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LUNCHING WITH BONZAI
K.D.LANG AND BEN MINK
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
All You Can Eat is k.d.lang's most forthright and personal statement to date. The album was co-produced by lang and her song-writing partner, Ben Mink, with engineer Marc Ramaer and was recorded in lang's and Mink's home studios in Vancouver. Soaring over the songs' compelling grooves, surrounded by colorful instrumentation and sensual rhythms, lang's vocal is confident and carefree, bold yet vulnerable.
Since her major-label debut, Angel With A Lariat (1986), k.d. lang has intrigued and surprised fans and critics alike. Her initial rowdy energy mellowed a bit (but showed no less passion) with the Owen Bradley-produced Shadowland (1988), an excursion through sensual, yet traditional, country stylings. Absolute Torch and Twang (1989), co-produced with Ben Mink and Greg Penny, showcased her unmistakable vocal command and stretched the C&W boundaries further.
In 1992, her ten-gallon hat and chaps were traded in for the silk and satin of Ingenue. "Constant Craving" yielded lang's third Grammy, taking her provocative torch singing to the widest audience yet. Teamed with co-producer/composer Ben Mink for 1993's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues soundtrack, lang never sounded better. An overlooked gem, the film music allowed a diversified exploration typically forbidden in pop albums.
I was invited to join k.d. lang and Ben MInk at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont for a vegetarian repast in the hotel gardens. Our menu: pesto pasta, roasted squash, parsley potatoes and spinach-filled pastry puffs.
Bonzai: Did the Cowgirls soundtrack open up new areas of creativity?
lang: I was extremely intrigued by the film, and especially by working with Uma [Thurman], Rain [Phoenix] and Gus [director Gus Van Sant]. I was excited, and I came to the project really open. It was great because not only did it culminate the past, present and the future for Ben and I, but it allowed him to do a lot of instrumental material. The string work and the overture were Ben's creations, and for me it was fantastic to be able to do that acoustic trance thing in "Lifted By Love" and then "Sweet Little Cherokee," back-to-back.
Bonzai: It wasn't a big commercial success, was it?
lang: No, but other than the fact that eclectic albums don't have a market, it's easy to explain. I didn't have the energy to promote it, because I had just toured with Ingenue for two years. And the film didn't do well, so the album didn't really have a chance. But it's very nice to have it in the catalog.
Bonzai: Didn't you and Ben first meet in Japan?
lang: Yes, in 1985.
Mink: We participated in the Canadian cultural exhibition at the 1985 World's Fair over there.
Bonzai: Was it love at first sight?
Mink: It was raised eyebrows at first sight. There were a good number of months that went by before we actually did anything.
lang: He kinda looked down at me. I thought he was condescending.
Mink: I looked down at everything at that point. I was pretty jaded with the music industry altogether.
lang: And I was the opposite. I was all "go get 'em," because I was so young. But between us there was this common lust for music, and common lust for opposing contradicting styles and melding them. I could see that in Ben and in his fiddle. It's a famous fiddle by now, isn't it?
Mink: It's getting there. It's an electric violin I sort of chopped up to get rid of the feedback. In putting it back together I attached a bunch of farm animals and small figurines that are open to interpretation. I suppose it's my unconscious mind - it's a piece of folk art as well as a functioning instrument. Anyway, it resembled some of the outfits that k.d. was wearing, and I felt we both had the same angle of looking at country music, and probably music altogether. A rare angle of reverence...
Mink: And a wry smile at the same time, through respect.
Bonzai: Country music was on both of your minds?
lang: It was experimenting with the limitations of a traditional style and seeing how creative one could be, and at the same time showing respect and understanding of the form. The whole idea of the country thing was to see how far we could go without bastardizing the music. Ben's big guy was Buck Owen, and mine was Patsy Cline, and we truly loved those people.
Bonzai: Why Patsy Cline for you?
lang: Because I loved her voice, the emotion and pathos and humour and power. She was a very progressive woman who was trying to make it in this business. I guess I related to her in a sense - the woman struggling against the odds.
Bonzai: When did you first discover your voice?
lang: I was pretty young. I competed for the first time when I was five and won. That seemed to give me a boost. it was never a discovery, though. It was just sort of there and understood.
