She walks into the room with bleary eyes. It’s the first interview of the day and Canada’s k.d. lang isn’t yet fully awake, so she throws open the hotel-suite window before settling into a couch. The bracing December air somehow seems to kick start the interview about her superb new album, Watershed, into gear. Following her duets of Louis Armstrong covers with Tony Bennett, A Wonderful World, and her collection of Canadian classics, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, it’s her first album of new original material in eight years. Asked why it took so long, lang is quick with the reasons: 9/11, Buddhism and writer’s block. “Basically, my world was turned upside down,” she adds, “and it took me that long to take what was happening to me spiritually and turn it into something that would make sense to people.”
From the languid croon of the opening “I Dream of Spring,” it’s clear that Watershed is a major turning point for the California-based, award-winning singer. There’s a startling intimacy and honesty, partly the result of lang producing the album herself—something she’s never done before—and playing many of the instruments on it, including guitar, piano, harp and even a banjo on the gentle hymn closer “Jealous Dog.” The way lang, now 46, recorded the 11 new songs was also significant: many were first takes recorded in the dining room of the Hollywood Hills home she shares with her girlfriend, or “wife,” as she refers to her. “I really wanted to reveal the truth in these songs,” says lang, “and sometimes that meant leaving in a mistake or a part where you can hear the sound of an air conditioner in the background.”
The album’s most intimate moment is “Close Your Eyes,” a stirring love song in which lang’s lush voice is so visceral you can almost see it. “I’ve always shied away from being the one who produces my vocals,” she admits. “I gravitate toward different colors in my voice than most people would. It was completely emancipating to be able to just go, ‘No, I like that I’m a little flat here and I like that break and that growl and the fact that I run out of air here.’ I was able to ignore the expectations of what a singer like me is supposed to sound like.” Watershed’s centerpiece and confessional highlight is “Shadow and the Frame,” a string-laden number about self-discovery in which lang asks, “does the taste for truth disappear with youth?”
Given all her success, including four Grammy Awards and a worldwide hit album with 1992’s Ingénue, it’s surprising to hear that lang was afraid to share her latest collection of songs with her management and record label. “I was facing some fears about writing and recording,” she says, “and I’m at a vulnerable point in my career.” Does she really believe that? “Well, I feel that I’m slightly past it and although Hymns and Wonderful World did well, my future as a songwriter was kind of questionable.” With the wondrous Watershed, lang puts all such doubts to rest: she now boasts composition and production chops to match her platinum-plated voice.