'Hard to unravel:' k.d. lang reflects on her career and coming out

Sometimes k.d. lang is ready to wind up her singing career and ease into retirement, but then inspiration strikes for a new project.

With a new album k.d. lang signals she's not ready to hang up her microphone

k.d. lang is seen in this undated handout photo. Sometimes k.d. lang is ready to wind up her singing career and ease into retirement, but then inspiration strikes for a new project. (The Canadian Press/HO-Jason Quigley)

Sometimes k.d. lang is ready to wind up her singing career and ease into retirement, but then inspiration strikes for a new project.

That's what happened when she dreamt up the new Case/lang/Veirs album about three years ago.

Envisioned as a collaboration with folk artists Neko Case and Laura Veirs, lang tapped out an email to her friends and suggested the trio get together to record some cover songs.

Within half an hour of sending the message, both other singers were on board with the idea.

Singer k.d lang, wearing a jacket given to her by country music legend Hank Snow, flashes a smile and her Juno Award for Best Country Female Vocalist in Toronto on Nov. 2, 1987. Alberta native k.d. lang studied the piano standards of the Royal Conservatory of Music growing up. (The Canadian Press)

"It was really easy," lang says of making the pitch. "(But) we decided instead of a cover record, we felt it was an absolute necessity to write it. That's when the real work started."

Veirs and lang committed to working together in person, since they both lived in Portland, while Case joined them mostly to provide vocals.

"We sang it in the same room, we wrote it in the same room," lang, 54, says. "So old-fashioned."

Tradition is something lang became accustomed to while growing up in Consort, Alta., where her family's home was rich with music. Her siblings were all trained classical pianists and she fondly remembers her mother playing Peter and the Wolf and the Sound of Music before bedtime.

In her waking hours, lang spent time flipping through her older sister's vinyl collection.

"A 12-inch album cover was like a portal into a world," she says. "You could stare at that thing for an hour and just go off on a journey."

Her teenage years were filled with music from genre pioneers like the Flying Burrito Brothers and Delaney & Bonnie who bridged the gap between rock and country.

A gift of Patsy Cline albums on her 21st birthday gave lang the final push to explore country music further — and eventually form the Reclines, a band which started as a tribute to the American country star.

This undated file image released by the O&M Co. shows k.d. lang, performing in the musical After Midnight, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York. (The Associated Press)

Two years later lang was picked as most promising female vocalist at the 1985 Junos on the strength of her debut A Truly Western Experience with the Reclines.

When Nashville came knocking, the singer quickly learned that U.S. record executives wanted her to wear the boots of a more mainstream country singer — less punk and more pop.

Instead of following the industry's vision, lang decided to revisit her earlier influences.

She would win her first Grammy a few years later in 1989 for a duet of Crying with Roy Orbison, and picked up another the following year for her album Absolute Torch And Twang.

Her rise would instantly expose her to a different world where casual encounters with Naomi Campbell and dinners with Gianni Versace were commonplace.

"I didn't think anything of it," she says. "When I look back at it I think, wow, it seems so far-fetched."

But underneath the glamour of the time, the HIV/AIDS crisis was tearing through the arts scene. Party conversations often shifted to friends who fell victim to the disease.

Lang says she remembers frequently discussing the crisis with close friend and fashion photographer Herb Ritts and label-mate Madonna.

"At the time you're kids playing celebrity," lang says.

"We all knew we had a social responsibility to make some inroads and strides in acceptance, but it's so hard to have clarity when you're in the thick of it."

k.d. lang waves to the crowd after receiving a Juno for her Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction during the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina on Sunday, April 21, 2013. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

When radical activist group Queer Nation began publicly outing celebrities in the early 1990s, a panic swept through the entertainment industry.

Even though lang told her family at 17 she was a lesbian, she says coming out publicly "felt like it was the most responsible thing for society and myself."

Sitting down with LGBTQ magazine the Advocate for their June 1992 issue, she addressed the question she knew they'd ask — and it pushed her even further into the global spotlight.

Her single Constant Craving from Ingenue took off, becoming the biggest hit of her career, and its lyrics became a talking point about her sexuality. The famous Vanity Fair cover with supermodel Cindy Crawford followed the next year.

Despite the sales boosts, lang found it painful to watch her career writhe on the narrative of her new public persona and sexual identity. It was a world built on "the clothes and who you're hanging out with," she says.

"I thought music should be able to rise above all of that."

When her followup All You Can Eat landed with a thud on the album charts, lang decided it was time to regroup. She stopped chasing the celebrity lifestyle and took up Buddhism.

k.d. lang performs during the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina on Sunday, April 21, 2013. (The Canadian Press)

In the subsequent two-plus decades since Ingenue, she's impressed critics with seven albums, a Grammy-winning collaboration with Tony Bennett, and zeitgeist moments like performing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

She's also tried to digest her feelings about coming out publicly.

"It's a very hard thing to unravel for me and decipher," she says.

"In a way you can't. It's all just a big ball of wax of who I am and what my role in popular culture was — and what pop culture's role was in me.

"Now I have my music and the part of coming out," she says. "I kind of like where I'm at."

Music comes first for k.d. lang, but fashion has frequently played a supporting role in her diverse career.

The Alberta native's sartorial style, inspired by the thrift shops of her small-town upbringing, took her to the front cover of Vanity Fair. The threads worn over the course of her career not only looked great, they helped define her persona.

Lang talked to The Canadian Press about the stories behind several of her most memorable looks.