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Classic Track: “Constant Craving,” k.d. lang

When k.d. lang first emerged in the mid-’80s from the plains of Alberta, with her strong, elastic alto and her androgynous look, it was difficult to categorize her.

When k.d. lang first emerged in the mid-’80s from the plains of Alberta, with her strong, elastic alto and her androgynous look, it was difficult to categorize her. It was country, for sure, but mostly retro, with affectionate nods back to 1950s/early ’60s stars ranging from Patsy Cline (her most apparent influence; lang’s band was even cleverly called the Recliners) to Webb Pierce to Lynn Anderson, among others. There was also a raw, rockabilly edge to some of her material—particularly on her 1987 U.S. breakthrough, Angel With a Lariat, produced by British new wave/rockabilly icon Dave Edmunds.

She wasn’t “cow-punk,” but she certainly wasn’t mainstream ’80s country, either. Even so, her 1987 duet with Roy Orbison on “Crying” made the country charts and earned her a Grammy, and 1988’s “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette”—from Shadowland, the covers album lang made in Nashville with Cline producer Owen Bradley—made it all the way to Number 21 in 1988. She got back to her own country material—written with co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink (whom she met in 1985 and was featured prominently on Lariat)—with the wonderful Absolute Torch and Twang, which built on the success of its predecessor and also won lang a large new audience, as well. The album peaked at Number 12 on the country charts, fared well on the pop album charts, yielded a hit country single (“Full Moon Full of Love”) and won lang a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Despite that success, Mink says today, “We were chasing the Nashville thing, working off formula, and it just wasn’t working. Nashville still had the door closed for us in country, so we figured, ‘What the hell, we’ll do exactly what we want,’ and that’s where Ingenue was born.”

Lang’s fourth album for Sire (WB), Ingenue, definitely represented a stylistic departure. “It was a conscious choice we made,” Mink says, “though I can’t say we had a really strong idea about the direction we were headed. We just thought, ‘Let’s have fun and see what comes up. We started with a palette, like a painter would, of instruments we wanted to use. For instance, I had been playing in a klezmer band and the accordion felt really natural to me. I had an old photograph of my parents after the war, having bottles of wine with their friends, and an accordion player and a violin player. Everyone’s kind of drunk and swinging and swaying; very cabaret-like. I showed it to k.d. and she said, ‘That is so cool; that’s what the album should sound like!’ The term we used for Ingenue was post-nuclear cabaret. Traditional old-world instruments with a sort of mystical modern twist on it.

“But we also didn’t want to alienate fans too much,” Mink continues, “so we have some carefully used steel guitar [by the great Greg Leisz] in there as the dovetail instrument between [Absolute Torch and Twang and Ingenue]. Then, having [vibraphonist] Gary Burton on the album took it in another direction.”

Mink and lang’s writing/demo sessions for Ingenue took place in the summer and fall of 1991, in lang’s little rented house in Vancouver’s Chinatown area. “We went to a local music store,” he relates, “and I rented an AKG 414 microphone, which I did the entire record on, and still have. [A few vocals were also done with a Neumann U 87, engineer Marc Ramaer recalls.] And we rented a Tascam board and we had a Tascam 16-track. I also used a Roland R-8 drum machine on much of it, including for the bass parts—I used a lot of the R-8 acoustic bass sound, which I really love.” Another 414 was used for Mink’s foundational acoustic guitar parts, and “we had one keyboard; no MIDI.” Lang also had separate writing sessions in L.A. with Greg Penny, who co-produced both Absolute Torch and Twang and Ingenue. “So It Shall Be” is their songwriting contribution to the latter.

Mink recalls that the genesis of this month’s Classic Track, “Constant Craving,” dated back to the spring of 1991: “It was originally called ‘Easter Passover,’ because we started writing it on a day when it was both Easter and Passover. We spent three days just on the chorus, because we couldn’t decide exactly what notes to use. Sometimes songs come quickly, sometimes they take a while.” They would get back to it when the sessions for Ingenue began in earnest, but it would prove to be one of the most difficult songs on the album to complete.

