By John Polly
A good way to break the ice with k.d. lang is to tell her that you listened to her new record all weekend while you were cleaning house. For some reason, if you’re calling up the Grammy-winning world-renowned chanteuse/cowgirl/vegetarian/lesbian pop star and this bit of information gets relayed, she laughs and comments affably: “I bet you were cleaning really fast!”
The 20-song “Reintarnation” is a rollicking retrospective of the first decade of lang’s work, spanning much of the 1980s and early 90s. It charges right out of the chute bucking and cranking with a festive cowpunk beat.
In fact, much lang’s early career was spent as a country singer who charmed the Nashville establishment with her clever reinvention of the musical genre that held such greats as Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff and Loretta Lynn as its icons.
Yep, lang first rose to prominence as a fiery, fun-loving cowgirl, known as much for her almost cartoonishly sequined western apparel and exuberant onstage energy as for her singular grasp of how to pay tribute to the sass and smarts of country music, while also reveling in its hokier elements. (Song titles such as “Big Boned Girl,” “Got the Bull By the Horns,” “Hanky Panky” and “Cowgirl Pride” testify to the spunk that infused much of lang’s honky-tonkin’ oeuvre.)
And somehow, as much fun as lang had recording her country tunes, instead of sounding like send-ups, her music served as tributes to a genre she had grown to love.
“Before I officially became a musician, I was not really listening to country,” admits lang. “I was doing performance art. I was working with a group of artists who did art installations with found art and social commentary and this kind of industrial punk music, with tape loops and breaking glass and shit like that.”
“But soon I started feeling anxious; I was looking for something with more structure and something more to hit my head against. For my 21st birthday, I’d been given two Patsy Cline records, and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ had been out earlier, and there was this weird affinity growing toward country music in the gay scene. My brother and sisters were really into it.” (Yes, both lang’s brother and one of her sisters are gay, too.)
“I may have been coming at it from a completely different perspective, but at the same time, as a singer I found that the genre gave me something really challenging, and it gave the vocalist a lot of room. And conceptually, there was a lot of room to play with the more traditional ways of thinking. Plus, it was a lot of fun in terms of fashion,” lang recalls. “I had fun getting really creative with the fashion, playing with a look in which I could incorporate my really boyish demeanor and haircut and attitude, while at the same time wearing these crazy dresses. It was all a lot of fodder for my creative energy.”
But as much fun as she had tailoring her hyper-Nashville persona, lang never veered into parody. “It was like a kind of performance art for me,” she notes. “But the thing was I had a real, true love and respect for the artists I chose to follow; and I ended up being a student of those icons, like Patsy and Loretta. There was humor in it, but that had also been incorporated by people like Minnie Pearl and Cousin Joe and String Bean before. And I loved that self-effacing humor; June Carter Cash was another good example. I just kind of combined all of those things.”
When lang came out as a lesbian on the cover of The Advocate in the early 1990s she achieved even greater fame. Before even she could fathom it, she was on the cover of Vanity Fair and named as “One of 1992’s Most Important People of the Year” by Barbara Walters.
“I had always thought I was pretty out,” says lang. “So it didn’t really occur to me to come out officially. But then came AIDS, and around the time of ‘Ingenue’ the group Queer Nation was doing its thing, and it was becoming a very political issue to be out. So I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll just come out. It’s not like it’s a big jump.'”
And she’s been world-famous ever since. (Of course it helped that “Ingenue,” and its single “Constant Craving” nabbed her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance around the same time.)
Still, after the stylistic turns her career has taken, it’s a testament to her early music that the torch and twang of “Reintarnation” doesn’t sound at all dated. These country nuggets could have been recorded last week, rather than up to 20 years ago.
“That’s probably because the essence of country music hasn’t changed all that much,” explains lang. “When we took these songs and remixed them, we basically just cleaned them up and made them as organic as possible.”
It doesn’t hurt either that lang’s full-throated performances easily sustain years later. “I think the performances were pretty pure,” she admits. “Even if we didn’t really know what we were doing back then, it all stands up surprisingly well.”