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kd lang: Promise fulfilled
On the podcast, a great Canadian artist
Sometimes seeing a musician in person helps you understand. In 2004 I saw Tony Bennett and kd lang a week apart in the same hall at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. They had released a duet album, What a Wonderful World, two years earlier. (All the songs on it were associated with Louis Armstrong. I never noticed that until I started doing research for this interview.)
Bennett has always preferred to work with serious musicians, so for me his choices of duet partners had the effect of settling debates. You don’t like Diana Krall, kd lang, Lady Gaga? That’s OK, Tony Bennett disagrees, and as far as I’m concerned his opinion is dispositive. But seeing lang and Bennett do their own thing in such close proximity was highly educational for me. She was touring on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel, a collection of covers of Canadian songs — by Leonard Cohen, Jane Siberry, Ron Sexsmith — with a string orchestra. She came out wearing a suit, with bare feet. She promptly delivered herself bodily and whole to each song, a level of commitment to craft and story that few singers achieve.
I have never met her. We tried to get her for the old interview series I did for my former employer, but she wasn’t touring and we couldn’t make it work. I tried again for the podcast. She said yes: if I would come to Calgary, where she lives half the time, and if we could do it without an audience. So when the interview came, it was in a Calgary basement podcast studio, just me, lang and Beau, the recording technician, who keeps a guitar handy.
After a shaky start, I asked her about her 1985 acceptance speech at the Junos, when she won for Most Promising Female Vocalist. The wedding-dress speech, some call it:
The whole thing was theatre. The name of the award, “Most Promising,” must have struck the young singer as odd and presumptuous. She made light fun of it by dressing as a young bride — an image loaded up with a certain kind of promise, as she explained later — and delivering an acceptance speech full of promises. She promised she’d thank her musicians. She promised she’d work harder next year. Get it? And she promised “that I [will] continue to sing for only the right reasons.”
Except it wasn’t only theatre. There’s often been a mix of archness and sincerity in lang’s public persona, and when I asked her about that last promise, she confirmed that at some level, she really meant it. So I asked her what the right reasons to sing are. And we were off to the races.
Here’s my conversation with kd lang on Apple Podcasts:
And here’s where to find it on other platforms.
The Founding Sponsor of The Paul Wells Show is Telus. Our Title Sponsor is Compass Rose. I’m grateful for the support they all provide. In Toronto, I’m the inaugural Journalist Fellow-in-Residence at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Our Ottawa partner is the National Arts Centre. Antica Productions handles production for the podcast. The Toronto Star and iPolitics distribute and promote The Paul Wells Show.
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