'It's all performance art': k.d. lang looks back on her storied career

Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang has spent decades upending expectations and defying attempts to define her music. Now, as she prepares to receive the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement, she looks back on her career — from award-show mischief to big risks in the name of artistic integrity.

The singer-songwriter is one of this year’s recipients of a Governor General's Award for lifetime achievement

Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang singing into a microphone.
Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang has spent decades upending expectations and defying attempts to define her music. Now, as she prepares to receive the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement, she looks back on her career — from award-show mischief to big risks in the name of artistic integrity. (Jeri Heiden)

This is part of a series of articles about the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureates

When k.d. lang was growing up in Alberta, she used to sign her name in her notebooks with a star — a sign of what was to come, perhaps.

When she started recording music in the '80s, lang became one of the most exciting artists on country radio, challenging expectations with her androgynous look and cat's-eye glasses.

From there, she continued to surprise the world by coming out as gay and making a pop crossover record that no one saw coming.

But that doesn't even begin to capture the gutsiness, tough decisions and wild stories lang has collected over the years. In an interview on Q with Tom Power, which has been edited for length and clarity, she shared some anecdotes from her remarkable career as she prepares to receive the highest honour in Canadian arts — the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation on our podcast, Q with Tom Power.

How are you?

I'm good, my friend. How are you?

I'm good. Nice to talk to you, as always. Congratulations!

Thank you.

What do you make of it?

It's wonderful. I mean, first of all, it's just an incredible honour. There's so many incredible Canadian artists, and the list of people who have received the honour in the past — it's very surreal and makes me feel old.

Why is it surreal?

Just because I think it's very, very hard to have actual perspective on your own life. It's like asking an apple how it tastes. An apple has no idea how it tastes!

Do you have a first memory of knowing that you had a voice that might be a bit special?

I remember — of course, I had a guitar when I was really, really young, and we had this mirror, this full-length mirror, at the end of the hallway in our house. And I was playing the guitar in front of the mirror and I just kind of knew — I just instinctively, innately knew that this was it, that this is what my path was. And I think it was more about being famous than it was being a singer [laughs].

You were in a Patsy Cline tribute band called the Reclines. Why was Patsy Cline important to you?

Something happened when I listened to Patsy Cline that unlocked all these portals in my mind about how I could approach country music. Humour and the costumes and performance art and sincerity and, I don't know, there was something about Patsy that just took my soul and my brain and went this way. She just was the impetus for all of it, really.

I want to skip ahead a little bit to 1985, and you win the Juno Award for most promising female vocalist. You wear this big, fluffy wedding dress and you're whipping around the stage and you're doing a jig. What do you remember about that?

The recent history of myself at that time, I was very immersed in performance art and hanging around artists. So you know, it was performance art-based, but it did have sincerity in it.

I was very happy to win that Juno — it meant a lot to me. I remember saying that I promise to sing for all the right reasons, which was, you know, authenticity and truth and try not to sell out and try to retain a deep connection to pure inspiration, which is very difficult sometimes. 

Your duet with Roy Orbison won you a Grammy for best country vocal collaboration in 1989. You also won for female country vocal performance. My guess is you don't listen to your own music very often. What did you feel when you heard that just then?

I was remembering Roy, you know? Ooh, that boy was full of emotion. When he sang, you couldn't stop the hairs on your arm from standing. He was just so ethereal and mysterious. Very, very quiet, but warm and open. Very elusive.

I've told this many times: when we were recording that in Vancouver, we leaned in when we were rehearsing — or maybe we were taking an actual track, I don't know — but we leaned in to share a microphone, and our cheeks touched, and it was so electric. And his skin was so soft, and his voice was so powerful. There were all these, like, contrasting emotions. It was incredible.

Do you remember a moment where the fame started to sink in — the moment you realized that your music was reaching people all around the world?

When you were asking me that question, this moment popped in my mind when we were making [Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night], and I was a part of the backup singers with Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne — I'm forgetting one person. But anyway, we were onstage, and I look out into the audience, and there's all these people.

