—and not always in a positive way. People were being outed against their will, and I tried to be available to answer questions. I never wanted to get into the political side of being gay, but I did feel the inevitability of the LGBTQ revolution. I don’t think it’s over, by the way, but I definitely think we’re well on our way.

One of the things I’ve realized is that only you can know if you’re being authentic. People have always assumed you are, but have you always felt authentic?

I have very strong opinions about authenticity. I think it’s almost impossible to be authentic. And this is the Buddhist in me speaking. It really only comes when you truly shed your attachment to your ego, and I don’t think many people do that while they are on this earth. I think we’re susceptible to judgment and being contrived and influenced, and the desire to be loved and accepted is so strong that I think authenticity is very difficult. I think children have it. I think it gets carved out of them as they get older. I think you can whittle away at your ego, and you can try. You can listen to your inner voice as much as possible, which is the gateway to authenticity.

Do you think you are more that way now?

Yes, I do, but I also think this may be a result of less desire to succeed. I feel like authenticity is a type of acceptance of, and surrender to, who you are instead of trying to become something. I think that at this point in my life, I wouldn’t say I’m winding down but I’ve plateaued and my real work is internal.