VOICE FROM THE
The K.D. Lang success story involves much more than luck
Some people say K.D. Lang is lucky. How else can it be that the 24 year-old singer from
Consort, Alberta (population, 650) has signed an international contract with one of the most successful independent record companies in the
She must be lucky. After all, didn't she spend a month in Japan this summer, playing at
Expo, and making a documentary that had her performing in country music clubs and Buddhist temples, not to mention the streets of Tokyo and a
folklore festival with a team of traditionalist Japanese drummers?
And there's got to be a lot of luck to getting all those rave reviews in newspapers from
coast to coast, not to mention Rolling Stone ("a kinetic performance, do-si-do-ing primly around the stage at one moment, and
bellowing into the mike with the rage of Johnny Rotten the next") and the Village Voice ("a satisfying beginning"). Best
of all, how about the luck of winning a Juno for "most promising female singer"?
And if you want to talk about luck, how about the fact that she sells out Vancouver's
Commodore Ballroom (1,000 seats) for four nights, weeks in advance. And the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony, for
heaven's sake. And the Riverside in Winnipeg, and the Diamond in Toronto, and the you-name-it in practically every town in Canada with a
bigger population than Consort.
* * *
K.D. Lang has become, in the relatively short time of a little over a year and a half,
a major Canadian star. Her cropped hair, cut-off cowboy boots, insouciant grin, and Goodwill dropbox clothes are as well-known as her music, a
full-cry, off-the-wall mixture of rock and roll, old fashioned country, and punky attitudes. If you've missed hearing the music, it's
been almost impossible to miss hearing about it, thanks to hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles - every one of them a delighted
rave about the happy freshness and joy of her live performances. And next year, with her debut on the Sire label - distributed internationally by
Warner Brothers - the music will catch up to the image and the press clippings.
K.D. Lang is, to a large extent, the unique creation of a woman who is considerably
less publicised, and certainly less well known. Kathy Dawn Lang is as different from K.D. as anyone could imagine; K.D. is a role she
has invented, and plays to the hilt - a role fashioned firmly on love, affection for the music she performs (often with tongue in cheek), and a
need to present a performance that is uniquely her own.
Consort isn't the sort of place most young people stay in. And Kathy Lang, whose
dad ran the drugstore and whose mother was a schoolteacher who insisted that she play the piano - which she did until she stole her brother's
guitar and started to play that instead - was an eccentric who loved high school athletics, writing unusual songs, and who wanted to go to art
And so she did, and in Lethbridge she began to perform her unusual songs to tiny audiences who
were frequently unsure of what she was doing. After all, she played an acoustic guitar, so she must be a folk singer, but what are these songs
about - Barney Clark's artificial plastic heart, and a recluse who eats garbage? This was not the kind stuff that Joni Mitchell,
that well-known escapee from the Prairies, had become famous for.
A chance meeting two years ago in a small Edmonton recording studio changed all that. Hired to
sing backup for a country singer's demo tape, her clear voice and pleasant, subdued manner attracted the attention of Larry Wanagas, owner,
engineer, administrator and floor-sweeper of Homestead Recorders ("the only studio in Alberta not petitioning for bankruptcy," he jokes
"but I'm trying to sell it"). Over coffee after the session, Wanagas and Kathy Lang discussed a recording project - a
mixture of country music and the strangely ecelectic music she wrote and performed. They also began a freindship that remains close -
Lang was his "best person" when he married last summer - and continues to supercede their business relationship (he has been
her manager since their first coffee meeting).