I had the high part in In Dreams — it's a really, really high soprano part — and so at the end, I look out and … Billy Idol was looking at me. And I just kind of like gave him his own snarl back and was like, "Yeah, OK, there it is." And there's Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello onstage, and Tom Waits — oh my God! — playing keyboard.

I think when I look back at my music, even Ingénue, it's all performance art.- k.d. lang

I had the DVD of that when I was growing up and I watched it over and over again. You didn't look out of place to me. Like, you looked like you belonged there.

Oh, I definitely belonged there. I was in it. I was fully, fully present for that. That was just an incredible experience.

You did something that surprised a lot of your fans in 1992. You come out with Ingénue, and I think a lot of people were expecting more country music from you. What do you remember about the decision to veer away from that on Ingénue?

I knew it was just a temporary residence in country music because I never listened to country music as a kid.… I kind of shunned country music as a kid, you know. It wasn't cool. And I was listening to Cream and Maria Muldaur and Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett.

Country music was just a piece of performance art for me, ultimately. Although, the music I sang with the utmost respect and homage because there's so much truth in the music, emotionally. But you know, I think when I look back at my music, even Ingénue, it's all performance art. Not one record could ever completely encapsulate who I am or who I want to be or what my musical taste is. It's very, very small increments or refractions of what I am.

I understand that Ingénue came with this backlash from the country music establishment from people who were kind of like "I thought she was one of ours."

Yes, I remember that part. It was kind of this weird user-friendly relationship with country music. I don't think they wanted to fully embrace me, and I certainly didn't want to be fully embraced by them. I was creating a buzz for a new, younger audience for country music. But at the same time, I don't think they really wanted to embrace my lesbianism or my vegetarianism or, you know, my short hair, my crazy cowboy boots. And they were sort of disappointed, but I think they were kind of relieved when I moved on [laughs].

It was around then that you came out publicly.

I came out in 1991, just before Ingénue came out — in press for Ingénue. Well, officially. I mean, I don't think I was ever in the closet. I don't think that I ever pretended to be anyone except who I was.

What do you remember from the public part of that?

Well, it was on the heels of the PETA thing, you know, the Meat Stinks campaign I did with PETA, which was extremely volatile and hard on everybody — hard on my mom, hard on my friends and people in Canada here.

[There were] bomb threats at the record company and so forth. That was the hard part. So coming out was a piece of cake, actually.

I've heard you reflect back on that time in your life, and you said something like you felt like you became public property. What did you mean by that?

I think more so with my sexuality because at that time, the AIDS crisis was in full blast. I mean, you know, a lot of people were dying. And so I came out because I thought it was an important, responsible thing to do to open myself up to having people have a connection to what gay culture is. So I came out so people would have some relatability to it. And I also didn't want to be outed by Queer Nation, I just thought it would be more graceful if I just stood up and took my accountability.

The muse is definitely not flying around in my space right now.- k.d. lang

You've worked with all these incredible people. I wonder if I could get a memory from you about one special collaboration you've done that still kind of blows your mind.

It doesn't mean it's the top one, but the one that popped in my mind when you asked me that question was this big concert I did in Wembley Stadium with all these people. And I sang with Chaka Khan. And we sang a Sting song: Every Breath You Take.

Oh my God, she was so incredible. She is such a great singer.… Just her freedom and the tone and the ease. I don't know, I think maybe it was my first, you know, real proxy to a great R&B singer. But, man, she just blew me away. That moment blew me away.

Are you going to make more music?

I don't know. Right now, there's nothing. The vault is empty. You know, there are things that come up. Like, for example, there may be a new case/lang/veirs song — not an album or anything, but a new song. There may be a collaboration here and there. But in terms of me touring, in terms of me making another record, it's an empty vault. I don't know what to say. The muse is definitely not flying around in my space right now.

Are you comfortable with that — that the muse isn't flying around?

Yes, I am because I think if you rely on a muse in the first place, you have to trust when they're not there. I mean, I think that's where faith lies, right? When it's empty and when it's not the way you want it to be necessarily? That's faith.… I think, you know, you got to remember that the other part of music is silence.

The full interview with k.d. lang is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.


Vivian Rashotte is a digital producer, writer and photographer for Q with Tom Power. She's also a visual artist. You can reach her at