Bonzai: When did you realise it was your calling?
lang: I knew it all along. I also went through stages where I wanted to be a cinematogarapher and involved in sports, but I knew it was music all along.
Mink: You were a heart surgeon for a while, too, weren't you?
Bonzai: And you still are....
lang: Mmm, yes.
Bonzai: Why do you spell your name with no capital letters?
lang: I think I was influenced by the fact that my mother was a Grade 2 schoolteacher, and what I saw was usually in lower case, when kids are just learning how to write. And I remember seeing an e.e. cummings poster in highschool, plus it's a marketing gimmick.
Bonzai: When did you make your first record?
lang: I guess it would be "Friday Dance Promanade," my forst single. I recorded at Larry Wanagas' studio - he's my manager. The second was the independent record, A Truly Western Experience. Those were made in 1983 and 1984, and in 1985 I was signed to Sire Records and met Ben.
Bonzai: What was the first work you created together?
lang: "High Time for a Detour."
Mink: We're still working on it.
lang: A song yet to be topped or surpassed.
Mink: I had sent k.d.'s manager a song, "Turn Me Round" [Angel With A Lariat] that I had mentioned when we met in Japan. She said she was looking for material for her new album, and I told her I had a song that I had never really finished. I started writing it when I was 17. So, I sent it off, and someone thought that we should get together and write. k.d. had suggested that in Japan, but it's one of those things like "let's have lunch together," and you don't really expect anything to happen. But she flew to Toronto, and we got together at my place, and "High Time for a Detour" emerged.
lang: Stupidest song I'd ever written, but we had so much fun.
Mink: So much fun writing, and we are yet to figure it out. But that ws the first.
lang: One version is available on Angel With A Lariat.
Mink: After the giddiness of that settled down we actually started writing together. What came next?
lang: The next song was "Pullin Back The Reins," and "Didn't I" was close afterwards.
Mink: We started that during Angel With A Lariat.
lang: We just went full steam ahead.
Bonzai: Who's in charge of the lyrics, and who's in charge of the music?
Mink: k.d. is generally in charge of the lyrics.
lang: Although they have to meet with Ben's approval.
Mink: Sometimes there are ongoing themes, jokes or even serious things running through our lives that become phrases and emotional concepts to be used as the basis for what a song might be. It might mull around for a couple of months, but we will eventually know that the song will be clarified and derived from these ideas. The details of the lyrics - what you hang on the tree - come after the general theme has been developed.
lang: At the same time, we develop melody, instrumentation and the basic emotional feeling of the song.
Bonzai: Has the procedure remained stable through the years of your collaboration?
Mink: It changes all the time. The only thing that stays stable is that we really try not to repeat ourselves. If we see ourselves going down a comfortable path, we'll ditch out, because we know that comfort means bordeom....
lang: And mediocrity.
Mink: If it's too easy, you're not testing yourself, and the right juices won't emerge. We try to trip ourselves up all the time.
Bonzai: How did your new home studios alter your work style?
lang: A major change.
Mink: We had a glimpse of it on Ingenue, because when we started we were using some rental equipment, 16-track Tascam machines. It's the old story of chasing the demo, because the feeling of the demo is so good. Sometimes we couldn't recapture it, so we just transferred over the original recordings. A good portion of major parts on Ingenue were framed up right from the original demo.
lang: Recorded in my tiny Chinatown apartment in Vancouver, but you couldn't replace what we originally got.
Mink: We decided that the next time there wouldn't be any demos. There's no reason for it anymore. You can make a good recording if you can get the equipment in your room and frame up the procedure in the right way, get all your SMPTE times right, your tapes lined up...
lang: And record as cleanly as possible without wrecking the vibe, the instantaneousness. Lots of times I would be setting up the mic while Ben was working out a part so that we could get it down right away.
Mink: We had tapes all formatted beforehand and did as much as we could so that the creative side wouldn't be interrupted. And it worked. We started at my place, because k.d.'s wasn't quite finished. My place is a scaled down version, a twin to her studio. We wrote there and did the preliminary recording. About four months into the project we moved everything to k.d.'s studio, but mine was running at the same ime.
lang: Ben did most of the strings and guitar parts at his studio.
Mink: We're ten minutes away from each other, and it really worked well.