Her single is now a collector's item
With the decision made to start the "K. D. Lang project", she went back to
the studios to cut a single with a band led by star guitarist Amos Garrett - and the resulting seven-inch single (pressed on white
vinyl, and now an impossible-to-find collector's item) was a portent of things to come. On the B-side, a tune by Maggie Roche, of New
York's Roche Sisters - and on the side that was designed to be played by country radio stations, a song called Friday Dance
Promenade, complete with it's reference to country singer Patsy Cline and a musical quote from that singer's 1961 hit, I Fall to
Using her "underground" reputation as a performance artist, and the record as a
calling card, Lang began to perform locally with her own band, which she christened The Reclines in homage to her favorite
country star. The Edmonton press was enthusiastic, and so there were trips to Calgary, where singer Ian Tyson became a vocal enthusiast -
"Why don't you people dance," he shouted at a mystified audience in one local club, "this band's fantastic!"
In Vancouver, a debut in the Railway Club - an alternative music joint attended by a small audience who loved the singer's looks, but were
initially confused by the country music - won some modest reviews, and a chance to return.
* * *
Slowly, the legend was building, but Lang and Wanagas both knew it would take a
full-scale album to do the trick. Wanagas had the studio, but money was not in great supply - and the first album by K. D. Lang and The
Reclines, titled A Truly Western Experience, was a $5,000 effort that gives little idea of the power of the singer's voice, or
the breadth of her material. On the simple cut-and-paste cover, which Lang designed herself, was the singer, in all her Goodwill finery,
balancing on a farm fence. Nearby, looking out of the window of the barn, was Patsy Cline. And on the back cover, a single line of type at the
bottom reads "and the wind drifts through my soul, say hi to Patsy for me."
The songs on the album were mostly originals by Lang and/or members of The
Reclines, but there were three tunes associated with Cline and one - Hooked on Junk, by an old art school friend - which is a
reminder of her days as a solo performance artist. By the skin of it's teeth, the album came out a day before her appearance at the Edmonton
Folk Festival in August 1984.
It was the performance at that event that turned the tide. Scheduled to perform for 25 minutes,
her set turned into double that length when the next act was delayed on it's way to the site. Wearing her cut-off cowboy boots, a
cream-colored suit circa 1955, and wing-shaped glasses (without lenses), Lang tore through her repertoire, winding up by responding to a
standing ovation with an acappella version of Amazing Grace which segued into I'm Saved, an old R&B standby which had
been written by Leiber & Stoller for Lavern Baker back in 1960. As Lang stormed around the stage banging a parade marshall's
bass drum, the crowd gave her another standing ovation.
Within three days, she had been booked into Albert's Hall, a blues bar in Toronto - partly
as a result of two musicians from Sylvia Tyson's band telling the club's booker that they had been blown off the stage by "this
crazy woman with cut-off cowboy boots who sings country and rock and roll like her life depended on it."
Lang's week in Toronto won her national attention. The publicity hype made careful
mention of the range of the music, the on-stage antics of the artist, and the singer's clothing, but left it up to the newspaper writers,
intrigued by the possibilty of something new, to discover the voice itself. By this time, Earl Rosen and Sylvia Tyson, who had both seen
Lang at the Edmonton Festival, and who were involved in running Video-FACT, had recommended her for a video - and MuchMusic was
programming Hanky Panky, in which Lang lurches and leaps around the stage at a country barndance.
With Toronto conquered, Lang pressed on - to Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec, and Halifax. The
reviews were ecstatic everywhere she went. The stage was set for the next part of the breakthrough towards the goal of - in Lang's
words - "becoming quite well known."
The next phase was to attract some interest from the record industry. Several companies offered
to distribute (and in one case, repackage) the existing album, but there was a mixed response to offering a deal for the future. Some, like
WEA's Bob Roper, were intrigued by the act and the performance, but worried that it might fall into the gulf he percieved existed between
rock and country. Some could only offer a Canadian deal - and others, CBS, Island, A&M and RCA included, got on the wire to their
headquarters in New York, Nashville, London and Los Angeles, urging them to check out the artist. However, getting a show-case date in the United
States was difficult, and Larry Wanagas was discovering that American record company people had no idea where Edmonton was, "I mentioned
Wayne Gretzky to them," he recalled later. "They'd never heard of him, either."
