K.D Lang: ‘Fame changed me. I thought I was prepared for it’

Craver, carer: K.D. Lang takes us back to her younger years in this week's Letter To My Younger Self

At 16  my life was all about volleyball, girls and music. I was a very distracted student. I was interested in the social and sporting sides of school, not the academic side. I was listening to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Rickie Lee Jones and I was starting to write songs. For my high-school graduation I wrote and sang the theme song for the grad. I think I was regurgitating what I had absorbed, but putting in my own narratives, the crushes I had on older people like teachers. So I probably used songwriting as a cathartic venue for my emotions. Most of my crushes were unrequited but I did meet a couple of girls at school.

I was a teenager so I was kind of living in my own world. And my mum worked, so we didn’t have a lot of time together. But she’s 96 now and she’s my best friend. So something went right. I moved back to Canada to be near her and I see her every seven to 10 days. That’s a lot more than I’ve ever seen her before in my adult life. She just fascinates me. She’s hilarious, I see myself in her, I look for clues in her to understand my father, my siblings. And sharing the process of dying with someone is very rich. It’s helping me prepare for my own passing but more than that, just being able to share that with someone so openly is pretty incredible. I feel very blessed. I spent so many years touring the world and feeling guilty – I should spend more time at home, I should be with my dog, I should do more cooking. And now I’ve finally got to the point where I’m doing what I feel what I should be doing for the betterment of my life.

I came out to my mum when I was 17. My high-school sweetheart had left me for somebody and I was really upset. My mum asked what was wrong and I said “You wouldn’t understand” and she said “Try me.” So I came out to her. It was hard. My mum was a Christian and this was early, this was 1977 or 1978. So that was a pretty big deal in a small town then and my mum struggled with it for a couple of years. Because more then anything I think parents want you to have a safe, happy life. I understood that but as I progressed through life and became more accomplished and got public praise it got easier between us. When I came out publicly it was a bit of a setback but it was also a solidification of how important it was. It was a tough journey but it was definitely, definitely worth it.

I was pretty kinetic, alive and curious as a teenager. I was confident, happy-go-lucky, anxious to get going and explore the world, have experiences, see what the world had to
offer. My parents gave me a lot of confidence, they always had faith in me. They’d say I was so handsome I’d never have to wear make-up. So I knew I was going to be a singer one day. I grew  up in a small town with no cultural references other than TV and magazines. I felt like they were magical portals to this super-attainable, dreamlike world. You could just step through.

I think my 16-year-old self was much better and more likeable than my 30-year-old self. Fame changed me. I thought I was prepared for it, I had a type of cockiness that was common in the Eighties, it was in style. I adopted it fairly easily. When I see my 30-year-old self now I see it, overly cocky. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek but it’s also kind of real and it makes me cringe a bit. It takes a kind of unfettered confidence and dare to participate in the music business. It’s so all-encompassing and demanding, I had to go to the highest level of ego just to maintain it. If I could give any advice to the younger me it would be to be more humble and grateful.

The ‘d’ in k.d. lang stands for dichotomy. I love to press up against opposites. I’m fascinated by opposite truths and I try to take them on. I fell in love with the emotion of country music, and the kitschness of it. I sang country music for mentors like Patsy [Cline] and Loretta [Lynn], people I loved who were telling their stories. I loved the direct human emotion they had through country. It’s just when you pull out into a bigger demographic, it gets a little scary for me. I never fell in love with the politics of country and western. I enjoyed a liaison with the musical genre but in no way did I ever think that’s who I was. I still cringe when people call me a country and western singer because I do not align with the politics of it whatsoever. Especially right now, with where we are in popular culture.

1977

The year k.d. turns 16

• The Pompidou Centre opens
in Paris

• 583 people die in the world’s worst ever aviation disaster in Tenerife

• Fleetwood Mac release Rumours

I think I’d go back and put my arm around my younger self and say, be grateful for what’s happening now, just enjoy it. You don’t have to maintain it. The most difficult times were when I was grappling with, what was my motivation in the music business? When I was about 33 or 34 I’d had the success of Ingénue. Trying to maintain that level of success came with a gamut of difficulties. Why didn’t I want more? Why was I happy reaching that pinnacle? What was it all for – was it fame or money or was it about offering something to the gods or other beings? Why did I step away from the limelight at that moment? I think I personally shut down and acted out of self-preservation, a kind of sabotage. It’s taken me a long time to re-set and work out my true motivation. Stepping away at that point was the right thing for my music, though maybe not my popularity or my bank account. It’s a daily internal debate – should you be out there?Should you be making music? Because I’ve pretty much got right out of the scene. I’m not making any new music. I just don’t feel I have anything to say. There’s so much confusion out there, I don’t have the clarity to offer any kind of solace.

It’s really funny – when I was younger I had all the confidence in the world. I was totally unfazed by being at the Grammys for example. Or being in a room with Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. Or playing a huge opera house in Singapore. And now that I’ve slowed down and returned to Canada, I look back and shake my head and go, my God! How did I even do that? It just seems so big and took so much energy. It seems just implausible now. But I had no problem with it at the time.

I believe in fate and karma, in what you need to experience to get to the next part of the journey. There is so much richness in learning, the things that go wrong as much as the things that go right. I loved knowing that I’d failed, that I’d made the worst record ever. I even loved the heartache. I loved it all.