Toronto singer-songwriter Regina Gently
Credit: Tanja-Tiziana Burdi
Music
34 min

Regina Gently’s glamorous reinvention

An all-star lineup of guest vocalists gives the Toronto singer-songwriter’s latest album its soulful groove

Regina Gently was ready to sashay away from music. Five years ago, she was winding down projects that included her singer-songwriter alias Gentleman Reg, dance-pop duo Light Fires and one-woman stage show Do I Have To Do Everything My Fucking Self? At that time, she decided to make an abrupt about-face into the makeup artistry program at Toronto’s George Brown College, wading into an entirely different industry from the one she’d been neck deep in for the past two decades.

But the pull of music was too hard to ignore. During her time at makeup school, Regina began writing the songs that became her debut solo album, Don’t Wait To Love Me. At first, it was intended to be the sophomore release from Light Fires, but she had a different sound in mind. Seeking the soulful house music she plays in DJ sets (check out her Pandemic Pastimes playlist for Xtra from earlier this year), Regina turned to brothers Matt and Mark Thibideau, whose collection of vintage synths and drum machines provided a creative playground.

Then she welcomed an all-star squad of guest vocalists, including longtime collaborators Kelly McMichael (Renders, Sarah Harmer), Lex Valentine (LOLAA, Magneta Lane), John O’Regan (Diamond Rings, J.G. Ballad) and Geordie Gordon (The Magic, U.S. Girls). “No Secret” marks Regina’s first time working with Isla Craig, who captured her ears as a member of Jennifer Castle’s backing band and the R&B duo OG Melody. The result is an album that proves artists who made their name in indie rock are always capable of glamorous reinventions.

Can you start by telling me about the origins of Regina Gently? I’ve heard she was born at legendary Toronto bar The Beaver in the early 2000s.

Yes! Hot Nuts was this amazing alternative drag party for years at The Beaver, and then it grew and moved to The Garrison. I come from a background as a singer-songwriter and playing in bands, but they always asked me to do drag at their parties. At the time, like 11 years ago or something, I wasn’t sure why they would ask me. Then they just booked me to do it and I said yes. My friend Margot came up with my look, which was very different from this look. I came up with some songs that I wanted to sing live, and it just happened.

At first it freaked me out, and freaked out the people who were used to seeing me as a sappy songwriter with an acoustic guitar. I didn’t know that would happen, but it awoke something in me. At that time, I was signed to Arts & Crafts as Gentleman Reg and fully in that mode. I wasn’t looking for something else, but as life goes sometimes, there are things you should be doing that you didn’t know about.

Let’s skip ahead to five years ago when Gentlemen Reg, Light Fires and your one-woman show were all coming to an end. Were you feeling creatively burnt out at that time?

That’s a good way of saying it. I did my one-woman show in 2015 and toured that in the Fringe circuit for the first time, which really wore me down. I did it all summer from Montreal to Victoria, and ended up just breaking even. I loved that show, and in some places it did better than others. I had toured Europe with Light Fires and was loving that album too, but just decided that I needed to stop everything for a bit. Then I went back to school for the first time in 20 years [laughs]. But because I had been doing music for so long I couldn’t stop completely. When I was in makeup school I started writing some of these songs—they’re from that era.

How did you find the makeup world different from the music world?

Oh god, I hated the makeup world, honestly! I went to school thinking it would be awesome and that I would meet all of these creative people, but most of them were pretty vapid. It was good in the sense that I didn’t grow up doing makeup, so I only really knew how to do my face in drag. I didn’t know about many effects or how a day-to-day woman did her makeup. I ended up doing some fun film and TV stuff and some music videos, but it was just few and far between. All of those kinds of experiences help you grow and change, but I got too far away from performing. Now I’m circling back.

When it came time to record your new album as Regina Gently, did you always have a house music sound in mind?

It really started as a second Light Fires record. There’s the one that came out in 2013 that I wrote with Jamie Bunton from Ohbijou, and then we started working on a follow-up. I realized that I didn’t want to make another indie dance or electro-sounding record, and wanted a whole other production sound. Jamie doesn’t come from dance music, so I decided I had to take these songs to somebody else. I found Matt and Mark Thibideau, who live in the same building as my friend John O’Regan. He said you need to meet these brothers who know everything about dance music, and it turns out they do! Their apartment is like a synthesizer warehouse.

I’ve read that you used the same electronic equipment as Bjork’s album Debut to create your sound.

