A softer shade of struggle
On her new CD, k.d. lang brings a greater compassion to life’s challenges, which she shares with a quieter tone of voice.
By Naila Francis
k.d. lang has always been heralded for her voice, that inimitably sumptuous pitch-perfect instrument.
It’s a voice that has invariably, over the years, overshadowed the content of her songs. But these days, the Canadian chanteuse, who is touring behind “Watershed,” her first album of original material since 2000’s “Invincible Summer,” is rediscovering the craft of songwriting.
After mining the Canadian songbook for the acclaimed “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” and the Great American Songbook for “A Wonderful World,” her collaboration with Tony Bennett, lang says “it was an ominous and daunting task to try to think of myself as a songwriter.”
“I was tackling some of the best-written songs in the last 30 (to) 40 years or maybe 60 years,” she says. “But what singing those songs restored to me was my innate understanding of what a great song felt like, and in the long run, it’s had a positive impact on my songwriting and singing. (A great song) has a flow to it; it’s something you enjoy singing, something that comes out of you quite easily. Even though the work to understanding it might be hard — understanding the subtext and the characters and all the meanings of the song — when you perform the song, it should feel like it’s effortless.”
It’s an impression that can be felt on “Watershed,” an album whose apt title reflects lang’s ushering in a new phase in her career and in her life. Released Feb. 5 on Nonesuch Records, the album is the first where she’s served as sole producer, without a band in the studio, without a specific genre to pin her songs on and with a tempering of her vocal power that she says she’s been moving toward ever since 1992’s “Ingnue.”
“It’s something that I prefer,” she says of the album’s softer, more intimate tones. “Even though I do have the power, I don’t like to have the pedal to the metal all the time. It’s something that’s more exciting when you use it once in a while sparingly. To me, the real meat … is in the emotion and understanding of the song and trying to find every possible way into a song, every possible interpretation into a song so that when I sing it, I’m making that channel of understanding open to audience members that have varying degrees of relating to a song. It seems to suit that vocal style of approach of singing more quietly.”
While she admits to some apprehension producing the album, there was a sense of liberation, too, in working in her home studio in Beverly Hills unfettered by time constraints or the demands of others.
“There was no pressure to be brilliant and know exactly where to go and what you need to do and where you want to take it. The meter wasn’t ticking. I wasn’t spending a lot of money sitting around trying different things or wasting people’s time,” says lang, who performs Sunday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. “I allowed myself all the time in the world to play along with different ideas and the feelings of the songs and edit them and rearrange them in different ways. It was a very luxurious and rewarding experience.”
As a result, several demos made it into the 11-song collection, first takes that captured her voice in all its honest immediacy.
“There’s something that happens when writing songs, the creative energy in those first performances,” says lang. “I wanted to capture that raw creative energy rather than perfect them and have them translated by a producer or a band.”
“Watershed,” written over six years, offers a glimpse of a woman reassessing every facet of her life.
“It’s more of a self-reflective record, looking at my relationship to myself, my art, my lover, the universe,” says lang, who admits that a more intense commitment to studying Buddhism in the last eight years, despite being a Buddhist all of her life, definitely seeped into the songs.
And so “Watershed” finds the 46-year-old deliberately inhabiting a greater flexibility, leaning neither to bold euphoric declarations or a wallowing discontent. Instead, her sublime vocals glide with a liquid allure through familiar territory: the ego’s struggle to control and the surrender to what it is, the reaching for transcendence and the constant tripping up against our humanness. In bowing to life’s bittersweet imperfection, lang allows for an embracing of her own darkness, welcoming it even if it means transformation, as she so gracefully acknowledges in tracks like “Coming Home” and “Shadow and the Frame,” where she sings of this “sad and dull but beautiful” life, with all its shattering illusions.
An elegant subtlety permeates the CD, from the hushed languor of her voice and the occasionally oblique lyrics to the intimacy of the arrangements that pull from jazz, country, bossa nova and smoldering pop balladry.
“For me, and maybe this is the case for other Buddhists, commitment really is not to practice for your own benefit but to practice for the benefit of others and once you sort of take refuge in the concept of working for the benefit of others, it’s a big commitment and a lot of work,” says lang. “That overall sense of a more gentle understanding of the struggles we go through as human beings, not being so attached or so dedicated to the desire or failure or just seeing it as part of a process or not buying into the duality of happiness or sadness, has changed the way I write music and how I perform and produce music.
“Really, you’re just looking for truth and the most vulnerable sort of openness. You’re not looking for the best performance, not trying to be too clever. You’re just really looking for the truth. And the truth is never black and white — the truth is always gray.”
While she admits a hit album would be a boon, she has released the weight of expectation.
“I’ve made a habit of not being involved in my press and reviews and critiques of my work or record sales because that’s in the tail end of what I do and I don’t want it to inform the direction that I take or the choices that I make. I want that to be purely driven by inspiration or my muse and what I think is best for my music,” says lang. “In that respect, I have no expectations. My offering is making and singing the music.”
– The Intelligencer