Bonzai: Do you have matching consoles?
Mink: We both have Mackies, but her's has been modified for balanced in and out. I haven't time to do that, so I use mine primarily for monitoring. And her studio has all the heavy computer equipment. we used eight tracks of Pro Tools to do all our editing.
The detailed computer work and all the major editing is done at k.d.'s place and the raw materials are done over at mine.
Bonzai: How does this style compare with recording in a traditional studio?
lang: No comparison. In a commercial studio there's the intensity of knowing that you are spending that kind of money, plus the vibe of people you don't know sitting around, watching TV and smoking cigarettes. No air, no light. My studio had an incredible view of downtown Vancouver, the mountains and the ocean. We left the doors open all the time, and we listened at low levels. We never got any complaints, except when we tracked drums one day.
Mink: We set up our entire drum kit in a closet. We used a scaled down Junior Gretsch kit with a baby snare on most of the album.
lang: It's like a children's snare drum. If you listen carefully you can actually hear the snare head drop in tone as the head stretched.
Mink: It was so thin that it was only good for one or two takes. We had to call around to find snare heads that only exist for these children's kits.
Bonzai: Did this free creativity cause any consternation for your engineer, Marc Ramaer?
lang: A little. There's a great sense of pride in an engineer, and Ben and I have very untraditional styles of recording. [laughs]
Mink: We basically use anything. Some of the most memorable guitar tones, the ones that I am most proud of on the record, came from using a microphone that I picked up at the local video shop for four dollars. It's called a Carol, and it's all plastic. The cord wasn't long enough, so we used some alligator clips. It was buzzing, wasn't even grounded or shielded, but you want to get the idea down now. It has to be done that second, because your juices are going. If you wait for a proper pitchbay, a proper microphone, and you try to get rid of a ground hum, by that point you'll be sleeping.
lang: Plus there's something about inertia - being radical with the recording technique adds something.
Mink: It's all performance, performance.
lang: You're creating these crazy techniques, and it adds to the performance.
Mink: If there's really a problem later, you can find a way to get rid of it. We had a lot of hums on a number of tracks that we got rid of with a computer program called DINR that's part of the Digidesign software, and it worked like a charm. Mark found a way to really zero in, and it got rid of almost all the hiss and the ground hums. But some of them are still there.
lang: If it added to the charm, we definitely wanted it. We would have to fight with Marc, not in a serious manner, but we had to convince him that we were prepared to suffer the consequences.
Mink: On "Maybe," using headphones, you can hear me talking to the cello player telling him what part to play as it comes up. But the important thing is the live energy of making the record.
Bonzai: You certainly play a lot of strange instruments. Do you have a huge collection?
Mink: Well, it's getting bigger and bigger.
Bonzai: What's a Mandola?
Mink: That's a mandolin, the viola counterpart. A mandolin is tuned exactly like a violin, and a viola has a lower fifth string and the higher string is absent. The mandola is just a lower version of a mandolin, longer neck, a little bit lower in pitch.
Bonzai: What's an urhu?
Mink: The urhu is a traditional Chinese violin. You might see them played at fairs. It's got a snakeskin acoustical cavity - because they haven't developed a soy skin yet [laughs]. It's like a primitive violin, with two strings. I was told that the tonal objective is the "crying of an old grandmother." I took one lesson from an old fellow, and it requires a very different technique than for a violin.
Bonzai: Is violin your main instrument?
Mink: Violin and guitar.
Bonzai: On the new album, "Sexuality" is especially interesting, so straightforward but so romantic. Great song.
Mink: The working title was "Hawaii 6.0." It started off as a romantic Hawaiian number.
lang: Unitl I picked up the electric guitar [laughs].
Mink: So we threw out the Hawaiian thing, but on the computer the title was still "Hawaii." As it developed, we reached the sixth version and it became "Hawaii 6.0."
lang: It's funny, but that song had the first lyrics written for the new album. I had a completely different set of lyrics wriiten for it, but it had nothing to do with anything. It was again my sort of metaphorical, spiritual style of writing that I've developed.
