kd lang and Ben Mink: how we made Constant Craving

‘It was the year I came out as gay. When we went to the Grammys, religious groups were picketing outside’

kd lang, singer-songwriter

We’d hired a little place in Vancouver to write songs. I’d been listening to Black Crow by Joni Mitchell and said to Ben, my songwriting partner: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a song with similar, flowing open chords?” I sat down with a little Casio keyboard and the music came quickly, but I struggled to write lyrics for months. Then one day I just sat at the window with a typewriter and the phrase “constant craving” came into my head. Once I had that, the lyrics flowed.

“Constant craving” relates to samsara, the Buddhist cycle of birth and death, but I wasn’t a practising Buddhist then so I honestly don’t know what the impetus for the song was. I just wrote it from the perspective of desire and longing.

Watch the video for Constant Craving by kd lang

Recording it was tortuous. I was singing off key and didn’t know why, a shocking thing for a singer to experience. Then it turned out a dental problem was affecting my hearing. I had root canal surgery and was cured. If you’re a terrible singer, get a root canal!

Also, I was pissed off that we had this song. It was poppy, celebratory, upbeat and didn’t fit with the mood of the Ingénue album. I knew we needed a 10th song but dragged my heels and was reluctant to sing or record it. I guess part of me knew that it was going to be a big thing.

The year 1992 was a watershed for me because I came out as gay in The Advocate magazine. We released Constant Craving as a single and it did OK – then I did a photoshoot for Vanity Fair. I’d seen a French movie called The Hairdresser’s Husband and had this idea of being pictured in a barber’s shop, so my friend Herb Ritts took a photograph of me being shaved by Cindy Crawford, which they put on the cover. It caused a huge sensation. People started questioning Cindy’s sexuality but I’m very proud of that cover. I’m not sure Constant Craving would have been such a big hit without it and I don’t think I’d have been in The Advocate or Vanity Fair without Constant Craving. It was a moment in time that clicked.

kd lang at the 1993 Brit awards.
Big thing … kd lang at the 1993 Brit awards. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

The song is part of who I am. At the time there weren’t really any other pop stars who had properly come out, especially female. I was on the cusp of being really famous, so there was a lot to lose. The previous year, there was a huge backlash when I did a “Meat Stinks” campaign for Peta, but by the time I came out I think people had exhausted all their anger and hate for me. When we were nominated for the Grammys, there were religious groups outside picketing, but it wasn’t too bad.

Ben Mink, musician, songwriter

Constant Craving was originally titled Easter Passover, because it was written on a day that coincides with both holidays. For me it’s like a spiritual, like We Shall Overcome: an inspirational song about getting through the shitty parts, which may be partly down to how it was made.

When we first started it, it was in a much slower tempo and didn’t have a melody at all. I sat there for two days just trying to settle on the right chords for the chorus. At one point, it got very eastern, because we’d been listening to klezmer music – very dark, minor key, Kurt Weill, dark cabaret, “I vont to be alone” music.

When we first recorded it, we put instruments on and took them off again. Then it turned out that it was in too low a key for kd’s voice, so it was almost abandoned. I stayed up late and reworked the guitars in a key that suited her, and she said: “OK, let’s leave it in the running.” If I hadn’t stayed up, it might never have been finished.

It was released in Britain first and nothing really happened. Some of the early reviews for the album were horrible. People magazine destroyed it, but other places loved it. And when DJs in America started playing it, the Warner Bros switchboard lit up with people calling in. Having such a big hit was life-changing.

kd lang’s Ingénue
kd lang’s Ingénue Photograph: PR Company Handout

Five years later, I got a call from the Rolling Stones’ management. They’d written a song called Anybody Seen My Baby, but Keith Richards’ daughter had told him, “Dad, that’s Constant Craving!” They were real gentlemen about the similarity and gave us songwriting credits. When I was a kid in garage bands playing Stones songs, we used to joke: “One day the Stones will cover one of ours.” So to have a credit reading Jagger/Richards/Lang/Mink is a childhood dream that I still can’t believe actually happened.

  • Ingénue: 25th anniversary edition is out now on Nonesuch.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

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