In the next phase of the album’s creation, a small band was assembled to lay down some basic tracks at Vancouver Studios, where Absolute Torch and Twang had been recorded. The group consisted of stalwarts from lang’s band—Mink, keyboardist Teddy Borowiecki and bassist David Piltch—along with L.A. drummer John Guerin, whom lang and Mink admired for his work with Joni Mitchell. “That approach lasted about five minutes,” Greg Penny says with a laugh. “It turned out it was a fine line between the sound of Ingenue we were looking for and the sound of a band playing Ingenue in a Holiday Inn lounge. It was very weird.”

Adds Mink, “When we tried to cut ‘Miss Chatelaine,’ it sounded like a really bad bar mitzvah group; it just didn’t work. So we had to strip it back. I went back to the click and generally put the [acoustic rhythm] guitar parts down first—just me and a click, and built the whole song back again, almost like we did with the demos. So the parts that were really charming and great performances on the demo, we ended up using, and we augmented and built around those and cleaned up the sound. I’d say 30 percent of the demos are the record.”

At the suggestion of Vancouver Studios engineer Marc Ramaer, who had also worked as an assistant on Absolute Torch and Twang and was a musician himself, a local drummer named Randall Stoll was brought in “and he re-tracked four or five songs in a couple of days for the songs that needed a full drum kit,” Mink says. “We also had a percussionist, Graham Boyle, who did a lot of the lighter percussion things. He ended up playing drums on the live [Ingenue] tour, but k.d. and I didn’t want a lot of drums on the album; a lot of the percussion on there is more subtle.”

The early work at Vancouver Studios was done in their “A” room, equipped with an SSL 4056G and Studer A-800 24-track 2-inch, but after a while producer Bob Rock took over that room, so the lang project moved into a new, unfinished “B” studio, which had an SSL E series in the large control room that became the focus of work, as parts were layered individually, mostly direct into the console, including lang’s vocals, Borowiecki’s accordion, Gary Burton’s vibes, Greg Leisz’s steel guitar and Mink’s electric guitar—the last courtesy of a National Avalon guitar he found for $175 at a Vancouver music shop. “It was the only electric guitar I used on the album,” he says. “A guitar like that usually has a couple of good sounds, so the challenge is to find them.” Penny says he and Ramaer used two dbx 160X compressors and a two-channel SSL Logic FX G383 mic pre/EQ in a rack to process vocals and acoustic guitar, “and we sometimes used the pre’s in the E for drums.” The studio rented a full rack of Dolby SR noise reduction “which was incredible,” Mink notes, “because the big issue at the time was tape hiss and this virtually eliminated it. Even the cassette tapes sounded amazing.”

Mink says he used a variety of acoustic guitars on the record, but relied most heavily on Washburn “parlor guitars from the 1920s. ‘Constant Craving’ has two or three acoustics going, including an old mahogany Martin and possibly a ’50s Gibson.” According to Ramaer, “Most acoustics were recorded with a pair of Neumann KM 84 mics, sometimes mixing in a bit of DI feed. We used [AKG] 451s and 414s, as well, depending on the tone we wanted. The 84s have a nice ‘sheen’ to them which is great for high-strung guitars—like in the choruses of ‘Constant Craving.’”

“Constant Craving” had a troubled birth. Mink and Penny both say that lang didn’t really like the song, thinking it “too commercial,” in Mink’s words. It didn’t help that it was tracked originally in a different key. “k.d. wanted to trash it quite early,” Mink says, “but Marc and Greg and I really believed in it, and I remember staying up really late one night and re-tracking all the guitars in a different key, and that put the song back in the running. All that was left [from the earlier version] was the R-8 shaker and a click. The next day, Teddy—the piano player—and the bass player came in and added their stuff. The drums were done just after that; then Gary Burton came in. The accordion, which lang had played on the demo, came later, too.” They also tried a version with Leisz’s pedal steel on it but deemed it “too country.” “She wanted it to sound very European, almost like a Marlene Dietrich track,” Penny says. “She was making this movie [Salmonberries] in Germany with Percy Adlon and was very excited about European torch singers.”