And then I just literally felt sick. I physically felt ill, and I had to go lay down on my bed for a nap. Then all of a sudden I went, "C'mon, c'mon, shed the skin." I woke up and wham it came to me, and I called Ben and told him, "Okay, number one is here." It was a little bit scary, but I think both Ben and I wanted to be direct both sonically and lyrically on this record. We just wanted to make a very dry, straight-aheadforward record.
Mink: A lean meal.
lang: Lean cuisine.
Bonzai: On the song "Get Some," we have Teddy Borowiecki playing the Brisco organ. [both laugh]
Mink: It's a vegetable oil and an organ! No, there's a local pawn shop around the corner from where I live and I check it out every week. They get junk all the time, and we have this thing about "orphan" instruments that nobody wants. They're so bad that they are poor imitations of other cheap instruments. The Brisco is a bad imitation of a Farfisa. The top is cracked and the circuit board is gone and the tones change in the middle of a song.
lang: We bang on it, and then you'll hear foomph, and the organ kicks back in. The performance was so important that we didn't want to fix it.
Mink: Now we've sampled the sound because we need it for live work, and the Brisco will go into a museum somewhere.
Bonzai: Is that a little homage to The Beatles on this song?
lang: That was from my love for those psychedelic background parts that I've always wanted to do. I've been harping on Ben to do it for years, and finally on "Get Some" we got to do it. I just had it all in my head when I wrote it.
Bonzai: You do all the background vocals on your records. How many tracks do you eat up?
lang: Not that many - eight at most.
Mink: We both usually do six and occasionally eight if it needs an extra touch. And the eighth part is usually not a full part; it's just shading.
lang: It's usually just three or four parts doubled.
Mink: Same with the strings.
lang: You just make sure that your tone is a little bit different, so it sounds fatter. If one is a bit pitchy, you go the other way and balance it out.
Mink: We also work within the sonic frequencies that are already laid out in the track, so you don't crowd anything. It's like driving down a freeway. When we're doubling our own parts, the first part is an instinctive rendition, and you go, what did I do? It's a lot like getting in the tunnel and you know where the boundaries are when your shoulders hit the wall. But you follow it through.
Bozai: Do you like breaking the rules?
Mink: Technically, we stretch it as far as it can go. We had to create technical formulas because they didn't exist yet. Everyone who uses the DA-88s has their own system, and for us, there are thousands of sheets and careful computerized ways of documenting. Although it sounds as if we are in a garage kicking things - which we are - there is a precision and a method that lets it happen in pieces and then allows us to construct it all.
Bonzai: Where did you mix?
lang: Encore Studios in Burbank.
Bonzai: And you mastered with Bob Ludwig up at his new place in Maine?
lang: Yes - a beautiful way to finish up and chill out.
Bonzai: What's next? Promoting this puppy?
lang: Yes, I've been in promotion since four days after mastering. And I start a tour in January that goes through next September, so far.
Bonzai: What's most important to you, love or a recording career?
lang: Number one, they're inseparable, because I don't think I'm capable of either one without the other. Number two, I think it's shifted a bit. For the first ten years of my career, there's no question that was it, but as I get older and more comfortable, I've gotten more "over" show business. I'll never be over music, but maybe a little tired of show business, and I think love will ultimately be king. But it's inseparable. I'm a singer. I can't dissect myself that way.
Bonzai: How do you deal with phonies?
lang: I try not to. I try to eliminate them from my life. But I don't want to answer the question simply. I can't judge, because I'm sure that people who meet me in certain instances say "She's phony." I just try to adhere to my own value system, and Ben's, as it pertains to our music and our life. You just try to live really clearly with your own instincts and morals, and and react to situations staying true to those instincts, that's all.
Bonzai: Any advice for those just getting started in the music business, something that might help them avoid pitfalls?
lang: I'd avoid it in general [laughs]
Mink: You gotta love it a lot, and you have to love the correct part of it.
lang: You have to be not in control of your passion for it.
Mink: That's right. You have to be head over heels, blind....
lang: In love with it....
Mink: Because that's all that's going to get you through it. It's so heartbreaking what goes on sometimes - you go home and cry about it and lick your wounds. But eventually you have to become excited again.
lang: Or, you have to not give a shit at all.
Mink: For me, music was healing. I just felt better when I did it, like a psychological shower.
lang: It's a conduit. I don't think true musicians, actors, artists, have any choice. You don't have a choice.