Penny Lang is in my ears and in my eyes
is one of those lesbian names that drifts about the outskirts of my brain. She's in there with fellow folkies like Lucie Blue Tremblay
-- I know the moniker, I know there's a queer connection, and then I go back to sleep. Apparently, that's more than most lesbians do.
As much as we -- we being the queer community -- believe that our loyalty immediately goes to those who have taken courageous steps to be out in public, Lang says she doesn't seem to have much of a lesbian fan base.
"I don't write radical enough material," she says.
I met Lang on the patio of a Montreal coffee shop earlier this month (I dutifully rented the chair via a cuppa, she didn't). Lang's mixing a quick holiday with some publicity for her new album, her eighth, "Stone+Sand+Sea+Sky."
So I check out the lyrics of the one song she penned ("Diamonds on the Water"): Nope, no Big Message Lesbo Stuff. Just feelings -- some sadness and longing.
Waiting by the roadside, waiting for you
Waiting on the roadside, don't know what to do
I got to see the sunshine every day
Wanna feel the sunshine every day
Says Lang: "I don't write songs that... lesbian women want to hear. I've never been invited to Michigan." That's the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival,
and the "y" gives you the politics. Lang doesn't do "womyn's music... it just hasn't happened."
In part, she says, that's about privacy. Everyone's entitled, and "I don't particularly want to be put on the job market. I'm 63, not 32, and I like my privacy."
Having said that, Lang has been out for years. She performed some 20 years ago at a Montreal university group's gay event (she can't recall whether it was McGill
), and has been open about her sexuality since. "I've talked about it off and on, depending on the audience, on how comfortable I feel." (She's been with partner Nancy, a retired nurse, for 19 years. And just to keep the family info together, son Jason Lang often performs with his mum.)
Lang was a lifelong Montrealer who left last September, moving to a remote spot in British Columbia, who periodically returns to civilization by ferry or small plane. She was never happy in the concrete jungle, and left soon after her parents died (within a year of each other). "I wanted to be by the ocean, closer to nature. I need the solitude."
Lang says she hasn't written a song in six years, though she's recently realized that she creates tuneful beginnings while walking through the forest. That's when she begins to hum and sing, but of course the note arrangements are forgotten once she returns home. Future walks will be taken with a recorder, to tape the melodies. Lang says the beginnings of songs are the hardest to create.
Music has always been important. It "helped calm [her] down" as a child. (She was recently diagnosed with six separate learning disabilities.)
"I love relating to people through music." And she doesn't get bored of singing the same songs, because she doesn't keep repeating them unless there's a new CD to launch. "I choose the songs very carefully. When you really love the songs you're singing, it's easy to keep them fresh."
Musical faves include the phrasing and piano of Nina Simone,
the guitar and tunes of Bonnie Raitt,
and the work of Etta James
, Oscar Peterson
, Dave Brubeck
, Mavis Staples
, and the Norman Luboff Choir.
To start. There are many pianists on the list, though Lang can't really play that instrument. She's a strummer, sort of. "I'm a rhythm player. My guitar is really limited."
For all the joy of music, it's not a lucrative career. Lang's lived on the poverty line for much of her life. Her worst year recorded $4,000 in income; her best, about $25,000. Nonetheless, she's managed to survive (thanks to an understanding partner who held a full-time job for many years), but this past year was forced to take out a loan from a friend -- in part because of the expense of the move.
Financially, if a tour has a dozen scheduled stops and three get canceled, Lang's in trouble. No performance, no payment. She doesn't want to retire, but isn't in the best of health. "I hope to keep playing forever."
The music industry has changed, though. "Years ago, you played in the same room three to six nights a week," she says. "That's how you found your fans." Big crowds would come on the last couple of nights after four days of favorable word of mouth. "We used to go out and do auditions where we wanted to perform. Now you send CDs," often full of technical yeehaws that can't be reproduced during a live performance, "and people complain."
Touring has become a series of one-night stands and a fan base comes from CD sales. Yet radio play is almost impossible to come by, except on small community radio stations (usually university-based)... and on the CBC.
As controversial as the CBC is these days, says Lang, it plays Canadian artists. Without the MotherCorp., "we wouldn't have anyone rooting for us."