K.D. LANG at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe), tonight (Thursday, June 17) and Friday (June 18). $45-$125. 416-872-4255. in the beginning, before the ma- donna-Britney kiss or the Roseanne-Morgan Fairchild kiss, before Tatu and even the Indigo Girls, there was k.d. And the lesbians saw k.d., and they said it was good. And then the lesbians saw k.d. all dolled up in drag on the cover of Vanity Fair, being shaved by a nearly-naked Cindy Crawford, and they said, "Man, this is awesome!" Come to think of it, a lot of straight guys probably said the same thing as well.
I've always admired the country crooner from Consort, Alberta, because she was out and proud of her marginalized identity - and made said identity palatable to the mainstream long before Sapphic chic existed outside the domain of perverse pornographic fantasy.
Now, in the post-Queer Eye era, lang is tackling another facet of her identity politic on a pop-cultural stage with the release of Hymns From The 49th Parallel (Nonesuch), which she views as her attempt to "establish a Canadian songbook."
While the currently California-based lang claims she's been thinking about the project for a long time, she acknowledges that she chose the right moment to go ahead with it.
"It's all because of Michael Moore," lang laughs on the phone from her West Coast home, where she's battling a nasty PMS headache. "Because of Bowling For Columbine, everyone here seems to see Canadians as a nicer, more polite version of Americans. There are tons of indications that Canadian culture is chic."
The impetus for Hymns stemmed from lang's collaboration last year with eminence gris Tony Bennett on the jazzy classics disc Wonderful World, which won a Grammy. Lang says Bennett wanted to honour his old pal and former neighbour Louis Armstrong by releasing the album of dusty chestnuts, which got her thinking about her own heritage.
In response, the dapper chanteuse selected tunes by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Ron Sexsmith, Jane Siberry and her idol Joni Mitchell. While some of the choices are no-brainers (where would a definitive Canadian songbook be without Cohen's Hallelujah), there are some conspicuous absences.
Like, what's up with overlooking Gene McClellan's Snowbird?
"I'd looked at his work," sighs lang. "It boils down to my own personal relationship with the artists on the album. Sure, there's an extensive number of great Canadian songs, but I wanted to reveal my own musical DNA.
"And I really wanted to illuminate the idea that Canadian songwriters are influenced by the geographical landscape of Canada. I have this theory that we use the environment to express emotional stuff, and I know that growing up in Alberta, the mineral landscape completely influenced my vocal style."
She insists she wanted to express her reverence for the tunes, turning even the simplest singer/songwriter selections (like Ron Sexsmith's Fallen) into what she views as "spiritual hymns."
And lang succeeds quite well in her mission - she dropped the drums from the record and worked with Björk collaborator Amir Deodato (he oversaw the string sections on Homogenic) to come up with very precise, often austere arrangements. The result is a collection of airy, kinda progressive chamber-folk tunes, with lang's deep vocals front and centre anchoring each hymn.
While it seems odd that lang is taking what she viewed so adamantly as a simple, stripped-down record to the stage with a full-blown orchestral tour, she doesn't see any conflict.
"When people talk about performing covers, they've somehow extended their concept of what that means through this whole remix culture that's happening, and I think too many people take the songs out of context. To me, these songs are spiritual hymns, and I think they're strong enough to withstand even the biggest pedestal of string arrangements."
Lang's queer vegetarian avenger incarnation may be yesterday's news now that she's pushing the pro-Canada button, but I still wonder whether she's ever irked enough by the mainstream obsession with fauxbians (yes, I'm still stuck on the Madonna-Britney thing) to fight back.
"The straight commercialization of lesbianism? Like the Madonna-Britney kiss?" She chuckles indulgently. "Well, as a queer, I take offence to it, but as a human being I know any overexposure is important in opening the envelope, so I think ultimately it's all good."
Or maybe she just thinks it's kinda hot. Homegrown Hymns tap queer chanteuse k.d. lang's national roots By SARAH LISS