Yes, especially on my song “Any Other Boyfriend.” I can’t even remember the name of the synth we used, but that’s the fun of working with Matt and Mark. You can say something like “I love this New Order record” and they have the actual synth that was used. I did the same thing with J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” and they had the drum machine that was used to make its beat. What maybe a lot of people don’t know is that most dance music is made on a computer these days with programs made to sound like expensive gear. The difference is that Matt and Mark have the original instruments—that gives it the classic ’80s and ’90s sound that I love, and hopefully other people do, too.

Your new album is called Don’t Wait To Love Me, which seems like it continues the theme of your one-woman show. You’ve talked about how hard it is for artists living in Canada to find success until they’ve earned it elsewhere. Why do you think that is?

It seems to be a trend that’s been going on for quite some time, and not just in music. It is a theme from my one-woman show. There’s a line near the end where I say, “Don’t wait for Berlin to approve me first.” I’m now working to re-mount that show, so that sentiment has been in my head and it still feels relevant. I think about musicians I know, like Peaches, Feist and Gonzales, who left Canada and found amazing success in Europe. I’ve always thought about doing that as well, but here’s hoping I don’t have to. Well, maybe I will someday, just for fun.

I was just watching the Go-Go’s documentary and they talked about how they went to Britain first and kind of blew up in America after that. The reality is that they were playing these divey shows in Britain, but the perception in America is that they were super successful. Part of why Regina is here is because I didn’t want to just start another band. I almost needed to become a whole other person to keep making art in Toronto. I’ve been here releasing music for 20 years now, and people got bored of Reg. Now that I’ve been doing Regina for so long, people are asking me where Reg went!

I wanted to ask you about some of the amazing guests you have on this album. First off, I was super excited to see Isla Craig. Can you tell me a bit about why you wanted to work with her?

Isla is incredible. She’s one of the people who I didn’t know very well personally, but I had seen her sing with Jennifer Castle and heard her solo music. She used to have an R&B band with Thom Gill called OG Melody, and that’s the project I was thinking about when I reached out to her. She was into it and that was the most important thing for me. In the studio, it was like one take and she got it. I don’t remember her having to redo anything because there were off notes. It was crazy.

What about Lex Valentine?

I’ve known her since the days of Magneta Lane. That’s really when I was fully into indie rock. When LOLAA started, I went to one of their shows and I loved it. Lex was into what I was doing as Regina and we went to New York to play a show together. In the last two years, she was always around and on my mind, so I asked her to sing on a track.

You’ve worked with Kelly McMichael for a long time. What do you enjoy about collaborating with her?

Kelly is a superstar. I don’t deserve her. She used to play in my Gentlemen Reg band and I thought the same thing back then. I expected her to stay with me for a year and then someone like Kathleen Edwards would snap her up, but then she just played with me forever.

When we were working on the new album, we had all of these songs done for a while, but they were missing the soulfulness I was looking for. A lot of our references were like the Pointer Sisters, Prince, Eurythmics or Culture Club—all of which have backing singers. It’s very audible when you break it down, so that’s what we realized this [album] needed: a lot more vocals that aren’t me doubling my words. That’s when we called all these people. At first Kelly was only on one or two songs, but she ended up singing on five and is very much a co-lead on a few of them.

I’ve become more familiar with Geordie Gordon in the last few years from his work with U.S. Girls, but I’m guessing you’ve known him for much longer through the Guelph scene where you both got started. 

I first knew Geordie when he was a little kid, because I’m 15 years older than him. He’s an amazing musician, and it’s been so cool to watch him grow up with his band The Magic and now U.S. Girls. He’s such a big presence in their live shows. If you have a band with Meg Remy as the front person and let someone else sing lead, they must be good. Geordie’s boyfriend co-owns the Glad Day bookshop, so I see him around Toronto a lot, and we just asked him to come do some singing.

Finally, John O’Regan seems to be a pretty key collaborator, since he’s the one who introduced you to your producers. Have you worked with him for a long time?

My old bandmate Jamie Bunton worked on John’s first album as Diamond Rings, and I sang backup on it. We were inspired by him, but he was also inspired by us. He’s a recluse so I don’t see him very often but I think he is working on new music as J.G. Ballad.

You’ve compared your look as Regina Gently to Debbie Harry, Cindi Lauper or Boy George—all people who started off as independent artists and then became pop stars. How does that resonate with you?

It resonates on many levels. I find that early ’80s era super nostalgic because it’s when I first became aware of music other than what my parents were playing. Boy George was a punk. He didn’t just dress like that onstage and then take it off. Same with Cindi Lauper and Debbie Harry. Boy George was so witty and mouthy when he became famous in his early 20s, and I love that genuineness. The fact that all of it became mainstream is groundbreaking and mind blowing. It’s what so many of us in the drag world are doing now, and we owe everything to those people.