The album, which she wrote with Ben Mink, then her collaborator, was specifically made, as Mr. Mink pointed out recently, to be timeless, with nods to George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, European klezmer music and a dash of contemporary “MOR” (middle of the road) pop. Subversive and achingly beautiful, the album was a marked departure from the mischievous alt-country albums Ms. Lang and Mr. Mink had been making together, and its anniversary summons up more than nostalgia.
When “Ingénue” was released in 1992, with its dirge-like anthems to love and longing, the idea that a thrillingly sexual, openly gay and very butch woman would become a pop idol was seismic. It’s hard to imagine now, when hit television shows like “Transparent” treat lesbian sex as the least complicated of its themes and when the average seventh grader has been schooled in the semiotics of drag and to see gender as a spectrum.
But back then, the AIDS crisis had been ravaging the gay male community for over a decade. Gay men were making artwork about their suffering and rage, giving mainstream America a window into their world, and the gay rights movement, long simmering, reached high boil.
In 1990, Madonna’s hit song “Vogue,” her rendition of the doomed drag-ball society captured by the Jennie Livingston film “Paris Is Burning” that same year, went to No. 1 in 30 countries. In 1993, “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s angry and eloquent account of the plague, would arrive on Broadway (it returns in a much-heralded revival on March 25). And a year after that, the drag star RuPaul would be selling lipstick for M.A.C. cosmetics.
Gay men were familiar. Gay women, not really. And certainly not gay women as magnificently sensual as Ms. Lang. In that same decade, Ellen DeGeneres would become famous, partly by being all-American affable, never an erotic threat. Even singing her fierce “Come to My Window,” Melissa Etheridge hewed closely to the image of a traditional country singer. But K. D. Lang in a man-tailored suit was something else altogether.
It was more than startling, in the summer of 1993, to lay eyes on the infamous Herb Ritts portrait of Ms. Lang and Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair, in which the supermodel, clad in a black teddy, mimes shaving the pop star, in shirt sleeves and pinstripes. The image is languorous and impish: Ms. Lang leans her head back onto Ms. Crawford’s breasts, eyes closed, her smile beatific. Straight, gay or bisexual — many responded feverishly to the image, now considered a classic of both magazine publishing and queer history. (Cameron Esposito, a lesbian stand-up comic, posted the Vanity Fair cover on Twitter recently because, as she wrote, “it’s come to my attn that some young queers don’t know this image. Acquaint urselves bbs. 1993!”)
You can see Ms. Lang’s own parody on her Instagram account, in a photo taken when she and a friend were fooling around backstage before one of her shows a few years ago in a concert hall that had a barbershop chair in one of its dressing rooms. She called it, “Calamity Fair. Constant Shaving.”
Coming Out in Consort, Alberta (Population 600)
But these days Ms. Lang is not particularly interested in parsing the iconography of her younger self. “I am who I am,” she said. “I have always been androgynous, so it comes naturally. Obviously when I came out it was a big deal, but I did get tired of it” — her reign as a butch sex symbol — “because it took the focus away from my music. So then I kind of pulled back and changed my outer energy, my physical energy, so people could focus on the music. I think it’s karmic that I have the body and the physical appearance that I have. I think it’s challenging for the audience and for myself, and at this point I just live it.”
On a mild afternoon in February, Ms. Lang was at home in the industrial loft she bought here in 2012 after splitting up with her longtime partner, Jamie Price, and selling their house in Los Angeles. Nursing a nasty cold that would dog her through the first weeks of her tour, she offered tea and husky conversation to this reporter, who worried about the toll on Ms. Lang’s famous voice, about which Tony Bennett once said, “When she sings, I can actually see angels.”
Growing up in the prairie town of Consort, Alberta (population just over 600), where her father owned the pharmacy and her mother was a schoolteacher, Kathryn Dawn Lang and her three siblings were raised to be musical, their mother driving hundreds of miles in the Canadian winter, she said, “to get each kid to piano lessons. My brother was a child prodigy. He took all the brains and all the talent.”
Not exactly. Ms. Lang was 5 years old, she said, when “Sister Xavier, my teacher, realized that I was doing everything by ear. I’m not an academic person, so I wasn’t processing,” she said. “I’m right-brained for sure. She suggested I just sing and so I did.” She loved the singer Anne Murray, who was one of her first big influences, she said. “She was barefoot all the time and good looking, and I had a huge crush on her.”
(In 2013, Ms. Murray inducted Ms. Lang into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “Only in Canada could there be such a freak as me receiving such an award,” Ms. Lang said.)
Consort was so tiny, Ms. Lang said, everyone knew everyone’s eccentricities. When her father had an affair with a neighbor, they ran away together. “I knew all about it,” said Ms. Lang, who was 12 at the time. “I told my mum. But she never talked bad about him. It was brilliant. She has that old-school British-Canadian stoicism. Keep calm, and carry on.”
As a child, Ms. Lang said, she didn’t think twice about being “in” or “out.” “I literally had a girlfriend before I knew there was something called ‘gay’ and people started calling me it.”
At 17 she discovered her high school sweetheart had fallen in love with a boy. “My mum asked me what was wrong, and I said, ‘You don’t want to know,’” Ms. Lang said, practiced in the telling of this tale. “She said, ‘Try me,’ and I said, ‘O.K., my girlfriend is in a bar with a boy and she’s obviously making a choice and I’m gay and so are two of your other children.”
Ms. Lang laughed at the memory. “She said, ‘I’d rather have you dead than tell me that,’ which, you know, was just being dramatic. She just needed time to process it. My mum is an incredibly smart woman, and like every other mother it was just about protecting me and wanting me to be happy and my life to be easy. She’s very proud of me.”
