Inside the case of k.d. lang's latest CD is a picture of a sew-on patch that says: I got this lousy patch when I was in L.A. In all capital letters, right under the disk itself, it's hard to miss.
"I found that in Chinatown while we were doing the photo shoot for the album cover and I thought it was pretty funny," says lang, who performs Friday and Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre.
The poke at Los Angeles--albeit a gentle one--is not intended for the city so much as its Hollywood culture, said lang. She lived here while her 1992 album "Ingenue" was climbing the charts and selling its way platinum. She had wanted to be famous and suddenly she had celebrity to spare: a Grammy for "Constant Craving," invitations to Hollywood premieres, a notorious Vanity Fair cover photo with Cindy Crawford.
In the end, fame wasn't enough for lang. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was too much, as suggested by the title of her most recent album--"All You Can Eat"--the one she retreated to Vancouver to record.
"This whole album was more of a struggle of getting back to the art after the success of 'Ingenue,' which kind of strung me out a bit," she says. "It's a very intense working environment when you're in Los Angeles. For me. Maybe it's because I'm a Canadian. Maybe it's because I'm a sensitive artist and I can't deal with it. But my perspective on L.A. is that it gets very intense. You go to the grocery store and it's in a column the next day that you were in the fruit and vegetable section."
In 10 years of giving interviews, lang has learned that celebrity lends power to opinions, and powerful opinions breed backlash. When lang did a "Meat Stinks" advertisement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she was labeled a militant vegetarian. After her public admission in 1992 that she is a lesbian, many wanted to label her a radical homosexual. Not an article goes by--obviously including this one--without mention of her eating habits or sexual orientation.
Lang sighs slightly but audibly at the mention of such labels. The only label she wants is that of singer.
She was born in the tiny town of Consort, Alberta, in 1961, the youngest of four children. She stared taking piano lessons at age 5 or 6, then switched to guitar in her teens. Singing, though, came naturally. She majored in voice at Red Deer College, lang says, but "in no way am I a trained singer."
Somewhere along the way, she condensed her name to the pithy k.d. lang. Explanations vary. She's said she did it because she never really mastered capital letters, or because it transcends gender, or--most likely--because it is cooler than Kathryn Dawn Lang.
She bolted onto Canada's country music scene in the early 1980s with slightly more grace than a rodeo bull. With spiky hair and a Patsy Cline wardrobe, she pranced around stages to the tune of her first album, "A Truly Western Experience." This was, as co-writer and producer Ben Mink describes it, her "cowpunk phase."
Mink and lang met in 1985 in Japan, where they were both representing Canada at the World Exposition. Mink had glued plastic toy farm animals to the inside of his modified violin; lang had sewn the same animals to her blouse.
Says Mink, "We both realized that we have the same child's imagination and the same respect for country music."
They started writing together, and their first song, "High Time for a Detour," wound up on lang's second album, "Angel With a Lariat."
The two are like kids in a playpen when they are working on an album, Mink says. They surround themselves with instruments, CDs, anything that might inspire them. They play until they hit upon something inspiring.
"And because we have tape recorders running all the time, we catalog these special moments, keep mixing them together," he says. "It's really a successive number of yes decisions based on what lights up both our eyes or ears."
The collaboration outlasted their infatuation with country music. "Shadowland" and "Absolute Torch and Twang," sold half a million copies despite getting limited airplay on country radio. The Nashville establishment didn't know what to do with lang's androgynous looks or anti-meat stance.
For women, pop has never been that far removed from country--even Patsy Cline had cross-over hits--so lang shifted her musical weight from twang to torch.
"When 'Ingenue' came out, it was very alternative," lang says. "I mean, it was cabaret music and its chances of having radio airplay were nil. Every time I make a record, people are like, 'Oh, it's so different, it's so different. What is she doing?' "
"Ingenue" was cabaret music, but with an undeniable pop polish. "All You Can Eat" moves even further in that direction, with more R&B and funk influence.
The shift isn't particularly sudden, especially for fans who picked up the intervening album, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." Commercially overlooked, her soundtrack was considered by many the best aspect of the film adaptation of Tom Robbins' novel.