The Sound Cafe
How "Luck" Was a Factor in k.d. lang's Early Career
By Richard Flohil.
We all know what it takes to be a successful artist. In no particular order, how about great songs, a distinctive voice, a memorable stage presence, the motivation to work insanely hard, a strong team behind you, focus and ambition. And that’s just for starters.
But there’s a case to be made for the importance of other factors: luck, karma, and coincidence.
So, let’s take the early career of k.d. lang, one of the most distinguished, unique artists of our time. Here are some stories — including a couple that even she may not know about — to illustrate how unexpected, unplanned factors helped build her early career.
True story #1
Join me backstage at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It’s August 10, 1984 — the opening night of what has become one of the best festivals in North America. It’s a strong lineup, including Alberta country star Dick Damron, “Midnight at the Oasis” singer Maria Muldaur, Sylvia Tyson and New Orleans pianist Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John.
I’m not alone. Several influential music business people, including Bernie Finkelstein (then the powerhouse behind True North Records and Bruce Cockburn’s manager) and writers Peter North and Roddy Campbell are there — specifically to check out a 22-year-old artist called k.d. lang.
Working hard for close to a year to establish herself in Edmonton, she’s earned her festival debut, a 30-minute slot on the opening night concert. As she began her set of high-energy country rockabilly — resplendent in billowing skirt, cut-off cowboy boots, cropped hair and cat’s-eye glasses.
But backstage, there’s a crisis.
The plane carrying American bluegrass icons Peter Rowan and Mark O’Connor, due to follow her, has arrived late — and, rumour has it, the pair have lost their way to the festival site. Urgent signals tell k.d. to keep going, keep playing…
And so she did, ending what turned into an hour-long set with an old Lavern Baker song called “I’m Saved,” during which she donned a bass drum and marched around the stage banging it with abandon. And after that show-stopper she segued into a stunning a capella version of “Amazing Grace.” It earned one of the fastest standing ovations I‘ve ever seen.
True story #2
Back in Toronto, I collared Derek Andrews, who booked a blues club called Albert’s Hall above a university drinking joint called the Brunswick House. As I explained that I wanted to book a week for an unknown singer from Alberta — and a country singer at that — he broke in: “k.d. lang?” How did he know, I asked. “Oh, Sylvia Tyson told me that she and everyone else on the bill got blown off stage in Edmonton last weekend by this woman nobody had heard of.”
Booking a “country” artist in a blues bar is risky, but the deal was made: k.d. lang and her band, The Reclines, would make their Toronto debut: a week-long engagement, starting October 29, just three months after her Edmonton festival triumph.
Now it was up to Derek, her manager Larry Wanagas, and I to redeem some heavy favours from media to make sure that this artist — totally unknown in Toronto — would have an audience. We all leaned hard, explaining that k.d. had a brilliant new record, A Truly Western Experience. For my part, I stressed the response from western Canada, her rambunctious performance style and the eccentric mixture of country, rockabilly and rock and roll she brought to her audience. On purpose, I never mentioned her voice — let the media people discover that, I thought, when they see her.
What brought out the crowd, however, was the continual play on Morningside, a CBC morning radio show hosted by Peter Gzowski with a devoted following. He loved the record and played it frequently. (Visiting CBC headquarters with k.d. that week we accidentally met Gzowski in a corridor. I made the introductions, Kathy limply shook his hand, and wandered off. k.d., whatever her extrovert nature on stage, had few social skills at this point; a friend muttered that she couldn’t schmooze her way out of a wet Kleenex.)
The shows were sold out; the following April she returned to Albert’s Hall— this time to a barrage of press, radio and TV appearances. Derek would pay her $2,500 for the week vs. all the door receipts; the week would end the band’s cross-Canada tour.
Three weeks before, while the band was in Winnipeg, I received a call from Liam Lacey, the rock writer for The Globe and Mail. His editors had booked a Saturday entertainment section front page story, for which he’d go on the road with a band. At the last minute, he’d been blown out by Tom Cochrane and Red Rider. Did I know anyone on tour he could travel with for a week? k.d. and Wanagas agreed, and Lacey became a fly on the wall as the band trundled out of Winnipeg and through northern Ontario.
The result was a huge article: two full pages in Canada’s national newspaper, naming just one of the small towns k.d. played as Lacey and the band , crammed into its trusty van, played their way to Toronto. The headline: If This is Tuesday, It Must Be Kenora.
