"I tend to get bogged down by lyrics," says k.d. lang, about writing words, not singing them. "I'll write copious amounts of music, and then I have to sit there and wait for lightning to strike, in terms of lyrics. I can sit and mull over a lyric for, like, six hours, on one word. I just hated that."
She can use the past tense, because lightning strikes were not needed for the songs on her new album, Sing It Loud (out Tuesday on Nonesuch/Warner). Whenever lang got stuck for words, or even before then, her new favourite co-writer and album producer would offer some text to complete her musical thought.
His name is Joe Pisapia, he's a multi-instrumentalist who used to play in the indie band Guster, and he's responsible for what lang calls "really the most fulfilling, creative, fun experience of my life." And remember, this is a woman whose career highs have included collaborations with Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett.
She met Pisapia backstage after a show during the tour for her Watershed album in 2008, and immediately felt a connection worth pursuing. A few e-mails later, she booked a flight from her home in Los Angeles to Pisapia's studio in Nashville.
"My girlfriend said, 'You're jumping on a plane to Nashville, to work with somebody you've hardly even met? Really?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and she said 'Right on. That's so unlike you.'"
Lang and Pisapia wrote two songs the first day she was in Nashville, which is warp speed by her clock. Together they created five of the nine originals on the disc, which includes the title song by Pisapia and two other tunes lang co-wrote with Daniel Clarke and Joshua Grange, both members of her new Siss Boom Bang group.
"Joe was the throttle, and I was the steering wheel," lang says. "He has so much energy and so many ideas, he could just spew them all day long. I'm a very deliberate person, and I tend to overthink things. I would hold back and let him go crazy, till I felt something, and then say, 'Stop! That line's perfect, let's start there.'"
"We just gave each other a complete safety net, absolute freedom to do and think and say whatever we wanted," she says. "It was beautiful, and it put me into a space that let me push the curve. It was really a lot about me letting go, and being taken out of my usual world."
The writing went quickly, and the recording even more so. Lang and her band laid down eight songs in three days. The momentum of that process, she says, helped her bring more of the energy and spontaneity of live performance into the album. It also kept the music relatively simple, without lots of alternate takes and second thoughts.
The album isn't a country record, but a thick strand of country feeling moves through several songs. The smouldering, steel-and-organ number Sugar Buzz may be the lustiest thing lang has done in years, and the tune that most fulfills the promise of the album title. Her off-the-floor vocals are more raw and direct than in the refined, crooner-type recordings she has been making over the past decade. There's also a country-flavoured cover of the Talking Heads' Heaven, and a couple of original tributes to Orbison.
"Over the years, the Roy experience has been so beautiful and ever-present in me, I really felt it was time to pay homage," she says. I Confess and A Sleep With No Dreaming both have the largeness of sound and the free-singing, heedless vulnerability that typified Orbison and his music.
But heartache, Orbison's major subject, isn't a big theme on Sing It Loud, which is more about celebrating love and life and music-making. It sounds like an album made by people who deeply enjoyed what they were doing.
"I wanted to write a record that I could go back into Canada and play the Canadian folk festivals and have the songs play themselves," lang said. "Just to have songs that were unpretentious and fun and soulful, so that when you stand on stage, the music comes rushing out of you like water from a pitcher. We've played two or three benefits around L.A., and these songs translate really well into performing live. It's kind of my dream come true."