It’s hard to miss Reginald Vermue — he’s just so damn white. So pale, in fact, that he was recently cast as a victim in a vampire movie. He’s so blond that his curly hair is practically luminescent in the sun. The overall impression he leaves is so memorable, the 33-year-old singer/songwriter’s record label, Arts&Crafts, is banking on his “albinistic” appearance acting as a kind of brand awareness for his fourth album, Jet Black, the cover of which features a close-up of his face.
“Every day someone is like, ‘I saw you on your bike from a mile away because your head was glowing,’” he says. “I’ll be in a mall in Ottawa and someone will come up to me and say, ‘You’re Reg that I knew when I was five!’ It’s kind of psychotic, but it’s something that I’ve always dealt with. So to really push it is kind of freaking me out.”
It’s an intrusively chilly January evening when Vermue, better known as Gentleman Reg, walks into Queen St’s Java Coffee House to be interviewed. Bundled up to protect from the cold, his skin is so pink from the wind chill, his bleachy eyebrows seem to pop.
Though well known in Toronto music circles thanks to his association with now-defunct indie label Three Gut Records, Vermue’s international exposure has been minimal. A cameo appearance in the John Cameron Mitchell sex comedy Shortbus, a song on its soundtrack and a jaunt through Europe opening for Broken Social Scene gave him some notoriety abroad.
But by all accounts Jet Black, an album that took two years to make, marks his first concerted attempt at courting an international audience. He’s planning an exhaustive year of touring across Canada, the US and Europe, and hoping his deal with record label Arts&Crafts, home to Broken Social Scene, Feist, Stars and The Constantines, will take his porcelain profile far and wide.
Growing up Vermue was an army brat. His family moved between Ottawa, Trenton and Germany before settling in Guelph at the onset of his high school years. Despite developing an affinity for grungy rock front women Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, Liz Phair and Courtney Love, when he started making music in college it was of the wispy, introspective, acoustic pop variety.
He cranked it up a notch on 2004’s Darby and Joan with more confrontational, hooky guitar rock and richly produced arrangements. Jet Black builds on that sound even further, boasting increasingly polished and mature songwriting, duets with Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell and The Organ’s Katie Sketch, and forays into new wave and dance music.
But the road to Jet Black and Arts&Crafts was full of bad business decisions, frustration and setbacks. After Darby and Joan came out in 2004 Three Gut shuttered and Vermue was cut adrift. “For a long time I tried to keep working at it,” he says, “but there was so much upheaval: The label folded, I split with my booker, I went through three managers, I just tried to keep going. At some point in 2006 I just thought, okay, I need to just start recording because I have all these songs.”
He recorded intensively for four months in producer Dave Draves’ (Kathleen Edwards) Ottawa studio with his longtime drummer Greg Millson. He describes the process as liberating and experimental. “I thought it added up to a record,” he says. “Then I gave it to some friends and labels to feel it out since it had been such an insular process. I got the reality check of people telling me it wasn’t blowing their minds. They thought it was good, but that’s not enough to want to put it out. So I rethought it.”
An eight-minute pseudo-electronic jam and a six-minute piano ballad called “A Song for Utah” were cut. Four minute-long songs became three minutes and he recorded three new songs, “Rudy,” “Rewind” and the dancey “We’re in a Thunderstorm.” “It was amazing how much more exciting the songs became when we chopped out the fat,” he says. “I knew it was solid.”
When Arts&Crafts heard “We’re in a Thunderstorm” they immediately branded it single-worthy and commissioned a handful of remixes. Vermue’s urge to dance, in part, grows out of his feeling he’s the only indie-rock gay in the village. The scene that revolved around Three Gut wrested heavily on straight dudes and their admirers, and his bandmates are generally straight guys.
“I play Pride festivals a lot just because I’m queer, but honestly I feel so out of place,” he says. “What I do is not performative in the way that I feel people expect at those kinds of events. So I would love to try a different medium, whether it’s dance music or drag.”
While rethinking his album, he started working with Toronto-based electronic pop artist Shaw-han Liem, aka I Am Robot and Proud, just for fun. Neither had attempted dance music before, so the collaboration was very casual. Liem would create beats and loops and send them to Vermue who would dream up a lyric or melody. Then they would meet at Liem’s apartment, stack a pile of books, place a microphone on top and lay down vocals.
“A lot of people that I know who sing are bashful about singing in front of people,” Liem says. “But Reg would just show up, sing the song full-on and get the takes right away. His vocals added a lot of structure and introduced a lot of interesting ideas. He would hear more than what was there.”
“Neither of us had clear goals,” Liem adds. “He would bring over Madonna records and I would play him old electro B-boy stuff and say, ‘Maybe this would be interesting to try.’ Of course it ended up being none of those things.”
Vermue’s lyrics are full of misspent feelings and lovelorn observations. The “We’re in a Thunderstorm” line, “Don’t be a disgrace tonight/ Because I don’t have time/ To celebrate the failures/ To do that we’re all inclined,” expresses a desire to move on from a personal relationship while simultaneously nodding to the societal tendency to revel in other people’s failures.
It was partially this intuitive and mature approach to songwriting that led Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew to lobby Arts&Crafts to sign Gentleman Reg. Drew, who’s known Vermue for more than 10 years, loves his music and directed an orgiastic pansexual romp of a video for “The Boyfriend Song” (shot in the Etobicoke home of Drew’s parents while they were on vacation and none the wiser).
“I find music that’s too personal very irritating,” says Drew. “The best songs are when you listen to them and know what they’re about because you’re thinking about your own life. Reg’s songs don’t have that pretentiousness of having to sit through someone else’s baggage for fucking 45 minutes while they work it out. They’re pretty universal and that’s why he’s on Arts&Crafts.”
Despite their history Drew and his label left Vermue hanging for months before finally offering him a deal. As the Jet Black marketing ramps up with TV appearances, video blogging and festival gigs he anticipates their relationship will become more business-focused, which is fine with both men. After years of local notoriety as that conspicuous blond about town Vermue finally feels like he has the support in place to take him to the next level.
“Reg and I wanted the dynamic to change. I work with a lot of friends — I have for the last seven years — it’s difficult and it’s rewarding and that’s the way it goes,” says Drew. “I want this to do well. I just don’t want him to be disappointed. No matter what, when you have responsibility toward someone’s dream, it can be a knee scraper.”