That article alone didn’t explain the fact that when the band arrived in Toronto three days after the piece was publshed there was a Tuesday night lineup halfway around the block — what the piece did was alert the rest of the Toronto media that there was a special new artist in Canada. The newspaper and radio reviews (particularly on CBC) were spectacular, and the lineups, night after night, grew even longer. Every record company in Toronto sent senior people to catch the show; without exception they called their U.S. and U.K. parent companies to tell them that they’d found a winner.
Why Toronto Can’t Get Enough of k.d. lang — Greg Quill, Toronto Star
K.D. Scores a K.O. — Wilder Penfield, Toronto Sun
k.d. Show is Goofy. Gutsy and Just Great —Zsuzsi Gartner, Globe & Mail
k.d. lang had become an “overnight star” in Canada’s most important and influential music market.
Richard Flohil with k.d. lang
True story #3
Time, now, to follow up with the major U.S. labels. And that meant a showcase appearance at the Bottom Line, New York’s most prestigious showcase club. Problem: the “employer” had to jump through hoops involving a great deal of paperwork to get a foreign artist into the United States. Alan Pepper, the club’s owner, said he simply couldn’t be bothered, given that this was a Monday night unpaid showcase spot involving three unknown artists.
Fortunately, his summer intern was a young woman from Edmonton. “Believe me,” she told her boss, “this singer is huge back home; she’s amazing.” Pepper’s response: “Alright then, you do the paper work.”
Wanagas, the band and I drove to New York in the van; Kathy, exhausted, flew down. Also on the showcase bill was a singer-songwriter whose name has been lost to history, and a 12-piece women’s a capella vocal group called Lighthouse, presumably unaware that there was a well-established Canadian band with the same name.
Lighthouse, who opened the show, brought their friends and families out in force and possibly recognizing another gay woman they stayed for k.d.’s set. It was a triumph. And Pepper insisted that she return to the venue; this time he’d do the paperwork himself.
Just before her second Bottom Line appearance, there was another example of unplanned good fortune. At home in Toronto, reading a copy of the Village Voice, New York’s alternative weekly newspaper, I recognized a by-line on one of the music articles — it was by a young woman with whom I’d had the briefest of pelvic affiliations three years earlier. I called her, she remembered me, and when I pitched the idea of a story, she was interested. I sent her a copy of k.d.’s album, assorted press clippings, and a selection of wacky publicity photographs. And two days before we all went to the Bottom Line again, there was a fulsome full-page story, with a prominent picture, in the Voice…
But the show itself was one of the toughest k.d. had ever done — she was opening for NRBQ, a New York cult rock and roll band with a dedicated fan following. They were there in force, and couldn’t have been less interested in an eccentric artist in strange clothes singing what people described as “cowpunk” music.
The record companies were there: CBS, Island, Warner Brothers and more but it took k.d. two-thirds of her hour-long set to grab her audience — and when she “got” them, she didn’t let go. When she finished, she collapsed on a beaten-up couch backstage, sweating and totally spent.
And Seymour Stein, the head of Sire Records and the man responsible for Madonna’s remarkable career, went to the dingy dressing room and told her: “You are what country music could have been if Nashville hadn’t fucked it up.”
True story #4
This is really a postscript. Back in Toronto, after her second Albert’s Hall appearance but later moved to The Diamond, the most prestigious music club in the city at the time, and then to the Ontario Place Forum, an 8,000-seat in-the-round venue, where she sold out two shows.
Across Canada she played almost all the major folk festivals.
Seymour Stein did indeed sign her to Sire; after her second Bottom Line show she went to Japan for a month to appear at Expo 86. A few months later she won a Juno Award for Most Promising New Artist — an honour she accepted after galloping through the audience wearing a thrift-store wedding dress, symbolic of the promises made at nuptials.
“I promise always to sing for the right reasons,” she said in her acceptance speech.
And so she has.
About Richard Flohil: Richard was born in Yorkshire, England and came to Canada in 1957, he established himself as a music promoter, publicist, is a former Mariposa Folk Festival artistic director and journalist. Richard ran a highly successful public relations company, Richard Flohil and Associates based in Toronto. He is about to publish a book based on a lifetime of stories in a milestone-filled career.