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"I love going where I'm not supposed to go. I love being the underdog, I've always loved being the underdog. I love feeling like I'm starting at square zero again. I thrive on it," says k.d. lang. She's talking about touring with her new band, the Siss Boom Bang, and the prospect of playing in some fresh settings, but the sentiment could just as well describe the making of Sing it Loud, her first record made entirely with a band of her own since the pair of albums with the Reclines that launched her career.
Highlights from those early cow-punk recordings were collected in 2006s Reintarnation while 2010s Recollection showcased the broad range of styles she explored thereafter. Last year, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her recording debut, lang found herself being pulled back to square zero, yearning to hear country music at sound checks and longing for the richly collaborative experience that comes from being part of a band. "I always felt like there was a part of me that wanted to continue the cow punk thing," says lang, who has won four GRAMMY awards in the States and eight Juno awards in her native Canada. "But I didn't want to push it. It's something that has to arise naturally. And this was just the year. I felt it in the back of my soul. I kept thinking I was going to find this guitar player who was a lyricist and more rock oriented. And then Joe appeared."
Sensing the direction she was headed in, Gord Reddy, a member of lang's road crew, arranged for her to meet Joe Pisapia when she played Nashvilles Ryman Auditorium. "The second I laid eyes on him, I just instantly felt something," she recalls. After the tour, she emailed Joe and he sent her some material. She felt an immediate connection and jumped on a plane to Nashville - a highly uncharacteristic move for lang, who admits, "I'm usually more deliberate and premeditated than that." They met for coffee and before the day was out, the pair had written two songs for the album, The Waters Edge and Perfect Word. "I just really struck gold when I found Joe," marvels lang, who co-produced Sing it Loud with him. "When he writes, that boy will go off like a kid. When you write from a place of naviete or childlike expression, its the best because it erases the restraints of self-consciousness. Generally you pre-edit yourself, but he erases that. There' s a freedom, a liberty."
Finding Pisapia, who also plays numerous instruments on the album and serves as the Siss Boom Bangs musical director, was just the first in a string of serendipitous moments that nudged lang along on her new journey. Guitarist Joshua Grange and keyboardist Daniel Clarke had played with lang on the tour for Watershed, her last studio album, which bowed in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 in 2008. She knew they would suit her new project. "They're extraordinarily talented - and good looking, too," she says with a smile. Pisapia brought in bassist Lex Price, but they were still in search of a drummer. Clarke suggested Fred Eltringham (The Wallflowers), whom he had been working with, and the band was complete. The sessions began over Fourth of July weekend at Middletree Studios in Nashville, marking the first recordings at Pisapia's new backyard studio. They planned on just tracking three songs that lang had written with Grange and Clarke--I Confess, Habit of Mind and Sorrow Nevermore--but wound up recording eight tracks in a mere three days. "The second the band walked in, the energy was palpable," remembers lang. "This music called for the immediacy, rawness, and communication that happens when it goes down live. To me, live off the floor vocally is where I feel my most confident because, again, the editor's not there. You're completely coming from a spontaneous place where you have to perform. Tony Bennett and I recorded Wonderful World live off the floor and Drag was pretty much done the same way. When you're given the opportunity to just record a moment, that's ultimate for me."
She found the environment conducive to exploring new ways of singing. "It was like being given wings," she says. "I could go from an extraordinarily soft, vulnerable sounding vocal technique to really loud, almost shouting. To have a vocal situation that can handle that sort of dynamic is rare." As she traded the finely calibrated subtleties of her recent work for a more visceral approach, it seemed only natural to make Sing it Loud, a song Pisapia had written several years ago, the title track. "I think we all feel like outsiders," observes lang. "Part of us feels like we really don't fit in anywhere, and I think that's great. That part of us should be celebrated."
The collection kicks off with I Confess, which is the lead single. "I'd been feeling a big connection to my Roy Orbison days. Roy's music left an indelible mark on me and I really wanted to write a song that had that kind of Orbison swagger, but take it a bit more to the contemporary side," explains lang, who won the first of her four GRAMMY awards for her 1987 duet with Orbison, Crying. In the course of making Sing it Loud, lang and Pisapia frequently swapped song ideas via their iPhones. While working together on a chord progression one day, lang suddenly remembered their exchange about another potential song, Sugar Buzz. She pulled out her phone, started singing the lyrics they had been texting back and forth, and everything just came together. From the lighthearted Sugar Buzz, which likens a lover to the rush that comes from consuming too much sugar, to the wordplay of Habit of Mind to the striking version of Talking Heads Heaven, Sing it Loud is infused with warmth and humor. "It's just music. I think I took it so seriously at certain points in my life that it took away the joy and the spontaneity," she says. That's what I'm talking about when I say I've lost my edge in Habit of Mind. I always felt like there was a huge portion of k.d. lang that was based in humor and somehow I kind of forgot that truckload. Now I've found it again."
After the album was mixed, lang gave a copy to her best friend, asking for feedback. Her friends take on it: It starts off like a k.d. lang record. You're thinking: this is a beautiful, typical k.d. lang record and then, siss, boom, bang, the band kicks in! It was another a-ha moment for lang, who realized the phrase described her new band to a T. "It's one of those things I had nothing to do with. It was really a magical instant where you're just part of it," says lang. "I would have to say that Sing it Loud is actually probably the pinnacle of my creative life because it happened so fast, so naturally, and with so much joy."