Even musical novices notice straight away that there is a difference in the way k.d. lang sings her own stuff and covers (songs I am sure she has carefully selected). No matter what she sings, it’s “super sized”, that’s for sure. How many of us have been brought to our knees as she belts out “Crying” or “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”. Not to mention the spiritually orgasmic experience of hearing her let loose on “Hallelujah”. But for me as an average “fan”, and not a very good one at that, every time I hear “Constant Craving” and every time I hear “Crying” or Hallelujah” it is driven home to me; these are almost two different singers!
What?? So what is going on here! It is physically the same person, right? (Let’s not even consider any conspiracy theories, OK?). Well, I have an idea. Here goes:
Premise 1: k.d. lang is a woman of few words.
Premise 2: Songs with more words lend themselves to more options in performance.
(Unstated premise 3) Most of k.d.’s original songwriting has resulted in sparse lyrics.
Conclusion: The reason k.d. lang seems like a different artist when she sings covers is because her talents are spread out over more words.
Now, the real work begins; hashing out these premises and trying to convince you they are true. As per the first premise (k.d. lang is a woman of few words) all I have to go on is her public interactions. I do not know her personally. I know OF her. That’s it. For all I know, at home, she never shuts up. But I doubt it. The reason why I doubt it is due to her interactions on interviews and Twitter.
How many interviews has poor k.d. lang given in over 25 years of being in the public eye? A bajillion; and most of these are on a You Tube Channel that is dedicated to her. I am not sure if this is “official” or just a regular ol’ channel. But bootlegged or not, there it is. k.d answering questions in short short sentences. As she has grown a bit older, you will notice somewhat longer responses, but not much (one of the pluses of impermanence for fans!).
Further, if you follow her on Twitter, you will see that she uses emoticons 90% of the time to react to fans. Once in a great while, when she is either perturbed (this is my word, not hers) or seemingly political, she may actually write a complete sentence that is longer than 5 words. But it’s rare. One or two word phrases are her specialty. Because of this, the lyrics of her own stuff are usually the “reduced fat” version.
So why does this matter? It matters because longer sentences that are sung provide more opportunity for interpretation. The longer the sentences, the more words and the more time k.d. has to involve herself in the song and (in my opinion) channel the Divine. This is one reason covers are always such a crowd favorite and she is asked to sing certain covers over and over again. Look closely and you will see that most of these covers have ooodles of words.
Not convinced? Fair enough. Listen to what an “expert” has to say about this issue:
Communicative language is not formed by stringing isolated words together. We express ourselves by organizing words into sentences that permit the progression of an idea. Groups of such sentences develop the initial thought. There is a direct correspondence between the role of words and sentences in spoken language and of notes and phrases in singing.
A singer presents musical and literary ideas spread out over longer periods of time than does the speaker. This duration factor allows the elements of vocal and musical expression to exceed those of normal spoken communication.1
When I found this book, I was so glad that my initial suspicions were validated. So, there you have it. The answer is fairly simple. k.d’s voice LOVES words. k.d. the person, does not. So when she writes her own songs, they reflect her and have fewer words. But when she picks songs to cover, she seems to know to pick ones that are ballads or otherwise are verbose.
Either way, k.d. lang is awesome. Enjoy.
1. Richard Miller, On the Art of Singing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 110,Photo by Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock.com. Used with permission