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Monday, April 9, 2012

Ingénue: the arrival of k.d. lang

In all of popular music there are few finer vocalists than Kathryn Dawn Lang, known to her friends as plain, lower-case k.d. lang. I scored tickets to a taping of her BBC Radio 2 In Concert performance last year and was floored by the power, control and majesty of her voice. Her delivery of the over-exposed Cohen standard Hallelujah was so phenomenal that she got a deserved standing ovation on song three; not many artists can pull that off.

k.d. is a throwback to a bygone era of female singers, heavily influenced by her musical icon Patsy Cline. She is hard to categorise, a quality I love in artists, she once described her music as "nouveau easy listening". At the start of her career it was clear she saw herself as a country artist, the music genre she grew up with and felt most attuned to, but with 1992's Ingénue she changed course and made her major international breakthrough. What lay behind this change of style and what was it about Ingénue that made it connect so strongly with the listening public? Let's turn back the clock two decades and recall the emergence into the mainstream of the inimitable k.d. lang.

It's fair to say that k.d. was not a traditional country artist, yet she was clearly an authentic one. Her first four albums were country, three of them with her original backing band The Reclines (named in honour of Patsy). She scared the horses though with her tendency to emphasise the inherent campness in country. This along with her natural androgyny made her a controversial figure among the more conservative elements of the country & western establishment. Aware of the disquiet she caused, k.d.coined the term "torch and twang" to describe her music and differentiate herself from the Nashville elite. Interviewed in 1992 she spoke of her love of country music, but said: "I also saw the sense of humor of country, the kitschness of country and that attracted me to it".

It would be wrong to think that k.d. was a complete outsider in the country arena, she won two Grammy awards during this period, for her moving duet on Cryin' with Roy Orbison and for her album Absolute Torch And Twang. She also recruited country royalty Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells to perform with her on the medley Honky Tonk Angels on her first solo album, Shadowland. However, k.d.'s vocal support for the animal rights group PETA's 1990 pro-vegetarian campaign "Meat Stinks" found her being dropped from many country radio playlists; others continued to play her songs, but added "moos" to the mix. The words "eat beef, dyke" were spray painted on a sign declaring the town of Consort, Alberta, the "Home of k.d. lang", as those opposed to her alternative image and style jumped on the anti-lang bandwagon. The ferocity of this personal attack shook k.d., who later noted: "I think that in some ways people were waiting for something to attack me on, I just thank God that it was something I truly believe in."

It seems inevitable and entirely human that k.d. felt hurt and possibly rejected by the country music community, so maybe it seemed natural for her to explore a new musical direction at this time. Working with her friend and longtime collaborator Ben Mink, k.d. began to develop a more adult pop sound, which was further refined in the studio with engineer and producer Grep Penny. k.d.'s songwriting became much more abstract and metaphorical on this album, a break from the more literal lyrics found in country songs. Hand in hand with this developing musical subtlety was a shift in lang's vocal style, more "torch" and less "twang".

The resulting album, Ingénue, was released in March 1992. Listening to it again while writing this blog it is amazing how fresh and timeless it still feels.The album's title is apt, with the songs holding an air of innocence and emotional naivety. The album opener is a wonderful bridge from the old to the new k.d., with a slight country feel that gives way to rich romance. Save Me perfectly captures that feeling of being in love with someone when you know you shouldn't. k.d. is fighting them off, but with only minimal effort, wonderfully mirrored by the languid guitars that lull her into submission. Her vocal is equally languorous, soft, yet quietly determined. The tone is set for the album; nouveau it is, easy listening it is not.

Ingénue is simply unclassifiable. It has notes of jazz, cabaret, country, pop, folk, even world music. The melodies are instantly memorable while also subtle enough to reveal hidden nuances on repeated listening. The album also benefits from the fact that by now k.d. had explored the full range and power of her voice, that meant that the vocal performances on the album are perfectly pitched, never oversung with a masterful use of dynamics to sell the key phrases of the poetic lyrics.

k.d.'s record company Sire, part of the Warner Brothers family, put a lot of support behind the album, as they believed she was finally heading in a musical direction that most suited her talents. While k.d. may not have taken much of her old audience with her, she was clearly finding a new, more enthusiastic and accepting group of listeners. The album was not an instant success when it was released in March 1992, many critics could not quickly adjust to the subtlety of this new style. Slowly though the album started to garner attention on the "adult contemporary" radio stations in the US and the first single, Constant Craving, began to climb the charts. This song in particular signalled the new approach, strangely timeless, it was of the moment, but could also have been a newly discovered classic from the past. It was helped enormously by a beautifully shot monochrome video, which perfectly matched the tone of the song.

The positive reaction to k.d.'s new style may have prompted her to finally reveal details of her personal life. In an interview with The Advocate magazine in June 1992, k.d. for the first time directly stated she was a lesbian, admitting it was thoughts of protecting her mother, who still lived in their small home town, that had prevented her doing so sooner. Reading the interview it is fascinating to see the struggle k.d. faced in agreeing to take this step, you can see the internal conflict between artistic honesty and family privacy playing out. While "coming out" for a gay man or lesbian is still a courageous act, particularly in North America, in 1992 it was especially brave. k.d. became the leading poster girl for lesbian musicians, a position she never sought, yet has born with generosity, paving the way for other artists like Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls to be more easily open about their sexuality in the following years.

k.d. winks at her androgyny and controversial sexuality on the playful Miss Chatelaine. Accordions and pizzicato summon us to French-Canada, where k.d. ponders how she has come to be named "woman of the year" by renowned Canadian women's magazine, Chatelaine (think Woman's Own or Martha Stewart Living). This is not a political statement, it is a wry consideration of how she can live up to the unexpected honour of being named a paragon of femininity. It is joyous and genuinely well meant.

There was something else happening in k.d.'s life that significantly shaped Ingénue: she had fallen in love. k.d. acknowledged it was the most personally revealing record she'd made, it was also a form of catharsis as she was able to work through the feelings and emotions she was experiencing through the art of songwriting. She admitted in The Advocate interview that the object of her affection was a married woman and ultimately her love was unrequited. This biographical detail helps explain the course of the journey of love k.d. takes on Ingénue, from giddy desire to constant craving. She said: "Love hurts as much as it feels good - that's really what Ingénue is about."

Many of the album's tracks find k.d. pondering the pleasures and pitfalls of love, for example on The Mind Of Love we find k.d. admonishing herself for letting her heart rule her head. The use of her own name in the lyrics is a masterstroke, as we feel privileged to have been included in this private moment as confidante and empathiser. This confessional approach also informs songs like Wash Me Clean, Outside Myself and Tears Of Love's Recall, where k.d.'s heartbreak is writ large, yet she never slips into sentimentality.

Ingénue became k.d.'s most successful album to date, reaching number 3 in the UK and top twenty in both the US and Canada. It earned k.d. five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, and she won for Best Pop Vocal Performance for Constant Craving. Two decades on from the controversies surrounding the birth of Ingénue, it is a measure of the strength of this genre-busting album that it is the music and talent of k.d. lang that prevails.

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