"Be confident in yourself. Confidence is the best gift and it's the best advice that anyone has ever given me. My parents gave me confidence. My teacher told me to just be confident. Have confidence in yourself—it’s everything."
k.d. lang is one of Canada’s most versatile and gifted singer-songwriters and performers. As noteworthy as her multiple Juno and Grammy awards is her contribution to the LGBTQ community. k.d. publicly came out in the early 1990s, at the peak of her fame, helping to shed light on the issue of gay rights.
Kathryn Dawn Lang was born in Edmonton in 1961. She spent her childhood in the village of Consort, 220 kilometres east of Red Deer. Adulthood, however, took her as far away from home as one can imagine: travelling around the world as one of North America’s foremost performing artists.
While the path from Consort to Hollywood is the definition of “unbeaten,” it’s clear that k.d.’s rural upbringing was an integral element in shaping the singer who has been wowing audiences for the last 30 years. Through her contributions both on and off the stage, she has impacted Alberta’s cultural landscape.
While the Consort of k.d.’s childhood had no movie theatre or swimming pool, it had something special urban communities did not offer—space. k.d. had all the room she needed to develop her unique voice and eclectic style that would take the music scene by storm. She fondly remembers being able to project and sing as loudly as possible without anyone in the countryside able to hear a single note.
Some might expect life in a small town to limit a person’s ability to diversify, to find their own perspective on life. But k.d. disagrees. She feels that her childhood in Consort helped broaden her horizons. She believes that, growing up in a rural setting, her eccentricities were able to develop to the extreme, simply because she had fewer influences to direct her. It’s through k.d.’s music that these eccentricities started to shine.
Her parents nurtured her developing musical skills. k.d.’s mother routinely drove her and her siblings 85 kilometres, each way, for piano lessons—even in the dead of winter. Her teacher discovered that, from an early age, k.d.’s musical talent emerged naturally more than academically; she would sing notes based on what she heard, not on what she read on the page. Thankfully, k.d. was encouraged to continue down that path.
While her talent was evident from an early age, she was struggling to find a clear artistic path until her 21st birthday. Her sister Keltie’s gift was a number of Patsy Cline albums, which gave k.d. a push to explore country music.
That exploration led to inspiration, and after graduating from Red Deer College, she formed k.d. lang and the Reclines. The band allowed k.d. to mix her country influences, including classic Nashville attire, with a playfully punk attitude. The band released its first album, A Truly Western Experience, in 1984. In 1985, k.d. won her first of eight Junos when she was named “Most Promising Female Vocalist.”
From there, her career quickly gained momentum as k.d. signed with a major record label. After one more album with the Reclines, she shifted to solo recordings, releasing Shadowland, which reached number eight on the 1988 Billboard country album chart. At that point, sophisticated pop sensibilities began to merge into her earlier country style.
In 1989, after the release of Absolute Torch and Twang, k.d. won her first of four Grammy Awards and was honoured for the “Best Female Country Vocal Performance.” Her next release, 1992’s Ingénue, spawned her career’s biggest hit, “Constant Craving,” and catapulted her career into the stratosphere.
k.d. became a worldwide celebrity, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair with supermodel Cindy Crawford and receiving public praise from Madonna. During her rise to fame, her personal life also came into the spotlight. k.d., who came out to her family at the age of 17, decided that coming out publicly would be the most responsible thing to do, both for herself and for society.
So, in June of 1992, and at the height of her celebrity status, she came out in an interview with the LGBTQ magazine The Advocate. k.d. was concerned about the possible impact on her career, but decided that social responsibility outweighed personal gain. She made peace with a potential backlash, as she felt that the world would benefit from opening up and gaining additional insight into LGBTQ culture.
k.d. realizes that she was lucky in that she was comfortable and confident in who she was, enabling her to be ready to share this personal information with the world. And while she’s seen improvement in the awareness and evolution of society in this area, including the legalization of gay marriage in 2005, she recognizes there is still a long way to go. At the same time, k.d. started to grow tired of the focus on her sexual orientation shifting attention away from her music.
Through the years, her creative output has continued to awe fans and music critics alike. She has collaborated with Roy Orbison, Jane Siberry, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded the 2002 album A Wonderful World. In addition to several television guest appearances, she starred in the critically acclaimed 1991 film Salmonberries.
In 2016, she collaborated with acclaimed artists Neko Case and Laura Veirs. In addition to traditional recordings, she also worked with the Alberta Ballet on Balletlujah, a ballet based on her work, which ran in 2014. In 2017, she completed another cross-country Canadian tour, as well as a series of dates in Australia. This year, she travelled south of the border celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ingénue and performing the album in its entirety.
k.d. has also taken the opportunity her fame has provided to preach the importance of music for young people. She has been a strong supporter of the Calgary Public Library’s musical instrument lending library, which gives children the chance to borrow instruments that would otherwise be inaccessible.
k.d. has become a beacon for Canadian and Albertan talent, known throughout the world for her stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which she sang to open the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
k.d’s impact on Alberta and Canada has stretched well beyond music. She has been a vocal advocate for animal and human rights, including public support of War Child and Voices Against Violence. Her achievements have led to a wide range of honours. In 2011, k.d. was inducted into the Q Hall of Fame, dedicated to commemorating the diverse history of Canada’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Recognition has come from all corners of the music industry including the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award, the Brit Awards, GLAAD Media Awards, the JUNO awards, the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards, and the Grammy Awards. Her career came full circle in 2013 when one of her childhood idols, Anne Murray, presided over her induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Less formal recognition has been equally as frequent; for example, Tony Bennett, a colleague, friend, and fan, has praised her as “the best singer of her generation.”
Canada has recognized her contribution to the nation by naming her as an Officer of the Order of Canada. She has also been recognized with the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. k.d. received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and has been honoured with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Today, k.d. splits her time between Calgary and Portland, where she passionately supports the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers. When she’s not on stage, she can often be found cooking, riding her motorcycle, or relaxing with her dog. While music will undoubtedly continue to be a large part of her life, she tries to remain goalless in the best possible way, and be a free spirit who is completely open to what life brings her way.