Jazz Aspen: k.d. lang serves up a slice of Americana
ASPEN – In the early 1980s, among the gay community in Alberta, Canada, old-school female country singers were all the rage. “It became slightly fashionable to like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn,” said Kathryn Lang, who was part of that circle. “And slightly kitschy.” Lang latched onto the trend: She watched “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” absorbed the music, and happily accepted when various friends simultaneously thrust Patsy Cline records in her direction.The fad passed, but Lang stayed hooked, especially on Cline, the country sensation who had late-’50s hits with “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” and died at the age of 30 in an airplane crash. Under the name k.d. lang, Lang formed a band, the Reclines, that specialized in slightly off-kilter versions of Cline’s songs.”I was obsessed with Patsy Cline. I fell in love with country music,” said lang, who now uses the lower case for her name. She went on to record a handful of albums that reflected the infatuation: Her independent debut, from 1984, was titled “A Truly Western Experience”; the cover of 1986’s “Angel with a Lariat” pictures lang on a prairie with horses and cows. “Shadowland,” from 1988, was produced by Owen Bradley, who had produced much of Cline’s signature records, and featured the trio of Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee and Kitty Wells on “The Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.”But even then, lang’s obsession with country wasn’t all-consuming. Consort, the town in which she grew up, had a population of 650, and the cities, Edmonton and Calgary, were each a four hours’ drive away. But thanks to a brother who was a musical prodigy, when lang started playing piano at age 5 and then switched to voice, she got a solid education, and a genuine love of classical music. At 12, spurred on by TV shows like “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” she picked up guitar. At Alberta’s Red Deer College, she continued studying music but also took up with the seriously artsy crowd.”I fell in with a group of artists and fell into an experimental phase for four years,” lang said by phone, from Portland, Ore., en route to San Diego and then to Colorado, where she performs Sunday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival in the Benedict Music Tent. (Lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, also play Saturday at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.)The experimental phase included the Patsy Cline fascination; it also encompassed what lang calls her “punk ideals,” which she combined with a fairly traditional take on the country music sound in the Reclines. She also played industrial punk music, and did performance art, including a seven-hour re-enactment of the implantation of an artificial heart.”Ingnue,” lang’s 1992 album, was part of a different kind of experiment. The album leaned toward a vocal pop style, with hints of jazz and cabaret. Lang says “Ingnue” was highly influenced by her growing love of Joni Mitchell, but also by an affection for Brazilian sounds, Peggy Lee and European music. A listener would be hard-pressed to find much country in the sound, but it was a most successful turn in the road. “Ingnue” was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, and the song “Constant Craving” took the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female.When “Ingnue” was released, there was no category in which it comfortably fit. But lang’s music – including last year’s “Sing It Loud” – now fits firmly in the Americana niche, as lang’s sound combines bits of country, a ’70s singer-songwriter approach, vocal pop, chamber music and jazz. Lang says she wouldn’t give herself any of the credit for helping launch the Americana genre, but it is noteworthy that some of the musicians she used on “Ingnue,” including pedal steel player Greg Leisz and bassist David Pilch are now Americana stars, backing the likes of Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Bill Frisell and the Jayhawks.”Twenty years ago the genre definitely did not exist,” lang said of the Americana category. “I would like to think I contributed something to it. But I don’t think aficionados think of me as Americana. I’m a fall-through-the-cracks kind of musician to a lot of people. I’m jazz to some, gay to some, country to some.”To simplify matters, one could call lang a singer, and one of the most respected in the business. She has a long-standing collaboration with Tony Bennett; the two recorded the 2002 album “A Wonderful World” together, and won a Grammy for Traditional Pop Vocal Album. The list of her other collaborators includes Dwight Yoakam, Anne Murray and Madeleine Peyroux.Lang is still gathering influences. A recent interest is rock ‘n’ roll, which makes its way into certain tracks on “Sing It Loud.” “That’s an area I’m still being influenced by,” she said. “Maybe I’m going backward from most of my contemporaries, in terms of what has influenced me. As I get older I get more into rock ‘n’ roll. Which seems backward.” Lang says she is most interested in contemporary rock acts, including Of Montreal, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes and Little Dragon.Lang says she is not surprised that she went from something close to traditional country to a hybrid music that touches on numerous styles.”I knew exactly what I was doing,” she said. “Obviously there’s ebbs and flows and tangents I could not predict. But I knew I wanted a life of music and I had the tenacity or idiocy to pursue it. I knew my career would touch down on a lot of different styles of music. Because I liked a lot of kinds of music.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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