Eventually, thanks to various contacts in New York, a tentative date at New York's Bottom
Line, on a bill with two equally unknown bands, became a possibility - and one solidified by the fact that a friend of Wanagas and Lang
from Edmonton was working at the club as an assistant to booker Alan Pepper. In Toronto, Murray McLauchlan's manager, Bernie
Finklestein, mentioned Lang to a Rolling Stone reporter - and that encounter led to a three-quarter page color picture spread
in the magazine. The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey - by now a confirmed fan of the singer and her band - went on the road with
Lang as they wended their way towards Toronto for another week at Albert's Hall, and then on to New York; the result was a two-page
article in the paper's national edition.
Back in Toronto, the club experienced line-ups starting at 6 p.m. for the first set at 10; the
local newspapers were even more enthusiastic this time around. And in New York, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and several
newspapers noted the phenomenon from Edmonton.
It took a second visit to the Big Apple to finally convince the American record companies that
this was a serious artist, with a unique appeal. Some passed, eventually - like CBS, Island and Warner Brothers. Others like RCA, came very close
to making substantial offers. The New York trip followed a third visit to Toronto, where Lang played an ill-attended folk festival, a
country music picnic, and Canada Day celebrations at Harbourfront - within two weeks, Lang had played for more than 25,000 people in the
At the Bottom Line, it took Seymour Stein, the diminutive founder of Sire Records, to make the
move everyone had been waiting for. After her first set opening for NRBQ, a tough rock and roll band from Boston, Lang sat on a battered
couch, dog tired and covered in sweat. "Do you know Alberta Slim?" Stein asked. "You mean Montana Slim," Lang
countered, "In Canada, we call him Wilf Carter. And sure I know his music."
"Well," said Stein, "you are what country music would have been if Nashville
hadn't screwed it up." From then on, it was love at first sight. Stein made Wanagas and Lang an offer they couldn't refuse
- and Lang for her part, has been impatiently waiting to start recording for the label. Back in Toronto, lawyer (and songwriter)
Stephen Stohn hammered the final draft of the agreement together - about which all the parties remain quiet, except to say that it
guarantees two albums, plus options, and numerous other benefits. Stohn calls it "a real star contract"; Lang just
The next problem was to find a producer - a producer who could take the dispirate threads of
Lang's music and put it together. Tapes were sent to Dave Edmunds in Britain; Nick Lowe, Edmunds' one-time playing partner,
heard Lang when she opened for him in Hamilton; and he passed too. Brian Ahern, who had produced Anne Murray's early albums, and had
later gone to Los Angeles to produce (and later marry) Emmylou Harris, was interested, particularly after watching her in action at Toronto's
Diamond Club, where a post-Juno date crammed well over 1,000 people into the 700-seat room.
Offstage, Kathy Lang is as different from her on-stage persona as it is possible to be.
Instead of the abandoned, rowdy, cut-up person one would expect, Lang is almost painfully quiet, very shy ("I'd rather not go
to industry parties; all they do is tell you how good the show is, and I never know what to say"), and restrained in nature. She
doesn't drink, smoke, eat meat or dairy products, and wouldn't go near "recreational drugs" with someone else's 10-foot
bargepole. Lang's idea of a good night on the town would be a meal at a macrobiotic restauarant, followed by an early bedtime. Off
stage, her clothes tend to run to scuffed desert boots, old sweat shirts, and jeans, topped by a plastic raincoat.
She does have a sense of humour that runs to the bizarre, and her taped messages for the
answering machine at Wanagas' office are almost worth the long distance call to Edmonton to listen to. She does interviews with as much grace
as she can muster but is now fed up to the teeth with questions about her psychic connection with Patsy Cline, and once gave a backstage
interviewer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival a one word answer to the standard question about where her music came from. "Heaven," she
responded. another reporter, Sony Walkman recorder at the ready, asked where she planned to take her music, and got the same answer. But when a
third person asked whether there was anywhere she hasn't played yet that she'd like to perform, expecting a similar response, she said;
"Loretta Lyn's living room."