Mixing and additional vocal and instrumental overdubs took place at Skip Saylor Recording in L.A. “Marc got started in the front studio [mixing on the SSL 4080G],” Penny says, “and Ben and I would be in the back room, which had an API, trying to comp vocals and guitars and finish the thing.”

Ramaer adds, “It was an extremely long record to do, and we had the mixing room booked, but we still had to pick up some strings and backup vocals and other bits and pieces we weren’t able to finish in Vancouver, so when we went down to L.A., Greg overdubbed the finishing touches while I’d be mixing, and we’d stick our heads together, run through the tracks a couple of times.” Ramaer’s main reverbs of choice were the Lexicon 480 and PCM 70.

The backup vocals for the song—probably three or four stacks of k.d. harmonies per side, augmented on the high parts by Reclines singer Sue Leonard—had gone well in Vancouver, but once in L.A., lang struggled to finish the song. Penny remembers, “[One day] we’re in Skip Saylor’s back room, and k.d.’s got her little dog with her and she decided she’s finally going to come up with the lyrics for the third verse of ‘Constant Craving.’ Ben is moving back and forth between the mix room with Marc and the back room with me, and I’m nailed down with her trying to finish off the third verse. She’s still playing with phrasing. I’m in the control room and there’s no sightline for me to see her, but she says at one point, she says [on the talkback], ‘Give me a minute.’ I say, ‘Sure let me know when you’re ready.’ A couple of minutes pass: I say, ‘How’s it going?’ Nothing. Ten minutes go by, maybe 15. I call Ben and say, ‘What do you think?’ And he says. ‘Let her have time, let her do her thing.’ So I wait another five minutes and then I stand up and look and she’s gone! I walk out to the car park and her car is gone. I go into the front room and the phone rings and it her. She’s already home. She says, ‘I’m not doing it. I can’t stand that song.’ I say, ‘Oh, okay, I understand, we’ll figure out something.’ So that’s how Ben’s guitar solo happened.”

Instead of that third verse, Mink conceived a bright and tuneful guitar part on the National Avalon—“it was supposed to emulate a 12-string,” he says—then added a second part midway through the solo. “I think we put on one more marching fiddle overdub in the chorus [also by Mink] and that kind of finished the song,” he says.

Ramaer says, “I mixed it in a very pop fashion, which is how I heard it, and I played it for Ben and Greg and they really liked it. We were sensitive to the fact that k.d. probably wouldn’t like it, and I don’t think she did, so I saved everything on the SSL, and then tried a bunch of other things, like taking the drums out again; all kinds of things to make k.d. happy and see if we could turn the track into something else. We went around in circles, but she ended up acquiescing to the fact that we couldn’t change the song, and at that point Warners had already heard it and liked the fact that it sounded commercial and had radio potential.”

Indeed it did. Upon the release of Ingenue in March 1992, “Constant Craving” became lang’s first to hit the pop Top 40, it made it to Number 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and it propelled the album to the Top 20 and double-Platinum status. The following year, it rocketed to Number 18 on the UK pop charts, and it also sold well in other foreign lands. Ingenue landed Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Album, and the single earned noms for Song of the Year and Record of the Year and won for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Penny comments, “One of the reasons it came out the way it did is we were all really happy together. We ate every meal together, we cooked together, we hung out and we enjoyed each other. We were really trying hard to make it great. We were all doing something we wanted to do, and the only fear at the end was: ‘Is everybody going to get this?’”

Mink: “In the end, we were all very, very proud of it and we all sensed that it was something very special.”

One hopes that lang eventually came to love the song—because she’s had to sing it nearly every night on the road since!

Online Extras

More on the Making of Ingenue and “Constant Craving” from Ben Mink, Co-producer Greg Penny and Engineer Marc Ramaer

Ben Mink on co-producer Penny and engineer Ramaer: “He has excellent taste, excellent vibes and really good ears. His father [Hank Penny] was a country singer, his mother [Sue Thompson] had that hit song, ‘Norman’ [in 1961]. So he was like a Hollywood baby, with a real strong background in country music. We met him through the record company when we were doing Torch and Twang and we hit it off. The relationship I had with k.d. at the time was a bit like Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, and Greg had a good technical grounding—he was an engineer, as well—and had really good taste and he was a perfect person in the middle for all that. If I felt strongly about an idea that k.d. didn’t, he had a real velvet touch about how to approach the idea.

