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k.d. lang collection finds a home at Calgary’s National Music Centre

MUSIC

k.d. lang collection finds a home in Alberta

Big, Big Love, an exhibit featuring a number of items donated by the musician, opens this week at Calgary's National Music Centre

The k.d. lang exhibit at the National Music Centre runs until June 2018.

k.d. lang calls the National Music Centre’s exhibit, which features a number of her costumes and instruments, ‘an amazing honour.’ Paul Natkin

k.d. lang received a personal tour of the National Music Centre in Calgary from its president and CEO Andrew Mosker, and she liked what she saw – a lot. So much that she offered him her collection.

"When I saw the museum, I was like: I would love to give you my clothes; I have all my clothes; I have Junos, I have Grammys, I have gold records that I don't use or display, I would love you to have them," lang says.

"It was a beautiful collective match."

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The 56-year-old lang donated a number of items to the NMC, which opened in Calgary's East Village just over a year ago. She also provided loans for a temporary exhibition looking at her career.

Big, Big Love: k.d. lang on Stage opened this week at Studio Bell, the physical home of the NMC.

"It's an amazing honour and it's kind of circuitous that all my sort of material items would end up back in Alberta, including myself," says lang, who was born in Edmonton, grew up in Consort, Alta., and now divides her time between Calgary and Portland, Ore. "It's a funny circuitous turn."

The exhibition's artifacts include instruments – such as the custom-made black acoustic guitar with decorative crow inlay (lang has a thing for crows) and white mandolin (this one has a rooster) from her 1989 Absolute Torch and Twang tour.

lang's outfit from the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
The ball gown from lang's Miss Chatelaine video. Photos by Hayley Robb

The show also features more than 20 costumes, including her iconic mid-1980s cowpunk stage outfit; the striped shirt she wore in her Constant Craving video; the ball gown from her Miss Chatelaine video; and the fringed western-style outfit she wore for the closing ceremony of the 1988 Calgary Olympics – a favourite of hers.

Viewers will also see awards, including her beloved first Juno, which she painted with friends after she won it (in 1985 for Most Promising Female Vocalist). She says it's probably her most precious item – and yet she does not display her awards at home.

"I feel like that stuff can impede my thinking in a way," she says, when asked about that decision. "I always like to work from a place of feeling like I'm [new]. That I'm just beginning; that I'm swimming upstream. So I don't want to remind myself necessarily of my accomplishments. Because I think in a way it can weigh my spirit down a little tiny bit."

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Lang is speaking as she prepares to launch her Ingénue Redux tour, marking the 25th anniversary of her breakthrough album, Ingénue. A 25th anniversary reissue is also out this month. Ingénue was lang's second solo effort and it shot her into the stratosphere. But it was a gamble, she says, when asked about the experience of making the record with key collaborator Ben Mink.

This outfit is one of several of lang’s iconic costumes on display at the National Music Centre.

"It felt honest; it felt like Ben and I kind of decided to move away from the country thing. I really wanted to get back to the influences that really I felt were closest to home – Joni and jazz and Ben's Eastern European influences.

"I was scared," she says. "I thought we were going to get killed for it and we did get a lot of bad press at the beginning, but it felt honest. And it felt like a real natural pivot in terms of longevity and focusing on what feeds me as a musician. We just put our heads down and made music that we felt."

In addition to the move away from traditional country music, the album was a risky departure from the mainstream in other ways.

Another of lang’s costumes on display at the exhibit.

"I made a conscious decision to not ornament my vocal style; to keep it really still. It's a very meditative record. I wouldn't say a dirge necessarily, but it's very introspective and very insular and it was just very different than what was happening at the time."

The impact of that album on lang's life was enormous; she describes it as "good, bad, ugly, amazing, surreal." But it catapulted her to superstardom. She was all over the radio, burning up the music charts and became a darling of American media, from The New York Times to late-night TV to Barbara Walters. She came out publicly on the cover of The Advocate, and then there was that infamous Annie Leibovitz cover of Vanity Fair, which featured lang lying back in a barber chair while swimsuit-clad supermodel Cindy Crawford gave her a shave. There was a lot of focus on her sexuality. "k.d. lang is the type of politically radical vegetarian lesbian defender of wildlife you'd want to bring home to mother," began the July, 1992, Times profile.

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A quarter-century later, lang says going through the old material was unnerving and emotional as she prepared to launch the tour July 18 in Melbourne, Australia. "A lot of memories, a lot of everything came rushing through me, coursing through me when I first listened and I started preparing for the tour," she says.

“It’s kind of circuitous that all my sort of material items would end up back in Alberta, including myself,” says lang, who was born in Edmonton, grew up in Consort, Alta., and now divides her time between Calgary and Portland, Ore.

“But as time went on, I sort of started to realize that, similar to a film director who makes a film based on a book that’s been around for 25, 30 years, it’s probably best to not superimpose your own emotions on it too much and just sort of offer it in the most open, most unfiltered way, so that the audience can listen and experience their own emotions with it. And hopefully the audience who are coming have had a relationship with the record.”

We discuss the idea that a work of art is not complete until it has been experienced by a listener – or reader or viewer.

"I don't think art is ever finished, because a new experience is a type of rebirth. So it dies and is reborn and in nanoseconds," she says. "There are times when you walk away from it and there are times when you're reacquainted with it or someone else is reacquainted with it. I guess it's kind of like air. You breathe it, but it's not over; it goes on and becomes something else."

Big, Big Love: k.d. lang on Stage runs through June 1, 2018. The Canadian leg of her Ingénue Redux tour begins Aug. 12 in Victoria, and ends Sept. 19 in Hamilton. Visit kdlang.com/events.


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