Her live show usually runs well over an hour and a half - and it's a non-stop affair that
can include a greater-than-usual degree of audience participation - "okay, let's have a dance contest!" she urges, as the band
hammers out some old dance fad tune like Mashed Potato Time (Ontario Place officials were aghast when she invited 4,000 fans onto the
stage during her summer show there - but amazed when the number was over and they all trooped dutifully back to their seats). Amid the originals
and the old country standards, Lang will include material that could charitably be described as eclectic - a send up of
Goldfinger, the title song from the Bond movie, and a hilarious, blonde-wigged impersonation of Nancy Sinatra.
Her labors with songwriting, while considerably more private, are equally exhausting. She
approaches the task of writing with some trepidation, waiting until everyone involved with her career gets on her case. It might be Wanagas,
Stein who wants to see more material, or even the band members, who urge her to write new material so they have a chance to play something
different. Apart from that, guitarist Gordie Matthews, bassist Dennis Marchenko, drummer Dave Bjarnason and keyboard
player Teddy Borowiecki all write too - and their input into the final arrangements of the tunes that Lang writes is
When she does write - a task she can only tackle only when there is a week or two off the road -
she can produce good material in a minimum of time, even if she won't say how much effort and sweat went into the song ideas before the
actual writing process. "Guess what," she told friends after a concentrated two week effort last summer, "I've just done eight
more songs." Three of them are now part of the finished show. Meanwhile, she is thinking about more songs, prior to the recording sessions
- so far, she is only certain that one of the songs from the original album will be re-recorded. "That's Pine and Stew,"
she said recently. "I guess it's my favorite, and I know I could do it a lot better now." Favorite or not, it's the song that
Peter Gzowski plays regularly on CBC Morningside, and calls "the quintessential Canadian country tune."
Lang has no doubts whatsoever about her future. Doubt - even the sort of ordinary questions one
might ponder in the quiet hours before sleep - never enters her mind; she knows as surely as the fact that it will be light in the morning that
she is going to be a success. Is there a market for her country-influenced rock and roll in the mid-80s? Will radio play her records? Will
audiences in other countries - from grandparents at country music picnics to punkers in alternative music clubs - be as responsive as they are in
Canada, night after night after night? Lang doesn't ask herself the questions - she knows that she will be successful, and
pondering on these matters is a waste of time and energy. "I just know that everything will turn out well," she says, looking at you
with her intense almond eyes. "I don't want to sound cosmic about all this, but it's ordained." And that's quite
Her sense of humor lets her down occasionally. "They didn't get the joke of the wedding
dress, did they?" she asks, referring to her acceptance of the most promising female singer award, wearing a full-length wedding gown, and
then making a number of public promises - a promise to deserve the award, a promise to work hard in the coming year, and (most importantly) a
promise to "always sing for the right reasons."
"I mean, you make promises when you get married, don't you? But even Peter Gzowski
didn't get it - he told me it hit him three days later. But you've got to make the effort, right? Heck, there are still press people who
ask my why I call the bacnd The Reclines."
The last year and a half has been a non-stop effort - to become established, to succeed, to
entertain the audiences who see her. Now the real work is about to start - with the recording and the Spring release of the new album, the
promotional push and the live appearances that will follow.
Lucky? Well, maybe luck has something to do with being at the right place at the right time -
and, given the realities of the music business, with the right music. Maybe luck has a connection with the amount of talent you're born with
in the first place. But after that, the K.D. Lang success story has little to do with luck, and a great deal to do with character and
personality - and an enormous amount of hard, slogging work. For the woman from Consort, Alberta, the old WASP virtues - hard work, honesty,
value for money and more hard work - still stand. By this time next year, we'll all see what those virtues have done for her.