“And Marc Ramaer was an excellent engineer coming up at that time. He put in tons of extra hours, and we all really believed in that record. It was a very magical time.”

Penny on Ramaer: “Marc had been our assistant engineer on Absolute Torch and Twang, and done a great job and been easy to work with. He is a beautiful soul and a wonderful guy, and he was also good at seeing whatever was going on and assuming whatever role needed to be done. He started out [on Ingenue] assisting me, but there came a point there where I couldn’t handle a lot of the details, so he would jump in and engineer, and I would be trying to help Ben and k.d. through things. Then, when we got L.A. we were in such a time crush that Marc was setting up the mix while Ben and I did other stuff, and we’d drop in on him every hour or so and see how things were going; listen back to what he was doing.”

Mink on working the vibraphone legend Gary Burton: “I worshipped him as a teenager—I especially loved that [Lofty] Fake Anagrams record with Larry Coryell—so to get to work with him was a dream come true. I guess k.d. met him in Nashville, so one day she says to me, ‘Hey, let’s get Gary Burton on the record.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I was so excited. So we flew him out there and here [to Vancouver] and we’re discussing parts, and I’m saying thinks like, ‘Do you think you can bend the notes like you used to on Fake Anagrams?’” [Laughs.] “And vibraphone is one of those instruments that really glues things together—it’s blurry and cool. He’s one of the most brilliant musicians on the planet so it was just a matter of directing taste—‘play more, play less, don’t extend the chord there.’ He was great and such a nice guy.”

Penny on the SSL-E room at Vancouver Sound: “Ben and I customized this room so amazingly. We had guitars all over the place. We had a microphone on a boom stand we could swing out to have it on the other side of the desk, or have k.d. actually be at the desk sitting next to me, and she could do her own monitor mix while she was singing. The whole record was essentially made in that [control] room. The percussion and the drums and a few other things were out in the room, baffling it off.”

Penny on troubles recording “Constant Craving”: “It became so labored. She’d say, ‘I don’t want to sing that.’ So there were all these different attempts at singing, and then she went through some challenging stuff where she had to have a root canal and it was affecting her pitch. She went and had some work done and came back and sang the whole album in just a few days, but that track kept trailing behind everything else. Ben and I thought it was really strong—not that we thought it would be the record it became—but we knew we had to finish it.”

Ramaer on the drums on “Constant Craving”: “The track was built up using a drum machine. When everything was tracked, I asked a friend of mine [drummer Randall Stoll] to come in and overdub a drum track, just to see what it would sound like. Greg and I set up the mics, etc., while Randall was still learning the track, and we started recording right away, as you never know. I think the second or third run-through we basically had it nailed and just punched it in the bridge section. It came together really quickly—Randall was totally surprised when we said we were done.”

Mink on the mix: “It was agonizing, like every mix. The record company was getting pissed off because it ended up costing more than they wanted it to, and at the end they were a little tight with the dough, so we simply had to get it done. Still, we didn’t cut any corners really. There wasn’t a note that wasn’t examined carefully on that record.”

Mink on the Rolling Stones’ unusual connection to “Constant Craving”: “My second daughter had just been born [in 1997] and I was diapering her, and my lawyer called and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said, ‘No, I’m diapering.’ ‘Well, sit down, because I just got a call from the Rolling Stones’ lawyer. The Stones have a new album [Bridges to Babylon] coming out on Monday, and they have a new single called “Anybody Seen My Baby” coming out, and they accidentally took some of “Constant Craving” for the single.’ The chorus was nearly the same and it had almost the same guitar part, too. ‘Apparently, Keith Richards’ daughter noticed it and called Keith, who probably called Mick, and they want you to share in the publishing.’ I said, ‘Tell them I would be extremely honored,’ and k.d. felt the same; they were total gentlemen about it. For me, it’s a real charge that my name as a songwriter is next to theirs.”