At 23, Ms. Lang was an outlandish cowgirl-punk whose first indie album, “A Truly Westen Experience,” recorded with her band the Reclines, was getting a lot of attention. In 1984, not long after he signed Madonna, Seymour Stein, the veteran music macher and co-founder of Sire records whose roster included the Ramones, the Pretenders and Talking Heads, flew up to Alberta to woo her. Unintimidated, Ms. Lang wooed him right back. She rented an RV and had a friend dress up as a Canadian Mountie to chauffeur her and Mr. Stein to a rodeo, where they drank beer and ate pierogies, and sang country standards to each other late into the night.
“You maybe wouldn’t know that I’m a country fan,” Mr. Stein said on the phone recently, “She could match me, song by song.” He sang a bit of “The Blizzard,” by Jim Reeves, a midcentury Nashville great, his voice warbling but tuneful: “There’s a blizzard comin’ on, how I’m wishin’ I was home, for my pony’s lame and he can hardly stand. …”
Mr. Stein broke off. “I can’t sing at all but I love it. I’ve been in the business over 60 years, and I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but she is one of the greatest artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” he said of Ms. Lang. “I’ve signed many artists that didn’t have great voices but wrote great songs. And vice versa. But K. D. can do both.”
‘I’ll Never Be Billie Holiday’
Ms. Lang’s sexuality may never have been intertwined to her stardom, but she spoke about it to a writer for The Advocate in the summer of 1992, because at the time Queer Nation, an AIDS activist group, “was outing people right and left,” she said, “which was icky. It was like the PETA of sexuality.” She said she is proud to have been part of a chapter in the history of the gay rights movement, but that personally it was no big deal. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I realize that. It’s still not easy for people to come out in every instance.”
Domestically, Ms. Lang is an earthy modernist, with a taste for midcentury classics. The loft is open-plan, divided by an enormous bookshelf. One room holds a vivid Buddhist shrine (Ms. Lang has been practicing for 18 years). She wore dark-blue trousers, a black sweater, fuzzy striped socks and, around her neck, a twist of brightly colored strings.
“They’re called protection cords,” she said, “and you get them when you get an empowerment for a certain practice.” On a long, rough wood table, there was a collection of antique medicine bottles and ceramic vessels, the unabridged Random House dictionary and a 1950s-era Olympia typewriter — not a decorative object. “I still do a lot of writing on a manual,” she said. “I love the sound. I love the ink hitting the paper, the physicality of it. I like pounding it out of your brain.”
She typed ”Ingénue” on fax paper, “which was all I had for some reason.” The sheets are now so sun bleached that you can barely read the lyrics to “Constant Craving.”
“I didn’t have any friends here when I moved,” she said, “but there’s something about Portland that has always resonated with me on a deep level. I saw this apartment online when I was on tour in Australia, and bid on it and when I came up here after selling my house in L.A., I remember sitting on the floor and crying. But I just wanted things to be simple. I always think years in advance, generally. It’s not very Buddhist of me. Then I fell in love with a Canadian, and kind of kept migrating north.”
Ms. Lang and her girlfriend, whose name she is keeping to herself, live full time in Calgary. “Neither of us wants to get married,” she said, “because it’s a legal entanglement that has no bearing on the relationship.” The Daily Mail and Page Six, among others, have reported that she was dating Heather Edwards, the estranged wife of the Canadian billionaire Murray Edwards. “Did they?” Ms. Lang said non-commitedly. “Well, good then.”
Ms. Lang uses this apartment and this city for work, and to see the Trail Blazers, the basketball team to which she is fiercely loyal. And she has participated in some key local rituals, like appearing on “Portlandia,” the urban satire on IFC, on a “moon weekend women’s getaway” into the woods that resolves itself with Ms. Lang leading a gaggle of purple-T-shirt-clad attendees out of the woods, singing, “Down to the River to Pray.” A few years ago, she invited the singer-songwriters Neko Case and Laura Veirs to make an album with her, and they wrote most of it in this apartment. The result, which came out in 2016, was “case/Lang/veirs,” a toothsome, lyrical collaboration, a super-girl supergroup.
“When I was young, I stared at that ‘Ingénue’ record cover in awe,” Ms. Veirs said the other day. “If you had told me then I’d be singing with K. D. Lang, I’d have peed in my pants.”
Middle age, Ms. Lang said, is a chapter that interests her.
“I thought about it even when I was young,” she said. “I thought about the trajectory of a career, how a lot of people that I like kind of disappeared for a while. Peggy Lee. Dean Martin. Even Tony. Even though I’m sure they were working. There are moments when they kind of went dark, and I can see now why this is because you don’t have the unbridled confidence you have when you are young and you start questioning your abilities. I’ve started to question mine and sort of narrowing my assessment of what I’m actually good at, which is probably just singing. What’s really good to me now is probably what I can’t touch in my lifetime.
“I’ll never be a Billie Holiday. I’ll never be an Ella Fitzgerald. I’ll never be a Joni Mitchell. So it’s this kind of relinquishing, this kind of acquiescence. I guess I’m really giving in to the fact that I am who I am. I’m too young to be a legend, and too old to be pertinent.”
Seeing her interrogator raise an eyebrow, Ms. Lang cracked up. “I’m more focused on trying to stay open to people and stop myself from rushing to judgment even if they’re being irrational,” she said. “I fail constantly and it’s really sad to me. It’s more plain than mindfulness. It’s just like, ‘Be nice to people,’ and God, that’s hard to do.”
At 25, she said, “I was an extrovert and pushing myself on people. Now, I’m an intense introvert, which can be incongruent with being a performer.”
How do you go from one state to the other?
“Practice,” she said.