For many people, hearing k.d. lang sing just once is memorable. Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989? Or where you were the first time you heard Jimi Hendrix’s guitar riffs? My guess is that hearing k.d. lang the first time is something you remember well. Certainly, this is true for me (for a ton of complicated reasons), and I have often wondered what it is that is so astonishing and mesmerizing about her voice. Truly, there are almost no words. We say “I love her music”, or “She has a great voice”, but these sentences do not carry the true connotation we mean. When we say these things, we mean more than the words. We are trying, I argue, to point to an artistic whole that is rarely exemplified.
Yes, there are many talented artists. But if we think carefully, we can categorize many of them into “entertainers” more than an artist. For me, when I say someone is an ‘artist’, I mean more than just someone who gives a good show, or allows me to escape for a few minutes. I mean someone who has been able to bring together a complicated and emotionally robust series of elements to create an experience that is greater than all of its parts. This capability is one thing that k.d. lang is able to do, and explains, partially at least, why hearing her is a mystical experience for many. Granted, her voice does not touch everyone, just like Bernini’s David may not touch us all, but there is still an appreciation and respect her voice demands, and this is what I want to try to explain.
Breaking Down k.d. lang’s Voice into its Constituent Parts
Using my musical education from college, I have attempted to list 7 elements that k.d. has. Not only does she have these skills in isolation, but she is able to manipulate them so that each is dissolved, creating a sound and experience that is Buddhist like. When I say “Buddhist”, I am using the term somewhat loosely. But I mean to capture the idea that all things are connected; that individuals are ultimately subsumed in to the great “wholeness” that is true reality. When k.d. sings, this is what happens. All the separate parts lose their identity, so that the listener cannot distinguish where one ends and the other begins. What is created is a sound that transcends k.d., that transcends us all. And this is what I think captivates many of us.
- Singing Power: Recordings do k.d. a bit of injustice here, but if you have seen a live performance, or at least a video of one, you see that her power is shocking. In fact, never do you get the sense that she is singing as powerfully as she could. One always feels there is yet “one more” level (Level 11 for you Spinal Tap fans!)
- Vocal Range: Technically, k.d. lang is considered an alto (or contralto), that voice that falls between a tenor (male) and mezzo soprano (female). But in reality, we can essentially toss this label out the window. She has such a phenomenal lower and higher register range, it is almost ridiculous to even give k.d. lang a name.
- Flexibility and Accuracy: From “Pulling Back the Reins”, to “Simple”, to “Crying“, k.d. can truly sing it all. Need her to add a “gravelly” sound? No prob. Need her to “slide” slowly up to a note? No prob. Need her to skip more than an octave in a nano second? Gotcha covered.
- Vibrato: Saying that k.d. lang can do this is like saying Picasso had his own style. No shit Sherlock! In my view, this skill of hers is one of the elements she uses to pull her voice all together. Whether you notice it or not, her ability to vocalize a note and then gently add the vibrato for the last few seconds is one few have.
- Sustaining Voice: k.d.’s voice never sounds weak, tired, or unable to finish. My understanding is that most of this has to do with breath control (another element of good meditation technique I am sure has helped k.d. evolve). But suffice to say, this this element of singing is what separates the girls from the women.
- Smooth Voice: k.d. lang’s texture is so smooth that she is often called a “crooner”. I feel that this name is a bit unfair, as many of the famed “crooners” like Bennett and Sinatra have/had a certain style more than a smooth voice. k.d. can move from pitch to pitch, in what ever syncopation needed, alone or with others without a crack, break or variance in level.
- Pitch: This is one element most people notice. Her “onset of sound”, as they call it, arrives as if it had been going on forever. No adjustments needed. Somehow, her voice is able to create not just the frequency of the pitch, but all the associated ones as well. And this makes her singing full and tells our ears that there is nothing missing.
Many artists have most of these elements. Some even have all of them. But what truly marks k.d. lang as “above the rest” is how she fashions them all into an experience that is more than each of them. In this way, her voice is a lesson in the “whole”, the idea that we are all connected; not isolated skill sets.