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Melvin McLeod: I have always been struck by your willingness to expose yourself in your music—your heart, your desires, your pain. That kind of openness and vulnerability, which takes courage, is a core dharma principle.
k.d. lang: I guess that’s been there. I would like to think I’ve always been Buddhist; it just took me a while to find my teacher.
Melvin McLeod: Your song “Constant Craving” is a beautiful and accurate restatement of Buddhism’s first noble truth.
k.d. lang: I think “Constant Craving” just comes out of the experience of being human. The realm of desire is such a common theme in my music. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I like it so much. [Laughs]
Melvin McLeod: My Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, said it was essential for the Buddhist practitioner to have a “sad and tender heart.” Your music often has those qualities of tenderness and pain.
k.d. lang: Definitely. I suppose “melancholy” is a word that might apply, but I kind of shy away from that word because it carries a negative connotation. There is, though, a peacefulness in melancholy, because it’s balanced. When something is too entirely desperate, or too entirely sublime, it’s not balanced. The middle way is the most sustaining.
Melvin McLeod: Does the title of the album, Watershed, refer to your own life and what you’ve gone through becoming a committed Buddhist?
k.d. lang: I would say so. The idea of watershed has a great deal of pertinence to becoming a Buddhist and following the path. It seems to me that the flow of dharma—or the flow of one’s own innate buddhanature—is like water. There are obstacles, but eventually the water will find its way around them. A change of direction happens when you take refuge and become a practitioner. For me, it’s been about reassessing, reviewing, and reprioritizing everything in my life. It’s been about revitalizing my morality and my relationship to cause and effect, meaning what I do as a person—with my body, speech, and mind—and how it affects all other beings. Each song, as I said, is about my relationship to something, and it’s also about the cause and effect of each of those relationships.
Melvin McLeod: When the album comes out, and you talk to the mainstream press about the title, are you going to talk about it in Buddhist terms, as you are now?
k.d. lang: I would essentially answer in the same way I’m answering you, although I wouldn’t use terms like “bodhichitta” or “planting the seed of dharma” or “refuge” because dharma is a very personal thing and I wouldn’t want to have it taken out of context, which I think would be a negative thing.
Melvin McLeod: In other words, it’s better to be it than preach it.
k.d. lang: Exactly. I think we’ve seen instances where famous people have talked about Buddhism in the press, in a way that was not necessarily beneficial. I feel very protective of the dharma path and very protective of my relationship with Rinpoche. But at the same time, I want to connect people to it, I want to awaken people to it. I have been very cautious, though.
Melvin McLeod: Beyond its impact on your lyrics, has your meditation practice influenced how you sing?
k.d. lang: Absolutely. The effect on my voice is immeasurable. Truly immeasurable. Doing mantra and doing the prayers has completely changed my voice. Once again, I don’t know if I can define it exactly. It’s more ethereal or elusive than saying something like, “My voice is enriched by the lower register.” It’s not that simple. My relationship to the control and fear of singing is gone. I don’t mean breath control. I mean control as in forcing myself into the music and feeling that I’m controlling the music, rather than feeling like a vessel or a vehicle. I trust my teacher so much, and I trust the path so much, that I also trust that I can do the work and simply be a vessel for something larger.
Just to know that there’s a greater purpose to my music, a real purpose, has taken all the work out of it. That’s emancipating, because I don’t get stressed singing anymore. I don’t get tired singing anymore. The very first thing Rinpoche said to me the first time I met him was, “Make sure your motivation is clear.” I’d always thought that my motivation was right, but it turns out that there’s a lifetime of examination in finding true motivation.
Melvin McLeod: How do you feel your music can benefit others?
k.d. lang: The most important thing about my music—other than making people happy and peaceful for a second—would be the good fortune I have to be close to the lineage masters. Somehow, through my music, I could connect the listeners to those masters.
Melvin McLeod: The blessing of your connection could come through the art you produce.
k.d. lang: Yes. Certainly not in a mundane, phenomenal way, but in the most divine way possible.
Melvin McLeod: Many musicians try to communicate emotion through elaborate ornamentation. Your music tends to be spare and straightforward, and yet to me it conveys more emotion and meaning. Is that quality of space and simplicity something you have consciously cultivated?
k.d. lang: I could go on about this topic for hours. There are many reasons for that kind of quality in the music I do. Number one, I am a Buddhist, so emptiness is everything. When people ask, “Do you look at the glass as half full or half empty?” I always say, “I’m Buddhist. I look at it as half empty!” [Laughs]
To me, space is everything. Space is the opposite truth to sound, so it is as important as sound. As a producer, I’m always looking for space, and I’m always looking to create that pocket, especially for the voice.
I grew up in the Canadian Prairies, so I know about big spaces. I think my basic aesthetic, as a person as well as an artist, is minimalist, because of the Prairies. Ornamentation, I think, is an urban aesthetic. I would venture to say that it is an African-American urban sort of thing. I think it stemmed from the gospel. That is not my background, who I am, my history. When you hear Mahalia Jackson or early Stevie Wonder or early Aretha Franklin, or early gospel singers, that’s a very pure, beautiful thing. It’s real. Now, music with a lot of ornamentation is often a caricature of that pure form. It’s fraudulent.
Melvin McLeod: Speaking as a fan, which I have been for many years, I would say that you have one of the finest voices in the world, like a Maria Callas, Pavarotti, or Streisand. If it’s not too strange to ask, what is it like being able to sing like that?
k.d. lang: On a purely mundane level, it is totally mind-blowing to have this sound come out of my body. It feels like a whole ocean of surfers are available to me at any given moment to open up my voice and play around with a melody. It does blow my mind.
But the deeper truth is that we all have world-level gifts. I’m not just saying that. I honestly believe it. Maybe sometimes we are not able to reach and bring out our gifts, but they are there. It can be quite ordinary—when you see a Bhutanese woman making cheese dumplings and you taste one and it’s the best cheese dumpling you’ve ever eaten in your life, it’s the same thing! It’s essence. Ultimately, I don’t really see myself as separate from anybody else in terms of having a gift.
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