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The sweet sounds of Candye Kane
Bisexual blues artist, former porn star and gay rights advocate comes to Charlotte

by Mark Smith

Candye Kane plays Asheville May 16 & May 26. She’ll perform in Charlotte May 25.
Candye Kane may not be a household name, but in counter-culture underground circles, her diva status is legendary. She’s been making music professionally for over two decades and touring worldwide since 1992.

She played at the French Embassy in Rome for the president of Italy, headlined the Rhythm Riot, a rockabilly and R&B festival in the U.K., and belted it out alongside Ray Charles at the Cognac Blues Festival. Immensely popular in France, she wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, and back stateside kept her queer fans on their toes at New York Gay Pride.
So she’s famous and people love her, but just who is this Candye Kane?

The answer is complex — she’s many things.
Raised in East Los Angeles, Kane became a product of her environment, dabbling in the gang culture and becoming an unwed mother at the age of 17. In spite of her rocky beginnings, which included a brief stint in the adult entertainment business (she appeared in films like “Two Tons of Fun,” “Big Melons” and “Huge Bras” ) she never lost sight of her desire to sing, becoming part of the burgeoning punk rock music scene of the early ‘80s.

In 1986, Kane caught the attention of CBS/Epic A&R head Larry Hanby. She was signed to a developmental deal and recorded her first demo with Grammy winner Val Garay. Kane was initially marketed as a country singer, but CBS quickly dropped her when they found out about her porn past. Discouraged and broken hearted, Kane moved from Los Angeles to a sleepy beach community in San Diego, where she became a Women’s Studies major at the local community college. She continued to write songs and accidentally discovered the brash blues stylings of Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James (whom Candye has opened for several times) and Bessie Smith. The blues was a place where women had colorful pasts — many were plus-sized like herself. Most had grown up in oppressive, horrible circumstances, yet were still able to make music and celebrate their sexual lives.

‘I think the gay community embraces those who have overcome the odds.’
— Candye Kane
Candye Kane found a home in the blues.
Since her first highly stylized blues release, “Home Cookin’” in 1992, she has recorded seven CDs for labels that include Discovery, Rounder/Bullseye, Sire Records and Germany-based RUF Records. Her latest CD, titled “Guitar’d and Feathered,” was just released in May and — once again — proves why Kane is truly a diva of the blues.

Mark Smith: Thanks for talking with us on such short notice. So tell us, what are you up to?
Candye Kane: Right this minute? I’m sitting in my car in front of my son’s house, doing errands getting stuff for a month’s work of traveling and performing. It’s a beautiful sunny day here and I can feel the ocean breeze blowing in. I can’t sit here too long, though. I’ve got to go pick up some clothes for this trip. I buy all my clothes at this drag queen store. It’s great — they have all these really incredible outfits and they come in plus sizes.

What’s your connection to the queer community?
I’m bisexual. I love the gay community and a lot of drag queens perform my stuff worldwide. My core audience is porn fans, gays and lesbians, rockabilly kids. When I see queer couples in the audience I’ll play stuff aimed at them. I guess I tend to do better in progressive towns because there’s always a lot more gay people there. I just tell everybody I’m a black drag queen trapped in a white woman’s body.

Have you performed for strictly gay audiences before?
I guess. I mean, there were some straights in the audience probably, but I have played New York Pride, Lincoln, Nebraska Pride, I’ve performed with the LA Gay Chorus and I also played at a Portland Bear Camp Convention!

Where are you off to before you begin your American tour?
I’m going to Amsterdam to meet with my publicist. I work a lot more in Europe than in the states.
Really? Why do you think that is?

I think American music is very formula dominated. Radio stations aren’t willing to stray from the format. European taste is a bit more broad and eclectic and I think they value music much more as part of their culture.

There aren’t a lot of people like you in today’s blues culture — why is that?
There isn’t anybody like me in today’s blues culture (laughs). Blues today is so male dominated. Historically it was a mix of queers and women. People were using it to free themselves from opression and much of the material is very sexually progressive. Memphis Minnie wrote songs about street-walking prostitutes. Alberta Hunter and Big Mama Thornton addressed those issues, too.

How did it come about that you played at the French Embassy in Rome for the President of Italy?

I’ve had a lot of success in Europe and a lot of popularity in France. I was playing at the Cannes Film Festival and a woman who saw me there booked me for the party. I got to perform for the president of Italy and the French ambassador to Rome. It was very exciting! I’m really encouraged by how much the French really love me. I think they relate to the elements of burlesque. They like it when you’re bold and opinionated. I think they even embraced George Bush at first with his big ol’ cowboy hat — until they found out he was a big fat liar.

Why do you think the gay community has embraced you so much?
Because I’m bisexual. I feel like I’m part of the community, too. But beyond that — I think I’m appreciated by the queer community because I’m a survivor. My father was in prison. My mother was verbally abusive and she taught me how to shoplift. If I got her good things she was loving and sweet — if I didn’t I got the cold shoulder. I’ve had to work through a lot. Sex work is how I financed my musical career. In spite of my hardships, I’ve survived. I think the gay community embraces those who have overcome the odds.

How does it feel to be over 40?
It feels really good. Once you’re over 40 you’re comfy in your own skin and not trying to impress people. I think you’re happier with who you are. Personally, I feel I’ve gotten better with music and my voice is the best it has been to date.

I read in a press release that you had recorded a version of the song “Female Trouble” from the old John Waters film with Divine. It’s not on “Guitar’d and Feathered.” What happened?
When you record another artist’s material, you don’t have to get permission, you just have to send them the royalties. I’ve always been a big fan of John Waters, and I had his home address. So I wrote him and said how excited I was to include this on my new CD, and I asked him where I should send the royalty check? Ten days later I got a cease and desist order. He said in [an] interview that I didn’t go about it the right way and he wasn’t going to give me permission. I was shocked to see that he was so angry and bitter about the whole thing when I was always such a fan, and in my way, trying to pay homage to him. I got scared because he’s so sue-happy that I decided to drop it from the CD.

Do you think you’ll still be touring when you’re 60?
I hope so. I hope to be a little more choosey, though. Maybe I can have a regular gig at a hotel ballroom or something. The older I get the more taxing the touring becomes.

— Candye Kane plays Jack of the Wood in Asheville and The Double Door in Charlotte. See the “Out and About” calendar for details.

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